Parents, People

2 September 2023 10:30 

On the occasion of Kathy’s 99th birthday, and about twenty years after her death.

I’ve been moving around pictures and art in my office. To the right of my desk there’s a Curtis Jere copper bandstand sculpture. Next to that is a poster of a 1976 exhibition of medieval manuscripts, at the Dahleim Museum in Berlin, and right below is Charles Joseph Minard’s graphic of Napoleon’s march to Moscow; Edward Tufte calls it the best statistical graphic ever drawn. On the wall behind me is a Corliss Blakely painting of a Vermont country home, a watercolor flower print (a gift from the Higgins for marriage 1.0), and several Marvin Girard watercolors of Paris. Also in the mix is a photograph of my parents: Dora Katherine Money (from Waco, Texas), recently married to James Montgomery Elder, Jr. (Phoenix, Arizona). I am ambivalent about it hanging up even though it’s a great picture: they are young, gorgeous, appear happy, and in that moment probably are. They are in Nara, Japan. The year is 1949.

Kathy had been a student at Abilene Christian University. In June, 1945 she joined the Marines, but with the end of the war was discharged in July, 1946. She returned to Waco, completed her studies at Baylor, and graduated with a degree in journalism. In addition to the tuition for Baylor, she used the G.I Bill to pay for flying lessons and got her private pilot’s license. She was in Japan to teach Japanese women about American culture. Jim entered West Point in 1943. Because of the war, cadets were cycled through in three years, not four. He graduated in 1946, was sent to Fort Sill (Oklahoma), then afterwards to Japan, a second lieutenant with the 8th Field Artillery Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division.

Twenty-four years, eight different Army or Air Force bases, five promotions, and three children later, it would end. There was supposed to be at least one more base and one more promotion: as an attaché in the Netherlands and promotion to general. That never happened; during family physicals ahead of their departure, Kathy informed the doctor about Jim’s drinking. The orders were rescinded, he retired on August 1, 1972. At Walter Reed Hospital on February 16, 1973, 1225 hours, Jim died: Respiratory failure with extensive interstitial pneumonitis. Chronic alcoholism. As with everything in the Army there was a form: Report of Casualty, which seemed more appropriate (in as much as bureaucracy can be appropriate) for those buried in the American Cemetery in Collevile-sur-Mer. Jim’s last move was to Arlington Cemetery.

~

As you get older, the static, flat perspective of your parents develops into a multi-dimensional view: they were young once, experienced all sorts of things before you were born, their lives a universe unknown and perhaps unimaginable. They continue through life’s transitions, difficulties, and wonders. This insight is especially true once you have children. They are more than parents, they are people.

The were both from the southwest. Jim was an only child, Kathy had a younger sister. Kathy and Jim grew up in the Depression: he thought his family was poor because they could not afford to join the country club; she thought her family was well off because they could afford to buy a used car.

Once married, Kathy seems to have taken to the life of an Army wife: she could entertain, endure the frequent disruptions of Army life, the uncertainty and logistics of many moves; with Jim away for extended periods, she managed the household, raised the children, and herded the animals across the continent: dogs (Irish Setters, German Shepard), cats, and even a raccoon. Kathy was hard working, intelligent, educated, opinionated, and adjusted to the role.

Or didn’t, not completely.

In an article about being a widow, written for The Retired Officer’s Magazine, June, 1979, Kathy wrote:

Military wives may have thought of themselves as extensions of their husbands’ career. As widows they find out they are individuals in their own right.

Well before 1949 that was already the case, very much her own person, not an extension of anyone’s life; as noted, a Marine, a pilot, a missionary for American ways in Japan. After getting married, she continued to carve out a life of her own.

From 1964 to 1969 she wrote a column, “The Distaff Side”, for Army Magazine. Her topics were relevant for the readers, Army families: moving, the dismal quality of military housing, postings to bases overseas, the affect of moving on children, and from an October, 1965 article titled “Cybernetic Society”:

Why not use computers to pick Army wives in the first place? This romantic field has been partially explored. In picking someone compatible with a soldier a few special requirements could be established. To qualify, a girl should not care too much about furs, diamonds, beautiful homes, or the other baubles that money can buy. She must have a strong back, be an excellent cook, possess an aptitude for languages, have a sense of humor, and be part gypsy.

The desire to write would continue; here and there she published some articles in local newspapers. Later in her life, in letters, she imagined leaving her job as a real estate agent and devoting time to writing, taking a class at the local community college, making a go of fiction.

She taught English and journalism at an all black high school in Washington, D.C., Roosevelt High. She went in to teach the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, April 4, 1968. There had been rioting in the District, but the morning news on the radio indicated all schools would be open. She wrote:

The day began with a short homeroom period for announcements and taking attendance. During that period, a student came into my room through the rear door. She stood just inside the room, held up The Washington Post which had a huge picture of Dr. King on page 1, looked straight at me and said, “You are going to be next.” Later we heard that a group of students had spent homeroom period in the cafeteria, planning to kill all the white teachers, who made up about 20% of the faculty.

My first period class was my pride and joy, a group of college-bound juniors. During class that day we talked about the assassination and its implications. One student asked, “Why is it that when black people have someone who is trying to help us – like John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King – some white person has to kill him?”

The halls were gradually filling and by fifth period there was little semblance of a normal classroom. Only a few students had shown up..Several from first period were stopping by and asking, “Mrs. Elder, what are you still doing here?” Finally, Rufus Brown came in. He was a big football player from my first period class, charming, handsome, popular. He said he could not allow me to stay in the room any longer and that he would escort me to the office. When we got into the all there was a wild mob, yelling, throwing rock and coke bottles. The trophy cases had been broken; Roosevelt had been invaded by rivals from other high schools.

Long before any riots, when she told them about her new job, her friends had thought her crazy to be teaching in the District. She never thought twice about it, but after the events that day, the next year Kathy taught in Alexandria, not in the District.

To make more money for college tuitions, she gave up teaching and became a real estate, a natural step for Army wives; from September, 1967 column:

One line of work of which most Army wives feel they are qualified is selling real estate. They have lived in so many houses that they are acquainted with the merits and shortcomings of all types. In addition to fat commissions, selling real estate gives you a chance to completely escape home life.

When she bought her own house, it was in a staid, conservative, mostly Republican neighborhood. Once moved in, she grew the formerly miniscule boxwood hedge to over seven feet tall. She planted a vegetable garden in the front yard – everyone else just had a grass lawn; the corn stalks grew as high as the hedge. At Christmas time, instead of red, blue, and green lights, she put out lumenarios along the sidewalks and driveways. An insomniac, she put her mornings to use, becoming the neighborhood paper-lady, delivering The Washington Post.

In the late 1960’s she drove an Chevrolet Impala; today classic car, much in-demand in east San Jose. Around 1974 she bought a car then only recently introduced and little known in the United States, an Audi 100LS. Unlike the long, low slung Impala, the Audi was shorter, a tall box of a car, with acres of glass and windshield. She would go through two more Audis. One of her sons bought an Audi Fox (it was totaled after he rolled it), and many years later, the other son bought a sort of cousin to the 100LS, a 1973 BMW 3.0s. After the Audis, came a few Volvos, then Kathy bought a Mercedes Benz 300SD turbo-diesel.

She used the Audis to drive to her beach house, just south of Bethany Beach, Delaware. Although widowed, Jim’s Army retirement and her earnings in real estate, along with her desire to get away, lead to the beach house. It was a simple home on a quarter acre lot, set among southern pines that dropped long brown needles. Out back was an outdoor shower for cleaning off the sand from the beach, open to the sky, you could see the tops of the pine trees moving in the wind, the blue sky beyond. The Atlantic Ocean, green more than any other color, was a just over a quarter mile away: down the dirt road, past the Tastee Freez, then across the paved road.

She was comfortable being alone, living on her own, never remarried.

In her home were pieces from her travels or that caught her eye: the large, four panel black Chinese screen; an incense burner from Viet-Nam and a Russian samovar bought in Denmark. There was a Curtis Jere copper flower cart, an Antonio Garell marble bust, Poesie, black and white marble top furniture, a low, dark wood table from Japan. For entertaining there was Towel Old Master silver and white gold-rimmed Rosenthal china. She hired a photographer to take black and white portraits of her children paired with the pets of the moment: a Bombay cat (Baba), an Irish Setter (Holly), and a German Shepard (Kraut).

As were many from the Depression era, she wasn’t one for sports. Asked if she and Jim did any sports together, golf was popular among Army officers, her reply was, “Just drinking and sex.”

~

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Pace Tolstoy, the story of Kathy and Jim was not unique: an alcoholic, his sickness amplified by the stresses and strains of a military life, and a woman, who perhaps wanted more than what she got, or got things she didn’t want, the results were a sometime toxic household. None of this was improved by having children. There were many problems, an affair, disappointments: later in life Kathy said that while she was happy to have her children, if she could do it all again, she would not have married Jim. For the children, the experiences could not be understood at the time, only much, much later, if ever. No matter what, the memory of the feeling always remains.

It’s a well plowed field, there’s no need to detail and describe it all. Indeed, it was captured succinctly in one sentence after a check up with the pediatrician. In early 1967, the family recently moved to northern Virginia, at the second check up for the two sons at their new pediatrician (Wineland, Wilmot, and May), there’s a note from one of the doctors, probably Dr. Wineland. He had already seen both boys several times, and interviewed the parents. The boys’ illnesses were in some cases normal, e.g. sore throat, but in other cases, stress related because of the home environment. In his notes from January 31, 1967, Dr. Wineland wrote:

Lots of questions. History as reviewed above [notes from initial interview with Jim and Kathy about the boys’ history prior to moving to Virginia]. Discussed with Dr. May….[the parents need to] stop pushing this and the other child.

Dr. Wineland concluded:

These people may need counseling.

~

When you leave the hospital with a newborn, you just walk right out the door. Security will not stop you, as long it’s your baby. A nurse may check that your child car seat is correctly installed, you’ll get a lot of paperwork, and bills, but otherwise there are no impediments when mom and baby are wheeled out the door. You’ll maneuver baby into the car seat, check all straps and connections yet again, put the car into gear, check the rear view mirror, exit the parking lot, then go out into the world for the rest of your life with this little human thing. It’s a job that provides no training, you learn as you go.

You need at least a driver’s license to drive a new car off the dealer lot.

It’s unknown what Jim and Kathy were thinking each of the three times they left the hospital. There can be no doubt about their intentions, but that’s not a guarantee of anything, success or failure (however you might define these). They, like all people, are complex: troubled in some ways, balanced and competent in others, and this was reflected in raising their children.

On the positive side there was an assumption of higher education, not just for professional advancement, but personal: when you know more about a subject, the world, it’s more interesting; ignorance is unappreciative and boring. Service and duty: you didn’t go to West Point in 1943 for the free tuition (especially if you knew the combat death rate of newly graduated second lieutenants), nor enlist in the Marines for the fun of it. Hard work – no need to elaborate. Religion: Jim was raised Presbyterian and Kathy in the Church of Christ, but both converted to the Episcopal Church, and both were active in the church.

One more item to add to the positive side of the ledger, a quality not apparent to a child. Much later, a neighbor of Kathy’s, Colonel Muckerman (USMA class of 1949) said, “I served with your father, and knew both of your parents. They were brilliant. They were both brilliant.”

~

Like its sibling nostalgia (a fond remembrance of things that never were), speculation on what might have been is an escape from reality, not useful, and something I am prone to. Within the bounds of reality, what if events were slightly altered for Kathy and Jim?

Because the deck was stacked against Jim from the start – an only child, wired for drinking from his parents, and sometimes raised by other relatives – in the alternative reality there’s not the monkey on his back. The choice of West Point was the right one given his upbringing and character: it was an instant family, a place where after graduation everyone goes to work for the same company. A portion of the Cadet Prayer would play more of a role in his life in that high drinking profession: ...make us chose the harder right instead of the easier wrong. Then everything else would have followed: his choice of spouse would have been someone more conventional, perhaps a local women when stationed at NATO Headquarters in Heidelberg. Maybe children, maybe not. Later on he got the assignment as attaché, lived a full life, retired to Carmel Valley or Pinehurst.

Given her interest and general lack of fear, if Kathy had started flying sooner, she’d have joined the WASPs, delivering planes under Jacqueline Cochran. But flying lessons were expensive, she was probably too young, and seems too much of a stretch.

Rather this: when Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Kathy was working at the Waco News Tribune and Times Herald, while going to Baylor full time. That day she stood in the teletype room, reading about FDR’s death. Later, she helped put out an extra, afternoon edition of the paper, back in the time when late breaking, important news was published in afternoon editions. This life was a better fit for her

After the war and after teaching Japanese women about American culture, she’d have moved to New York City, worked as an editor for a magazine or for a publisher; post World War II there were many opportunities in the world of print. Or she might have been a writer’s agent. Her world would be writing, current events, literature, art, books, some travel. Maybe children, maybe not. She’d belong to a flying club outside the city.

~

These unlived lives would have been a better expression of who they were. It didn’t happen that way, not completely; this happens all the time.

These people may need counseling. They were brilliant.

It’s futile to try to reconcile these. In many ways, Kathy and Jim did just fine. The picture hangs right behind my desk.

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