Thursday, December 8, 2016

Early December, 1941, Hardin, Montana

Ruby Murfin in Hibbing, Minnesota, 1937 showing off her new bought-on-time furniture and prosperity for her family.

Note—We are not quite finished with Pearl Harbor.  Herewith, a Murfin Memoir story of those days.
Mrs. Murfin, Ruby to her friends and family, was still in her chenille robe and slippers lingering over a strong cup of coffee perked on the range and listening idly to the stock reports from Omaha waiting for some morning music to come on when she heard the mail man pull up in his rattle-trap Model A truck and slam the door of the post box by the road.  Eager for some good news in those bleak days—maybe a letter from home or some Christmas cards.
For more than a week there had been nothing but talk of war on the radio, down at the grocery store, at the beauty parlor, even in Church.  Her husband Murf had grown sullen and restless.  After years of struggle and sometimes outright hunger, they were finally set.  He had a good job with prospects at the bank.  They just took out a mortgage on a snug little house.  But now Murf, an old married man of 28 and probably safe from the Draft for at least a while, wanted to throw it all away and run off to enlist.  Ruby could use some cheer.
So she rushed out of the house letting the heavy storm door slam after her.  It was in the teens and the wind howled down the mountains to the west and swept the little town on the prairie.  A couple of inches of fresh, dry, powdery snow swirled along the ground, her bare toes in the mule slippers hardly noticing.  She pulled the robe tight around her and dashed to the road and the mail box on the post, its little red flag up and signaling there was mail.

Down town Hardin, Montana, seat of Big Horn County about 1930.  It hadn't changed much by '41.

Inside, shivering at the table, Ruby poured another cup of coffee and measured a spoon of sugar into its blackness. She sorted through the small bundle.  Yes, some cards.  Looked like a letter from little sister Mildred.  A butcher and the telephone bill.  The weekly church bulletin and something for Murf from the Masons.  And…what’s this!...a squarish pastel blue tissue envelope edge all around with red and blue stripes…Air Mail!  From Oahu…addressed to her!
She didn’t know anybody in Hawaii and if it had not been in the news all week would have had no idea where Oahu was.  She peered at the envelope intently.  She thought she recognized the smoothly looping Palmer method handwriting.  Her heart suddenly sank.  Her hands trembled.  She laid aside the rest of the mail and held the envelope in her hands for several moments before slitting it open with a paring knife.
“Dear Daughter Ruby,” it began.  “I know you have not heard from me for a good long while, but as you see, I’m in Honolulu…”
No she had not seen him for a long time, nor had she missed him.  Sometimes he haunted her nightmare.  He had long since abandoned the family or the family had abandoned him.  Six of on, half a dozen of the other.  Good riddance, either way.

Mona and Lemuel Mills on their wedding day in 1910.  He hardly looked like a monster then.  The only picture of him the family kept.

Lemuel Mills had been a vicious drunk.  Born into a good family he had wasted once bright prospects and even in the boom days of the ‘20’s the family had half-starved on a neglected Missouri farm.  And he had beat his wife Mona terribly and often in his rages and spared not his children including Ruby, the eldest daughter his discipline.  One summer evening in the park in Kirksville he had caught a glimpse of him raping a high school class mate in the bushes.  In shame and terror she had said nothing.
It got so bad that one night Mona packed up the kids while Lem was out on a toot with his gang of lay-about pals, and fled the whole damn state of Missouri in his broken down Fliver.  The fled to Mona’s sister Myrtle and her husband Vern’s in in Des Moines.  After a while Lem found them there and after an infusion of corn courage, kicked the front door down blasting his shotgun as everyone fled out the back door or jumped through widows. 
The Sheriff got him and after a couple of month in the cooler got out with a stern warning not to be found in town again.  The deputies, friends of Vern, may have thrown him on a freight train.  No one had seen or heard from him since.
Ruby went back to Kirksville and married the handsome boy who had courted her in high school—Will Murfin, the son of the music store manager.  She always called him Murf.  He worked in the Bank which never re-opened after FDR’s bank holiday.  After that he could not find good, steady work for years.
They had to go back to Iowa and move in with Myrtle and Vern again.  Murf peddled vacuum cleaners door to door for a while.  No one was buying.  He got on here and there as a store clerk for a while, but it always petered out.  It was not until 1937 that he landed a job as teller in a Hibbing, Minnesota bank, more than five years into marriage, that they had finally been able to establish themselves as a married couple on their own in a cozy three room apartment.  Ruby sent pictures home to Mona proudly posing with bought-on-time Sears furniture and cathedral radio.
That had led, eventually here to Hardin where Murf was promised that if he worked hard he could become vice president of the bank in a few years.  Not long after settling in Ruby finally became pregnant.  It was a difficult birth and within two days the baby Murf had already nicknamed Butch was dead and lay beneath a small stone inscribed “William Infant Son.”
She had sunk into black depression and Murf went a little wild and crazy, taking to the mountains with his Mason buddy Hollis Johnson and Yellow Tail, the Chief at near-by Crow Agency for long hunts.  Try as she might, Ruby could not conceive another child.
They were just getting back to a semblance of normal when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor on the radio after Church.  Ruby was frightened.  Murf seemed exhilarated.
Now this letter in her hands brought it all back.

Hickam Field under attack on December 7, 1941.  Somewhere there Lemuel Mills was scrambling for cover.
It went on to say that he had taken to working construction on some of the big projects out west.  He ended up in a civilian construction gang at Hickam Field, living on the base in barracks.  That Sunday morning he was sleeping off last night’s Honolulu binge when he was awaked by explosions and machine gun chatter.  He ran outside and saw the swooping planes.  Dodging strafing runs he ran to a slit trench and dived in.  After a seeming eternity the noise stopped and he emerged.
“Just wanted you to know the old man is safe,” he wrote and added a clumsy sentiment that invited a reply to the hotel address on the envelope.
Weeping, Ruby, laid the letter down.  She never answered it.  That evening she told Murf, “He thinks this makes him a hero.”
Just after the New Year Murf was gone to basic training at Camp Grant in Illinois.  Ruby tried to busy herself with war work in Hardin—organizing scrap drives, bond sales, and knitting projects with the Ladies Aid.  She was good at it.  Always a go-getter and organizer when presented with a challenge.  It kept her, mostly, from slipping back into the blackness.
She saw Murf on furlough before he went to the California desert to train with a Field Hospital.  Then he was shipped out.  After a long wait not knowing where he was going, she got a letter from Cape Town telling her that he was on his way by ship around Africa and up the Red Sea to Egypt where the hospital would be attached to the British and Anzacs fighting Rommel.
Ruby gave up the snug little house in Hardin and moved to Omaha to work in the Boeing plant with her younger sister Mildred.  Murf came back stateside for Officer Candidate School and they spent about three months together while he was posted to Ft. Lewis in Washington State.  And then he was gone again into the green hell of the Pacific War—landings at Leyte in the Philippines, Guam, and Okinawa. 
Late in ’46 he came back, a changed man.  They lived in Helena and then he opened a sporting goods store and hunting guide service in West Yellowstone.  It went bust.  He went crazy again for a while.  To settle them both down they adopted twin boys at birth in ’49.
Ruby never heard from Lemuel again.  When her brother Pearl, now a doctor, got word that he died in Arizona in the ‘70’s, he went out there to arrange a burial and “make sure the bastard was dead and piss on his grave.”

No comments:

Post a Comment