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PART EIGHT: The Burns Disapora  

Chapter Five: Trick or Treat

Ames Lake, Washington Late
Friday night, October 31, 1942

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

More Information

Friday night we had a Halloween party for Patty and her friends which was as much fun for us as for the moppets! Patty helped with all the preparations – drew the pumpkin faces on orange paper and colored them for the invitations – shined all the apples – helped pop the corn – frosted the little cupcakes and made raisin faces on them – and helped make the big jack-o’-lantern for the center of the table. Patty was the first to arrive – a wee ghost with a Donald Duck mask. She had not helped with the decorating and I think was quite overwhelmed with her own importance as ghost and hostess as well as the effect of the decorations. Annie [Wennergren] dressed in a crown of gilt, a homemade mask, and a cape made of a red-checked luncheon cloth. Barbara [Harper] and Judy were quite frightening in their masks. Gay arrived late in her party clothes, having narrowly escaped staying at home because she fell down and hurt her arm. And last of all came Ardella [Seleska], appropriately masked as a Fiji Islander, her red nose twitching with excitement and her eyes as round as dollars. We had great fun pinning the tail on the donkey, who leaned against his wrapping paper wall coyly defying all comers to attach the wondrous tail of braided carpet strings. Bobbing for apples was the favorite game of all the guests, though Round the Mulberry Bush, Farmer in the Dell, and the Treasure Hunt were popular too. There were refreshments at the highly decorated table with its jack-o’-lantern, but the witches’ hats to wear, horns to blow, and crackers to pop proved too exciting to allow for any eating, so the food had to be packed in bags and sent home with the guests until the next day….

-- Ebba to Bob, November 3 – Election Day – 1942  [1]


The Cabin at Ames Lake

Late on Halloween night, Ebba braves the gale and fetches some firewood from the wide covered porch to replenish the fire. It’s raining buckets, and the wind is howling up the lake, taking direct aim at the little cabin and Description: Mother Goosewhistling through the chinks. Mother and Dad and Dave are already sound asleep, but Ebba, ever the night owl, is still too keyed up to go to bed.

If tomorrow were not the last day of the fishing season, they might have stayed home. But the fishermen are determined to brave the weather for one last chance at catching trout. And so after Patty’s party was over, the three of them had driven to Ames Lake, chafing the whole way at the new 35-mile-per-hour national speed limit. [2]  

With the fire stoked and blazing in the generous stone hearth, Ebba quietly sweeps cinders into the dustpan. Out come the handmade stools from under the table so she can get at the crumbs that have fallen beneath it. Behind her, the soapy dinner dishes are soaking in a chipped enameled dishbasin, waiting for a quick rinse when the water in the kettle on the campstove comes to a boil. From the couch she retrieves the Mother Goose [3] she’d read to Patty, her “little brown-eyed fairy,” last time her niece was here. It had slipped almost out of sight behind one of the green velvet seat-cushions.[4]  She sets the book on the plank table, by the hissing camp lantern. Abandoned pinochle cards glint in the lamplight. There’s a sweater draped across one of the log stools, and she hangs it on a hook near the door, where the raincoats are. On the other side of the door is a pile of rug felt, brought for the purpose of chinking the cracks while they’re here.

Guy, Patty, Ebba sawing log

Ames Lake is a refuge for the whole family, a place to retreat from the demands of the business and the incessant news of war. They’d first heard about the lake from the people at Eddie Bauer when Bob was in high school, and had gone up there for a first-hand look. After dragging the boat half a mile overland, they’d finally launched her, only to discover, with typical Burns luck, a well-maintained road running right near the lake on the opposite shore. And also this cabin, which they bought and have been fixing up ever since. It’s primitive, but it’s not as though the apartment above the shop is a palace. With all the new business coming in from Frederick and Nelson these days, and Fred on his cyclical binges, [5] progress on their living quarters has slowed to an absolute crawl. It will be lovely one day – with its knotty pine walls and double “French doors that give light and air…a little kitchen to cook the food, a counter to serve it, and an adequate bath room and lots of closet space.” But not for a good long while.

In the meantime, they’ve thrown themselves into upkeep on the lake property. There’s a well with a big hand pump, a burlap privy, and a dock. They’ve made headway clearing away the tangled undergrowth in the clear-cut land around the cabin, and shrubs and saplings are thriving in the sunny exposure. Every time they come, they cut brush and gather logs to saw up when the weather is dry. Plans are afoot for a sleeping loft and a more luxurious outhouse soon. Eventually they hope to have a cozy little fishing resort all their own. 

But Ebba’s not here to fish this time, especially in this Halloween monsoon. She’s actually a little sick of fish these days, for they’ve eaten so many trout lately that it feels as if she’s growing “gill slits and a dorsal fin.” No, she’s here to get away, and is savoring every peaceful minute of it. In fact, sometimes Ames Lake doesn’t feel far away enough to get a complete break from the routine at home – the shop work (her neck is still stiff from vacuuming 300 rugs for the ladies’ university dorms a few weeks before), the family chores, and her teaching duties for the University of Washington nursing school’s refresher courses.

The tea kettle begins to whistle and Ebba turns her attention to the dishes, dousing the suds-covered cups, bowls, and spoons with boiling water and laying them on a dishtowel to dry. Then, after quickly wiping down the stove and primitive counter, she pulls a stool back to the table and picks up the letter she’d started to Gerry earlier in the week.   

It has been over three months since she and Dad stopped at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to see Gerry. She worries about him incessantly. With more and more men from his unit being called up with each passing month, how long until he too will have to go? For now he seems safe enough, working in a hematology unit at the hospital, drawing blood. But why had he sent that strange copy of the suicide autopsy to her last week, with the instructions to keep it hush-hush?  Sometimes she thinks he might be losing his marbles under the stress of barracks life.

The “Gang” at Ames Lake

As always when she thinks about Gerry, her thoughts turn to her younger brother, now safely back at Whitman. What will his fate be? Since moving to Seattle, she often finds herself reprising the quasi-parental role she used to play with him back on Center Street -- scolding him about his schoolwork; insisting he forgo a trip to see Miss “Picklepuss Virginia” in Spokane and come home for Thanksgiving instead; berating him on his mounting smoking habit (if the matchbooks tucked into the dirty clothes with his BVDs are any guide) and questionable personal hygiene. She really will mail him the threatened “Rats, Lice and History” text if he sends home another load of laundry without any pillowcases! Why doesn’t he know these simple things? Still, she misses him, especially because he is such a good-natured recipient of all her ribbing.

At least the sophomore slump is over. And he is finally enrolled in a pre-medical course, and taking Biology, Chemistry, and Math Analysis, along with Spanish and Portuguese. Maybe it was the stint washing Dr. Johansson’s Spode china during intercession or the visibility of the Navy V-12 classes on campus – both serving as reminders of why he must keep his nose to the grindstone. Maybe it’s because Miss “Button-Nose” has transferred to Antioch in Ohio. Out of sight, out of mind, Ebba hopes. At least they hadn’t fronted him the money to buy a fraternity pin to give her, although they had spent a fair amount of treasure on new clothes with which he had tried to impress her. 

The storm seems to be intensifying now, the wind moaning through the rafters. She pulls her woolen sweater close about her – a remnant of her riflery-team days at Akron University – and gathers her thoughts for the letter to her husband, whose own letters are so blandly opaque and so oddly neutral. Does he notice that she always signs hers “With love” and he doesn’t?

Description: Gerry Writing

Would he want to hear all about the great housing switch, which finds Don and Helen now up at the little brown bungalow and Dave and Wilma in the house across from the shop? Would he want to know about Don at all? Her husband and brother have butted heads so often in the past, would he care about the turn Don’s health has taken? 

She hopes her brother's home resting tonight. He surely deserves it. At first the family thought the promotion to shipyard “chipper”[6] was a coup, until his coughing got so bad. Smoking was part of it, of course, but his lungs were little helped by the constant onslaught of paint flakes. Fortunately, after a brief flirtation with the idea of heading to Alaska, Don was transferred, on his doctor’s recommendation, to the sheetmetal division [7] of the Associated Shipyards in Seattle.[8] Now everyone is hopeful he will retain his 2-B classification when it comes up for renewal on November 11th. Everyone was relieved when the bone-rattling cough finally began to subside.

With Boeing churning out airplanes at a breakneck pace, [9] and the region’s shipyards building a 20th-century Armada, it seems to Ebba that the whole world is bent on converting ploughshares into swords. [10] Civilians too continue to sacrifice and ration, her own family among them. During the scrap metal drive this month, the city sidewalks had overflowed with household contributions to the war effort.   

We are having a scrap metal drive in Seattle now, and the streets are terrific. We have a terrible time keeping Dad delivering furniture and rugs. He sees so many intriguing things along the street that that old St. Vincent’s itch just gets him down. I must say it’s pretty hard to know where to draw the line. I went up Yale the other day and had gone only a few blocks when I found quite a pile of scrap which had overflowed the curb and covered the sidewalks. I started around it and the first thing I knew, I was walking around a brass bed in someone’s bedroom! I guess somewhere or other I had passed from the scrap into the parlor and never sensed the difference!....[This] should be a lesson to you. Stay in nights beneath a bright light and identify yourself with a book else you may suddenly find yourself being melted into a Howitzer…  

-- Ebba to Bob, October 10, 1942

Ebba turns her gaze to the fire, remembering the First War and the tremendous impact it had on their small community of Cuyahoga Falls, and to her developing view of how the world works. She recalls the family’s victory garden, the bandage-wrapping at the high school for the Red Cross, the men who did not return. How would Patty Lou remember these years? And the new little Gooch? 

Patty and Linda on the porch at Ward Street

Which brings her back to one of her chief anxieties about the time, not too distant now she hopes, when Gerry will be discharged from the Army and join her in Seattle. How will he get on with the children? Will he find them as bothersome as he does most children? As their aunt, she sees few flaws in her darling nieces, but what if he is annoyed by their childish ways? What if Patty gets into the paint again, as she did when she was left to her own devices with Ardella? In a matter of an hour, they had transferred, via their hands, most of a half-gallon of white enamel paint to the back of the shop building as high as they could reach, and dribbled the rest over the swing and teeter totter. How will he react to little Linda Lee? She was sick earlier this month, but is back to normal now “hopping around like a cricket and grinning like a chessy cat.” What if he tries to take her picture and she freezes up at the sight of the “little black box [and] sets her jaw for all the world like Grandma Stoffer and looks as if she’d bite a nail in two?” All so perfectly normal and harmless in a tiny child, but Gerry won’t understand it at all. 

A sudden gust ignites a shower of sparks in the grate. Ebba yawns and stretches, suddenly too sleepy to write any more. After banking the fire, she changes into her flannel nightgown, sinks into the green couch, and covers up with a warm woolly Hudson’s Bay blanket. She’ll finish the letter tomorrow, and write to Binks too. [11]

Thanksgiving, 1942 with no Gerry (still in the military) and no Bob (whose chasing Virginia Barton)
(Click image to enlarge)


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

[2] Ames Lake is west of Lake Sammamish. The National Speed Limit was enacted on October 28, 1942.

[3] One of the first two books Ebba bought for Patty.

[4] This couch is now in the big room at the Big Lake cabin.

[5] He eventually died of hepatitis secondary to alcoholism; he showed up on an  autopsy table when Bob was in medical school.

[6] Chippers ground and chipped weld splatter, high spots, burrs, weld slag, and rust from metal surfaces of ships to improve their appearance or prepare them for painting.

[7] Sheetmetal mechanics fabricated, assembled, installed, and repaired sheet-metal.

[8] At the combined Todd Shipyards/Seattle-Tacoma Shipbuilding operation, 55,000 men and women built 5 freighters, 2 transports, 46 destroyers, 37 escort carriers, 5 gasoline tankers, and 6 destroyer tenders. Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock/Associated Shipbuilders turned out 38 minesweepers, 3 seaplane tenders, 10 floating drydock workshops, 15 covered wooden lighters, and 3 wooden tugboats. The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton built 8 destroyers, 8 destroyer escorts, and 5 escort aircraft carriers. At the Lake Washington Shipyard, 6,000 workers repaired merchant vessels and ferries and turned out ships for the Navy. Fifteen smaller shipyards in the area also produced vessels for the war effort. (from HistoryLink.org)

[9] During the war years, Boeing's Seattle and Renton plants produced 8,200 planes, including 6,981 B-17s and more than 1,000 giant B-29s. (from HistoryLink.org)

[10] Seattle ranked as one of the top three cities in the nation in war contracts per capita, and Washington state ranked as one of the top two in the nation for war contracts per capita. (from HistoryLink.org)

[11] We have all of Gerry’s lusterless correspondence, saved by Ebba, along with Ebba’s November 3, 1942 letter to Binks, in which Patty Lou’s party and its aftermath are described. None of Ebba’s letters to Gerry survive.