A History of the Burns Family
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PART EIGHT: The Burns Disapora  

Chapter Three: Love and War

Cleveland and Seattle
December, 1941

1 - Rugs to RIches
2 - Ebba Ties Knot
3 - Love and War
4 - The Prodigals
5 - Trick or Treat
6 - Star-Crossed

More Information

Author's Note

The attack on Pearl Harbor was an unannounced military strike by the Japanese navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941. It resulted in the United States' entry into World War II. The attack was intended to keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet from influencing the war that the Empire of Japan was planning in Southeast Asia against Britain and the Netherlands, as well as the U.S. in the Philippines. The attack consisted of two aerial attack waves totaling 353 aircraft, launched from six Japanese aircraft carriers.

Four U.S. Navy battleships were sunk and all of the other four battleships present were damaged. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer. 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, 2,402 personnel were killed and 1,282 were wounded. The attack was a major engagement of World War II and came as a profound shock to the American people. Domestic support for isolationism, which had been strong, disappeared. After Germany's declaration of war the U. S. moved from clandestine support of Britain into active alliance and full participation in the European Theater. Despite numerous historical precedents for unannounced military action, the lack of any formal warning by Japan, particularly while negotiations were still apparently ongoing, led to its being characterized as a "sneak attack," and to President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaiming December 7 "a date which will live in infamy."[1]

Description: Cleveland Plain Dealer

Cleveland, Ohio
December 14, 1941

On Sunday evening, after reading seven editions of the Plain Dealer proclaiming a thousand reasons to be afraid, Ebba curls up in Mrs. Burke’s sky-blue chair and picks up How Green Was My Valley. She’s been reading it since Thanksgiving, and had hoped to find solace in the sad but inspiring story of Huw Morgan, the bright young son of Welsh coal miners. But mainly Huw reminds her of Binks, about whom she worries incessantly. Why hasn’t the family listened to her? She’s been telling them for months and months to get Bobby into an educational program that will shield him from military service! But her mother keeps using fatalistic phrases like “inasmuch as next year he will be in the army,” and Ebba shudders “at the bland acceptance of what need not and must not be.” Ada did tell Bobby to look into the matter at Whitman, but there has been no word of a change in his course thus far. He is a sitting duck. [2]

Ebba tries to focus on the story, but cannot. And in the time-honored tradition of working out her troubles on paper, she puts the book aside and picks up her fountan pen and best stationery.

My Dear Family,

Gerry is constantly reassuring me concerning your safety – branding as propaganda the openly expressed fear of attack upon coastal cities – but I am nonetheless fearful for all of you, and count the hours between news broadcasts which tell that all is well. It is a strange series of events that places you – all my loved ones – in a city so fraught with danger, yet my greatest regret is that I alone am in a place of relative safety instead of sharing this with you. It was ever thus….I try to visualize how you are meeting the new vicissitudes together, how you manage to work at night now that the city is under a blackout rule. I wonder about the little children – so loved and protected until now when parental love seems for the first time inadequate for their welfare. In all this I am comforted knowing you are together – no one bearing the burden of decision and indecision. The old phrase so well known in childhood – “Daddy fick it” – returns to me now. 

Gerry became 37 years old on the very day that the army was introducing a bill drafting all males 18-60 – so barring some unforeseen miracle, I guess all our men will be in the army, even my Dad….


Seattle, Washington
December 17, 1941

My Dearest Lyn and Gerald,

It seems to me that as many times as you have admitted to me that Gerald was right, you would soon listen to his counsel without question. For he is right. Stop and logically figure for yourself. What can the propaganda bureau do to sell the people on war? It’s up to them to make a showing, to stimulate fear; [it] brings better results and quicker. And to show how well it worked, a full month’s quota of men volunteered on Monday. We had to operate with the blackout for they had deputies placed on each corner – World War I vets – to see that each building looked as shadowy and ghostlike as possible. But it only lasted three nights, which was sufficient to arouse the percent necessary to make it appear that Mr. Roosevelt was a hero. And now the next move for the next percent will be more spectacular, for $10,000 has been spent on sirens which are being installed all over the city, and of course the war department, like so many little boys with a new horn, will have to try them out and see how they work, and the gullibles will run for shelter. And the next day will be a heading something like this (Jap bombers sighted off coast), and as we have no way to prove anything, it will give them a chance to blow the whistle again.

It has been raining hard for many days. Don says the Japs or anybody else would have a H--- of a time finding the American continent let alone Seattle.  Anyhoo we are really quite safe if they did for we are quite far removed from the Boeing plant and the shipyards and the docks which would no doubt be their target…


Description: Ada SCript

Ada smiles ruefully, rereading these bravely penciled words. And in truth she’s not afraid for herself. Looking out the office window on this rainy afternoon, she sees the sloping green of the next-door lawn, and beyond it Lake Union, with its lumber booms and white sails. A seaplane roars into the air. From the bakery across the street, delicious scents remind her that it’s time to throw some extra potatoes in the pot and stir the vegetable soup that’s been simmering in the little camp kitchen upstairs since morning. Tonight, they’ll “close the shop at 5:30 and have a friendly game of pinochle, then to bed with a good book for each "'til the sandman comes stealing over the land,” just as if they had not a care in the world. 

No, she’s not afraid for herself at all.  Her gravest concern is for her youngest son. Not just the war – she can’t think about that with every one of her boys vulnerable – but his health and his heart. He’d come home for the holiday with his head in the clouds, and “seems like a different person, restless and infatuated.”

There is no remnant of the happy warrior – with the new nickname Robin – who’d written last spring about Lizbeth Smith. 

Description: Lisbeth Smith“I have recently made the greatest discovery of my life. I’m in love! Wow! She puts me in mind of what Mom might have been like in her younger days. In fact, I’m afraid I’m liable to develop an Oedipal complex over the little gal, but she’s so damn nice it would be impossible…

Last Saturday I took my dream girl to the Phi Delta Theta dinner dance (formal) and had a very good time. I am getting to be quite a social butterfly, as I have attended three dances since I’ve come back (every one of which was in somebody else’s clothes)….”  [April, 28th, 1941]

Ada had written back at once: “Watch your step and tell your darned old heart and glands to take a run and a jump for a while yet.” And to her gratification, the others had piled on too. Ebba wondered “shouldn’t he have hair on his chest before he begins to develop this strange complex of which he speaks?” and spoke of her recent strange dreams about inchworms that would “animate Freud into a state of hopeless Euphoria.” Ada’s still puzzling over the meaning of that. Ebba also tried to distinguish for her brother, in vain, between infatuation and love. Guy simply warned him to “keep his mind off the little woman” and study like hell.

But Binks had been so happy this summer, diving into the cleaning and the fishing with equal enthusiasm! In September, he headed back to college on a cloud, as eager to see his “love” as his girl was to see him. And though Ada had written to remind him to be the “good boy that he has always been,” she really hadn’t worried about him much. After all, wasn’t he living at the Phi Delta house – for the bargain price of $10 a week -- with excellent food, a normal life, and fine friends? 

A sample of Helen’s perfect handwriting!

But the reality was different. “Lizzie” may have been a hopeless case for Binks, as Helen put it. But now there’s apparently someone else. And Binks has it bad, that’s for sure.

Whitman Frosh-Sophomore Tug of War (Bob fourth from left)

Ada wonders what to do. She wants to be her best self for her son. She wants to live up to the wonderful words from Ebba’s Mother’s Day letter [May 10, 1941], which she still looks at from time to time when she doubts her intuitions as a mother. 

To say I think of you every day is trite. To say I love you unnecessary, to say I honor and adore you maudlin, to say I understand you a lie. So I will say nothing knowing that you know all this and more – that you have looked deep in my heart, have understood and believed.  

With a shrug, Ada puts her own letter aside for the time being. Guy and Don will want to add their two cents.  In the meanwhile, she’ll work on Bob. Surely there’s still time to screw his head back on straight before Christmas vacation is over.

Seattle, Washigton
December 18, 1941

Dave and Fred in front of the shop

While Helen enters figures into ledger columns in her meticulous handwriting, Don picks up his fountain pen and replenishes the green ink. It’s been another long day of upholstery and rug cleaning, carpet-laying, and rug-binding. Business is booming, despite the war. They have new accounts not only with Pantorium, but also with the Navy (cleaning furniture from the officers’ quarters), the sororities and fraternities at the University, and the Faculty Club.  Word of mouth brings in a lot of business. Mrs. England’s rugs alone netted them almost $100, and she doubtless told her fellow Broadmoor biddies how pleased she was. They’ve just taken out a small ad in the telephone directory too.

Unfortunately, the help’s not always reliable. Fred Sulacenko’s a fine worker (as fast as Guy but without all the cussing, Mom says). But he drinks, and that Bill Hillman in upholstery is a “stupid knucklehead,” just like Helen says. Which means that the whole family “heaves to” when necessary. With brother Dave working for Hank [3] now, Description: Directory Ad 1941the load is falling more heavily on the rest of them. Ada is often called into service – occasionally binding as many as three 9 x 12’s a day – and even Patty helps with the vacuuming sometimes! 

In addition to maintaining the accounts in her exquisite hand, Helen does anything that needs doing. In fact, Ada says she lives in fear that the Bridges will look in the window “some dark and stormy night [and] throw up their hands in horror at what she is sometimes called upon to do.” Don can’t imagine how they would get along without his indomitable wife!

Puck, now mercifully free of mange and worms, noses his way into his master’s lap. The dog – of indeterminate breed – is still under house arrest of a sort. He’d climbed a ladder, removed several box covers, and eaten half of the Christmas cookies Ada spent two days baking. There is no defending Puck, Don knows. But at least the black mutt had more sense than Mack, who’d gone after the mouse-bait and had to have his stomach pumped. No canine geniuses under this roof, that’s for sure. Still, sometimes he wonders if after all, the world would be better off with dogs in charge. There’s simply no end to human foolishness and human greed. 

Ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Don is not all that worried about the fate of the Burns men. He and Gerry are old; they would be too slow on their feet to be of any use as soldiers. Dave and Bob are nearsighted. And Pop is ancient. In any case, with luck the armed forces will wrap this thing up before it goes much farther.

December 18, 1941

Dear Evelyn and Jerry,

Rest your weary bones. There have been no bombings, nor will there be any. The process is simple.  Japan has attacked American imperialists in the Far East. The government must make it appear as though the average American citizen is being or about to be attacked – thus all the hullaballoo out here. Too, they must, to prosecute the war, put everyone on a war basis. So, we have blackouts, home defense guards (strike breakers), censorship, and all the men from 18 to 65 under military rule….After the workers get tired of their long hours of toil, and soldiers get fed up with fighting, and mothers and sweethearts feel the loss of those dear to them, and the small businessman gets tired of hunger, people will begin to ask what it’s all about….

Description: Don Screed

-- Don

Same Day and Place

Guy caps the fountain pen, and leans back in the chair. He is so very tired, and his finger still aches, even though it’s been three months since his run-in with the fan blade. But Ebba must be reassured, and so it is worth a little less sleep in order to bring her peace of mind. 

Dearest Evelyn and Jerry,

We have read your letter of worries and hasten to assure you that your fears are much unfounded for we have not been bombed and I don’t believe we will be….Of course the first reaction from the Hawaiian bombings was tremendous here for everyone imagined that the Japs could come right over here and finish up the job. And the “war boys” played up this hysteria with blackouts, air raid warnings, closing down the radio stations, etc., in order to get us war-minded, I guess. We are located in a position that would be quite likely to be bombed if it’s possible, for we have a lot of war industries here, including the Boeing airplane plant. Seattle is also the shipping point for Alaska, Hawaii, and the Philippines…. We of course worry about you kids, wondering what your status will be in the war game. We are especially troubled about Bob for he will be no doubt the first to have to go. As for Don, Dave, Jerry and yourself, your ages and marriage status will make some difference. As for myself, although I will admit I am not crazy about carrying arms against my fellow man, I would gladly go in the place of any of you, for I have had my day….       

How strange to think that it was only six months earlier that she’d sent the Father’s Day collage book that puffed his chest for a week. And now comes this war, threatening all his sons, and no way in the world for Daddy to “fick it.”

He must concentrate on the things he can control and let the rest of it take care of itself. The shop is thriving, and they’ve even purchased a new truck – a Studebaker. The living conditions must be upgraded soon, since it’s just not fair to ask Ada to live amidst such squalor any longer. But all in all, the business is doing very well, supporting three families and a college boy.  They've just bought the building outright, along with the two houses across the yard and the cabin at Ames Lake! Can it be just six years ago that they’d arrived with next to nothing, no place to stay, and no jobs? How their fortunes have changed! 

And now there’s to be another in the family. Wilma is in her “trying time”, due any day now. She’d returned from her Minnesota trip – accompanied by Ma Stoffer and Patty – with renewed energy and a sparkle in her eye. She’d scrubbed the little brown house ‘til it shone, with Patty right behind her helping. Mrs. Pym, the lady she worked for before getting married, sent Patty a large box of clothes, with “everything from sox to snow suits, so she has enough clothes to last for many a day.” 

How Guy adores being “Brampa” to Patty! She is a delightful blend of virtue and mischief. She makes her bed and helps set the table. But her curiosity can also get her into plenty of trouble. Guy still chuckles to think about last May, when Patty, not yet three, got into a bucket of paint and got more of it “on her person than you could get in a quart bucket.” But she also seems to be running into things these days, and Wilma wants to take her to the eye doctor soon. 

Someday, when the clouds roll away, as Ada’s always saying.   

December 27, 1941

Author's Note

Wilma went to the hospital Christmas morning with contractions, but was sent home at noon. Ada, who had hoped to delay the Christmas dinner previously scheduled for 2 so that she could catch up on her rest, was soon sorely disappointed. Her daughter-in-law came home in fine fettle, hungry and ready to celebrate the holiday! 

So back in the kitchen Ada went, stuffing the turkey Guy had won at the Commodity Club [4] meeting, and putting the finishing touches on festivities she had little heart for. The tree was up in the corner of the living space, where it could be seen from Ward and Yale Streets once the blackout rules were relaxed, and everyone went through the motions as best they could.

Ebba complied at last with the no-present rule, sending only a few books for Patty and a pair of green slippers like the ones she’d given Grandpa Lorenzo years before. As for the rest of the gift-giving, it was, as Ada liked to call it, “the same old thing, polished.”

But with the war and Bobby’s heart weighing on Ada’s mind, little Linda Lee did not receive quite the same deliriously excited welcome that Patty had. Wilma and Dave's younger daughter was born at 4:18 a.m., weighing 8# 9 oz., and measuring 22” long.    

“…. Linda was born the 27th. She is a little red head, with big blue eyes. She has a perfect little body and is growing like a bad weed.

-- Ada to Ebba, March 5, 1942.


[1] From a Wikipedia summary.

[2] All details taken from contemporaneous letters, later letters, and Bob's recollections.

[3] Hank Minton was a World War One vet from New Zealand who loved to talk about his military experiences. He owned a floor-laying and refinishing business.

[4] Members traded services as a way of coping with hard times. Bob remembers a Commodity Club picnic where a husky guy got drunk and attacked Dave for no reason!