©Elisa Salasin, 2008, of a sculpture by Leandro Erlich

©Elisa Salasin, 2008, of a sculpture by Leandro Erlich

World War II marched into my hometown. On that December 7th Sunday afternoon from our old Dodge parked on Broadway, frightened, my parents and I saw a long khaki convoy roll through the heart of our town: young, helmeted National Guardsmen in camouflage, machine guns, supplies.Soon Santa Maria, California, a little town of 5,000, 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, would host thousands of strangers: soldiers and airmen — some with families, the majority single.

How I envied Gloria, my luscious brunette Cypress Street neighbor. She was old enough to paint her legs and gussy up to attend dances at the USO.Her uniformed dates seemed endless.

In the third grade what could I do?Miss Klett, our teacher at Main Street School, unleashed our patriotism with choruses of “My Buddy” and “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover.”Singing preceded daily drill; we decorated ourselves each morning with an aluminum dog tag clasped to our desk by a wooden clothes pin, and then ducked under the desk until the All Clear sounded.

Soon my classmates and I were knitting: miles of khaki 4-ply yarn we transformed into khaki squares that some anonymous ladies assembled into warm comforters for our soldiers in Europe. The balls of tin foil we collected could have tormented Sisyphus. We received extra “patriot” points by writing to servicemen in our families: my cousin Harold, who mended parachutes somewhere in the South Pacific, received my printed encouragements,and,in return, I received his blacked-out, flimsy missives that I shared with my class.

About a year before WWII ended, disaster struck. At 11 a.m. a P-38 from a nearby airbase spun out of control over Santa Maria; Mrs. Rusconi and her assistant cook, preparing to open their Italian restaurant for the lunchtime crowd, were killed when the plane crashed in the middle of our town right next to the Bank of America.

The war seemed very close. The complexions at Main Street School had long ago changed. Shortly after December 7, my friends the Mori twins, Margaret and Marjorie, disappeared without saying goodbye. Their father ran a small market on Fesler Street; no one challenged the rumor that he had a shortwave radio in the market’s backroom, linked to Hirohito.

We continued to collect our foil and sing our songs. We never saw the twins again, even after the war. Nor did we see the Japanese families who plowed our sugar beet and flower fields in Bettaravia, west of Santa Maria.

Mr. Keeler, Gloria’s dad, was our block’s air raid warden. We looked at him with new respect when he donned his Air Raid helmet and did the rounds of 800 East Cypress Street. One night he knocked at our front door and summoned my father: “Willie, it’s been reported you left the light on at your place of business. Please drive over to your shop NOW and extinguish the light.” Mr. Keeler was not to be challenged.

Although the trip from home to the business was less than two miles, dad had to drive his Ford pick-up slowly under blacked-out conditions and using precious rationed gasoline; there was no arguing.

Many years later and continents away an ominous knock sounded on my front door. I did not leave my bedroom, the only room in my Karachi home that Rafiq, my man servant, had blacked out with tin foil. In theSeptember heat, this room is I where I rested, ate, entertained, studied, slept, while the languid overhead fan did its best to move the humid air.

Nervously Rafiq answered the loud Urdu calls to “Open Up.”In an instant an armed soldier, supported by a trio of comrades, gave him a verbal beating for the light that escaped from the bedroom.Next time the army returned there would be a fine or worse.Rafiq knew his first stop tomorrow would be the bazaar where this time he would buy black material and double tacks to keep the light indoors.

For a month Pakistan had been at war with India again — and as usual Kashmir was the issue.

When I arrived at the tumultuous, but peaceful, Karachi airport in July,1965 no Fulbright representative met me: the program’s director remained at home recovering from typhoid. That news made me gulp even though I had been innoculated with many rounds of serum.

Rafiq, a tall, thin, bearded handsome 30-something Pathan, previously employed by British Embassy families, greeted me at my apartment, in a clean, white uniform,and I was home. Rafiq was my cook,shopper, housekeeper, interpreter, and the guy to turn to when I desired a dressmaker. Also on my payroll was a chokador, a young man who served as night watchman and gardener.

Another employee, whom I never saw, but essential (the low man on the list) the man who destroyed our garbage. Single and never employing even a cleaning woman, I suddenly had inherited a family.

On this quiet street my neighbors in my four-plex included a Yugoslav family in Karachi to build ships; a Pakistani family; and my Fulbright teacher compatriot Richard Omerud, a Boston science teacher assigned to the Zoroastrian high school.

Monday morning the Fulbright volkswagon zigzagged across Karachi, a city of millions, to the Happy Home School, an English medium,public/private school that instructed first through tenth grade girls in the morning and noisy, rambunctous boys in the afternoon.

Government funding for the school depended on 10th grade national exam scores so the headmistress was loathe to have me teach regular classes. Instead I dropped in on 11 classes of girls- the idea that they would be exposed to a native English speaker.

Before the war began in September I found the lovely chador-clad teachers very friendly, inviting me to their homes, questioning me about America and during our tea breaks encouraging me to try their native spicey appetizers.The older girl students in their blue and white salwar kameez tittered listening to my stories of “love” marriages, while I oggled the romance ads in their local newspapers, usually older men seeking light-skinned, young women for marriage.

By the time Indian airplanes announced war, allegedly bombing a facility at the Karachi port, the Happy Home School felt edgy. The teachers kept their distance; many of them had already lost brothers and uncles fighting in the northern provinces. The school girls contributed to the war effort, rolling bandages for the Red Cross. In class they asked me “Which side are you on?” I replied, “I am for peace,” crossing my fingers, knowing full well that my government was supplying arms to both India and Pakistan. And the headmistress worried that the rowdy male students would attack me and my driver, who parked outside the school’s gate. I was worried too.

Suddenly after the first few days of the war my Karachi life was restricted: I was now an employee of the US Embassy. An Embassy representative visited, telling me not to report to the HHS, until I received the green light from him. Sometimes he would arrive instructing me to stay at home, not to go to the bazaar for rumors abounded that today would be an anti-American rally. Since neither Dick nor I had a telephone, all we could do was wait and wait at home, nervously pacing.Then ominously another Embassy rep arrived with an evacuation card that really frightened me. Where would Dick and I be transported? We no longer had teaching contracts at home.

One night our driver, our Volkswagon headlights blacked out,picked us up from a nearby dinner party. About a mile from our home, the loud alert siren screamed, indicating that an Indian aircraft had been spotted. Our driver stopped. Dick and I waited rigidly against a high concrete wall for the All Clear to sound. But it didn’t ! We could hear loud bombing from the port vicinity, Finally after an hour an All Clear.

The next morning madness erupted downtown. Angry, chanting Karachi mobs looted and burned the PanAm Airlines’ office. By noon the rock-wielding Pakistanis had destroyed the USIA Library and broken all the windows in the American Embassy. Now I knew I would be leaving Karachi.It would be too dangerous for the Happy Home School to have an American teacher on its campus. My trunk had been packed for several weeks. Now I locked it.

Like the Mori twins in Santa Maria I had no time for goodbyes. In a few days the Fulbright director had found both Dick and me places in Tehran, he teaching science at public high schools, and me teaching English at the Shah’s University. I was sorry to leave exotic Karachi and Rafiq and my Pakistani teacher and student friends.But I was not sorry to leave the war.

©Ruby Bernstein, 2009

Ruby Bernstein, BAWP ’74 and ’83, lives in Oakland, writing travel adventure tales before her memories fade.

6 Responses to “War Fragments by Ruby Bernstein”

  1. Fran claggett Says:

    Ruby! I had never heard about this phase of your life before! Fascinating.

  2. Belle Says:

    Ruby–how exciting, glad to learn of this part of your life, tell me more. And well written.


  3. jane juska Says:

    i liked your piece

  4. Sarah Zimmerman Says:

    Touching. I appreciated how you wrapped the narrative of the japanese girls back into your own story of war. Keep writing! I look forward to hearing more about these times in your life.

  5. Gerald Adams Says:

    Dear Ruby,
    What a good life you are having. I remember you well. Some of your Santa Maria memories I share also..

  6. Ann Gallagher Says:

    Dear Ruby, I enjoyed your piece. You are a good writer so keep those stories coming!–Ann Gallagher

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