Colleville by the Sea

December 9, 1954—Edward turned right at Formigny, and the little German car divided the French fields en route to Omaha Beach. Millie, riding in back beside Mary, watched the hamlet of St. Laurent-sur-Mer slide by her window. No bigger than Knoxville, she thought. Not many people out. Probably taking their siesta.

Frankie’s headstone at Colleville, 2009.
Steven Sommers photo.

At the cemetery, all four got out of the car. The sun came out, but a stiff wind drove the cold into one’s bones. The caretaker, wearing a beret, led the way to Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32. Millie was glad Will had bought a new overcoat in Galesburg before they left. Thin and wiry as he was, the cold went right through him. Not like me, she thought.

There it was: 

FRANKLIN W. SOMMERS

2LT   559 BOMB SQ   387 BOMB GP (M)

ILLINOIS   SEPT 2 1943

Will polished his specs, stuffed the handkerchief back in a pocket. He stared at the cross.

That’s the look he gives to kids cutting across his vegetable patch, Millie thought. 

Edward frowned as if embarrassed how the Luftwaffe had treated his youngest brother. Mary stood by him, eyes closed, lips moving silently, hands clasped in front of her. 

Will stepped up, bent forward, ran the fingers of one hand over the letters cut into the cross. 

Frankie, second from left, and crew of Janet’s Dream, 1943.

“He was flying a Marauder, Pop,” said Edward, the pilot. “B-26.” 

Will straightened up, turned away. “Doesn’t matter much, now.”

Grandpa catches his hat. From film by Edward Sommers.

The wind was blowing from land to sea. You could see the English Channel from here. At least Frankie has a view, she thought. What a thing to think.

Will brushed his cheek with the edge of his hand as he walked away from the grave. “God-damned wind. Smarts the eyes.” 

The wind took his fedora, and he chased it across the memorial colonnade.

A fictionalized account of true events.

#

After a War

CARE package, 1948. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

Western Europe today is modern, progressive, and well-to-do—a success story. But in the 1950s, when my grandparents made their only visit there, the place was a wreck. In the first half of the twentieth century, it had been destroyed, partly rebuilt, then destroyed all over again. When peace came in 1945, standing Europe back on its feet was a monumental task. There was the Marshall Plan, but that was hardly enough. We were urged by radio announcements to support the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, which sent “CARE packages” to needy Europeans. When Grandpa and Grandma, Will and Millie Sommers, visited at the end of 1954, the contrast between American prosperity and European austerity remained sharp. 

Older Younger

He was 70; she was 65. That equates to 80 and 75 in today’s world. Folks got older younger in those days. They were not wealthy but were thrifty. Still, they might not have made the trip had they not had a ready entrée to Europe. Their eldest son, Edward, was a pilot for Pan American World Airways. He and his family lived in Bad Homburg, an old mineral-springs resort town about ten miles northeast of Frankfurt.

Due to a flight delay in Boston, Grandma and Grandpa missed connections in London and had to stay overnight at the Richmond Hill Hotel. There, at 4:00 pm on November 10, according to Millie’s notes, they had “tea, milk, and hot water; sandwiches of fish and cheese—very good; bread, butter, and marmalade.” You may think of “English High Tea” as something a bit more elaborate, but remember: This was less than ten years after the most destructive war in history. As to the hotel—“Rooms cold,” she reports, “so to bed early.

Remains of Hitler’s bunker, after 1947 demolition. Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive). Licensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.

They flew on to Frankfurt to stay with Ed and his family. In the following weeks, with Ed or his wife, Mary, at the wheel, they visited Freiburg; Alzenau and Michelbach in Bavaria, in quest of Sommers family records; and Berlin, including a brief trip into the Russian sector. While in Berlin they saw the bunker where Hitler spent his last days. “Mass of rubble – right in business section,” Grandma reports. 

At this point in her narration, she pauses to wax philosophical: “It has been said that after hearing of all the destruction, you may say, ‘There’s nothing left to see.’ But turning to what remains, there is more than any traveler is likely to take in during a lifetime.” Clearly, she was impressed by the sights of Europe.

There was one sight, however, that must have evoked strong emotions. (Understand, Dear Reader, in our family strong emotions are something to be avoided rather than sought or indulged.) On Monday, December 6, they left for France by auto with Ed and Mary. Grandma lists every city and town through which they drove. 

Spoils of War

They drove through places famously scarred by the First World War: the Meuse River and Argonne Forest, Château-Thierry on the Marne. At Verdun, they saw a monument to André Maginot, whose fortifications failed to prevent the Nazi conquest of France in 1940. At Châlons-sur-Marne, they stayed in the Hotel de la Haute-Mère-Dieu, built in 1700. They drove through the Belleau Woods battlefield.

They rushed through Paris and Versailles in less than 24 hours—a shame bordering on a crime. They continued across France to the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, a newly-built resting place above the invasion beach. (This is the setting of the imagined vignette above. It’s a piece of fiction, but from my knowledge of the individuals involved, something very like it must have taken place.) 

Grandma and Grandpa at the grave, 1954.

While at the cemetery, they spoke with the its caretaker, whom Grandma describes as “very nice – American with French wife. 2 live there with 24 hr. supervision. He was in Normandy invasion. Cemetery on shore of channel where landing was made. This was after our boys were gone of course. [She’s referring to sons Stanley, lost over the Solomon Islands in 1942, and Frankie, lost over France in 1943.]

“Much wreckage still in Channel – which is covered during High Tide. Drove along water – Fort still partly standing there with German Gun still sticking out.” 

Later the same day they visited Dunquerque (which the British spell Dunkirk), site of a major battle early in World War II, a beach from which more than 330,000 men were spirited across the Channel in a huge boatlift. Grandma’s notes report: “Desolate country  . . . . Immense amount of damage. . . . Looked across at White Cliffs of Dover.”

#

Grass

by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 

Shovel them under and let me work— 

                                          I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 

Shovel them under and let me work. 

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 

                                          What place is this? 

                                          Where are we now? 

                                          I am the grass. 

                                          Let me work.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Onward and Upward, with Missionary Zeal

After a recent family reunion in Portsmouth, Virginia, my wife and I drove across North Carolina and stayed a couple of days with old friends in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“Chattanooga!”

It sings. 

In fact, it has been mentioned in songs like “Chattanooga Choo-choo” and “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” With two doubled letters, it echoes the magic of  “Mississippi” and “Walla Walla.” With four syllables, Chat-ta-noo-ga, it is redolent of “Chattahoochee,” a river that has a song of its own.

The city has its own dedicated typeface, Chatype, released in 2012. It boasts the fastest Internet service in the Western Hemisphere. But I’m getting carried away with present-day embellishments. Whereas this blog, you know, kinda focuses on the past.

Lookout Mountain, 2007. Photo by Teke, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

“Chattanooga” may derive from a Creek word that means “rock rising to a point.” That would be Lookout Mountain, where they fought “the Battle Above the Clouds.”

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

You can’t imagine Chattanooga without remembering the Civil War. Tennessee was desperately contested from early in the conflict. President Lincoln wanted badly to protect the pro-Union folks in East Tennessee from being swallowed by the Confederacy. But first things had to come first: General Grant invaded West Tennessee. His hard-won victories at Fort Donelson and Shiloh meant the North would stay in the South. 

The next order of business was Vicksburg. The guns on its heights controlled traffic on the Mississippi. Grant wrested the city from the Southern grasp on July 4, 1863. The Confederacy was effectively broken into two parts.

Next Stop: Chattanooga

Chattanooga stood on the Tennessee River, in a place where great ridges of the Cumberland Plateau came together. A key point for river and rail transport, Chattanooga would be the ideal staging point from which to invade Georgia. On September 9, 1863, Union general Rosecrans occupied Chattanooga. That was the easy part. 

General Braxton Bragg. Public Domain.

Rebel general Braxton Bragg, failing to oust Union forces in the Battle of Chickamauga September 19-20, laid siege to the river city and tried to starve the bluecoats out. In mid-October, Grant—now commanding all Union forces in the region—wrote, “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards, I will be there as soon as possible.” He arrived four days later and immediately began planning a campaign to break Bragg’s siege. 

After a month spent building a logistical advantage, Grant’s troops assaulted the rebel-held high points on Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. 

Seeing the Sites

Our friends and hosts, Andy and Janet Johnson, longtime Chattanooga residents, graciously showed us the battle sites.

Lookout Mountain, its top preserved as part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, is as impressive now as it was then. It’s hard to imagine General Hooker’s men fighting their way up it to dislodge Bragg’s troops—but they did. 

The other two high points, Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, have been developed as residential real estate, but you can see the layout clearly from the top of Lookout Mountain. The final battle for Chattanooga was at Missionary Ridge. Union troops under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George H. Thomas stormed the steep heights. 

Sherman’s troops stalled on their way up the north end of the north-south ridge. In the center, George Thomas’s division stalled after capturing Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. As they milled around, having gained what many appaently thought was their final objective, rebels poured fire down on their heads from the top of the ridge.

On, Wisconsin

Officers and men of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry knew what the real objective was. They started up the hill, but their color bearer was wounded and dropped the flag. Civil War units used their flags as rallying points. It was crucial the men of the 24th be able to see the colors  mounting the hill ahead of them. 

“On, Wisconsin!” Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur leads the 24th Wisconsin at Missionary Ridge. Painting by Michael Thorson. Used by permission.

Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, an 18-year-old, snatched the flag from the fallen soldier’s hands and dashed up the hill, shouting, “On, Wisconsin!” The regiment responded with a ferocious charge. Other units left and right did the same. The seasoned Confederate soldiers manning the guns at the top of the ridge experienced what can only be described as a moment of simultaneous panic. They ran. General Bragg chased them, implored them to turn and make a stand, but he did not get the stampede under control until his Army was safely in Georgia. Chattanooga was secure.

Major General William T. Sherman. Photo by Mathew Brady. Public Domain.

Chattanooga capped a long string of victories in the West for Grant. He became general-in-chief of all Union Armies, and moved on to Virginia for the final confrontation with Robert E. Lee. Grant’s right-hand man, Sherman, was turned loose to range from Chattanooga through the State of Georgia. His march to the sea, still remembered with more than chagrin by Southerners, once again subdivided the Confederacy. 

It would be more than a year before the final battles in Virginia and North Carolina, but Chattanooga played a decisive role in the outcome.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not interested in the Civil War, this may all seem frightfully dull and remote. But everything runs into everything else. 

For his actions at Missionary Ridge November 25, 1863, Arthur MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890. Later, he would serve as military governor of the Philippine Islands, when the U.S. won them in the Spanish-American War.

Just as important for history, Arthur MacArthur fathered a son, named Douglas, who became an American military legend in his own right, was himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines in World War II, dictated the reconstruction of Japan along constitutional democratic lines after the war, and rescued South Korea from North Korea’s invasion in 1950.

“Plunge Right Through That Line”

And, by the way, Arthur MacArthur’s battle cry, “On, Wisconsin!” came to be  immortalized in a pretty catchy football tune.

And I, Dear Reader, will be eternally grateful to our Chattanooga friends, Andy and Janet Johnson, who helped me with my Civil War itinerary. As an unabashed Grantophile—any man who can’t hold his liquor is okay by me!—I had visited the sites of all Grant’s major victories, except this one. Now that box is checked.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Could Have Built Less, But Instead Built More

What is our fascination with the lives of the rich and famous? Is it envy? Incredulity? Wishful thinking?

My wife and I recently held a mini-reunion with family members in Virginia’s Tidewater region. Hankering also to see friends in Tennessee, we resolved to rent a car in Norfolk and drive it, after the reunion, to Chattanooga. This made a perfect excuse to stop in Asheville, North Carolina—a pleasant enough town in its own right, but most famous as the site of Biltmore, “the largest privately-owned house in the United States.” 

Biltmore Estate (Original image cropped.) 
“IMG_0333” by wonderwolfpack is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

It’s hard for most of us to envision a house with 178,926 square feet of floor space. Louis XIV’s little place at Versailles is only four times larger. Here in America, Biltmore would  comfortably engulf the White House, the Hearst Castle, and Graceland combined.

It was built between 1889 and 1895 by George Vanderbilt, scion of one of America’s wealthiest families. George’s grandfather, “Commodore”  Cornelius Vanderbilt, started in 1810 as a boatman ferrying passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan and through entrepreneurship in the shipping and railroad industries amassed one of the largest fortunes in American history. At his death in 1877 his estate was estimated at $100 million—equivalent to $2.8 billion today.

Cornelius Vanderbilt. Public Domain.

The Commodore’s grandson, George, visited Asheville, in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, with his ailing mother in 1888. He fell in love with the place and began acquiring land—125,000 acres of it. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the estate grounds, Gifford Pinchot to manage its forests, and Richard Morris Hunt to design the house. 

A thousand workers, “ranging from local laborers to internationally known artists,” spent six years building the house, a French Renaissance château of 250 rooms. George and Edith Vanderbilt moved in and were soon joined by their infant daughter Cornelia. It took thirty servants to meet their domestic needs. Of course, the Vanderbilts did not live there alone. They entertained lots of guests. In luxury.

To walk through the four-story mansion requires energy and stamina. The rooms are large, the halls are long, the stairs are steep, and there are no elevators. But it’s worth the effort: You will see a concatenation of private rooms, public spaces, and connecting corridors arranged to offer a life of comfort, ease, elegance, and luxury beyond anything in your personal experience (unless your name is Rockefeller!). The 70,000-gallon  heated pool in the basement, for example, had to be drained and refilled every three days to meet guests’ needs; chlorination to keep the water fresh had not been invented yet. But who cares how much water you need to run, and heat, if you are among the super-rich?

George Washington Vanderbilt II. Biltmore Company. Public Domain.

After George’s death from complications of appendicitis at 52, his widow took over the running of the estate. She sold off approximately 86,000 acres of the Blue Ridge Mountains at $5 per acre to the U.S. Government, which established it as the original core of the Pisgah National Forest. Later, daughter Cornelia and her husband, John Francis Amherst Cecil, opened Biltmore to the public, “to increase area tourism during the Great Depression, and to generate income to preserve the estate,” according to the official Biltmore brochure. 

The house and its remaining 8,000 acres—including extensive gardens, the famous Biltmore Winery, the Antler Hill tourist village and hotel, and a number of on-estate restaurants and “light bites” venues—continue to be owned and managed by Cecil family descendants of George Vanderbilt. The paid staff numbers 2,700. The cost for a tour ticket is around $65, and there is no shortage of visitors. It’s a good example of an overly-ambitious project that has been saved after the fact by prudent management. 

Considering George Vanderbilt’s own personal resources, it’s amazing he managed to execute as much of his grand plan as he did. George’s share of the Commodore’s $100 million only came to about eight million, plus the income from another five million. Money went a lot farther in those days, of course. Even so, the size and scope of Biltmore boggles the mind.

My wife had visited Biltmore years ago so she stayed behind, enjoying a day of leisure at our hotel. My sister, however, accompanied me. The two of us toured the house but did not have the stamina to see the gardens as well. 

Before starting our tour, we had an excellent lunch at the Stable Café, a large restaurant adjacent to the house. As the name suggests, it was originally the George Vanderbilt’s stable. A huge barn, it is unlike any stable you may have seen. The walls are of glazed porcelain tile in a warm golden tone. The floor is of staggered red brick, also with a heavy glaze. A high row of arched casement windows sports an elaborate framework mechanism to open or close all of them at once. Diners sit at tables placed in former horse stalls—the straw bedding has been removed—with walls of laminated planks, topped by ornate metal grilles. 

I would like to have been one of Vanderbilt’s horses.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Say Goodnight, Gracie

Nattie Birnbaum was in a jam. He needed a new act. Nattie loved the vaudeville circuit, but it was not a secure living. 

Vaudeville was a form of theater—before cinema, radio, and television—that featured brief live performances: Songs, dances, song-and-dance teams, comedy acts, animal acts, jugglers, magicians.

Nattie was game for almost anything that got him a gig. He had been Glide of Goldie, Francis, and Glide; Jed Jackson of Jackson and Malone; Maurice Valente of Maurice Valente and His Wonder Dog; Harris of Harris and Dunlop; Jose of Jose and Dolores; at various times both Brown and Williams of Brown and Williams; Jack Garfield; and “Eddie Delight when the real Eddie Delight got out of show business and gave me all his left-over business cards.” 

However, after years of experience, Nattie still did not have a successful long-term act. For the past year he had performed with Billy Lorraine under the name George Burns, but the act was going nowhere fast. Then—

SHAZAM!

Show Business Magic happened. 

A woman named Rena Arnold brought a friend to see Burns and Lorraine perform. “Nattie,” Rena said, “this is Grace Allen.” 

Grace told Rena she would not consider performing with Billy Lorraine, who had a tendency to stutter when he was nervous. But she would not mind trying a partnership with the other one. “That was my big talent.” George Burns reflected in his 1988 book, Gracie: A Love Story. “I didn’t stammer.” That’s the kind of line that would cue a cigar puff. Whenever George delivered a funny line, he puffed on his cigar—a signal for the audience to laugh. You know, in case they couldn’t tell.

George and Gracie started with “a boy-girl act, a flirtation act.” George had most of the funny lines. “Just to make sure the audience knew I was the funny one in the act,” he wrote, “I dressed like a comedian. . . . I wore wide pants and a short coat, a hat with the brim turned up in front, and a trick bow tie on a swivel. That jazzbo tie was very important; this was long before I smoked a cigar onstage; I let the audience know I’d told a joke by whirling my bow tie. Being the straight man, Gracie wore a lovely dress.” 

Gracie Steals the Show

Burns and Allen, 1952. CBS Television. Public Domain.

They soon discovered that Gracie got more laughs than George. So George rewrote the material with himself as straight man and Gracie the funny girl. They became a  sensation. When vaudeville died, they made the transition to motion pictures and radio. In 1950 they dropped radio for television. For eight years they had a hit half-hour sitcom—in fact, they helped invent the form. Then Gracie retired, never to perform again.

George and Gracie were what vaudeville called a “Dumb Dora act.” The woman got the laughs by being silly, stupid—a featherbrain. But Gracie, from the beginning, was Something Different.

“The audience had created Gracie’s character,” George wrote. “I listened to the jokes they laughed at and gave Gracie more of that type. Gracie certainly wasn’t the first comedienne in vaudeville. There had been a long line of ‘Dumb Doras’ . . . . What made Gracie different was her sincerity. She didn’t try to be funny. Gracie never told a joke in her life, she simply answered the questions I asked her as best she could, and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience found her answers funny. Onstage, Gracie was totally honest, and honesty is the most important thing a performer can have. And if a performer can fake that, he can do anything.” 

Gentle Reader, if you have never seen Burns and Allen perform, you may not understand what George meant in the paragraph above. So we invite you, through the wonders of the Internet, to spend the next four minutes watching this. When you have done that, our symposium will reconvene here.

Many other samples of Burns and Allen’s work can be found online; you don’t need me to direct you to them. They include brief monologues when George tells jokes and puffs his cigar so you’ll know when to laugh. But, invariably and everlastingly, Gracie is the mainstay. George’s true genius lay in knowing how to cue Gracie appropriately, stay out of her way, and react naturally. His other true genius was in running all the business and managerial aspects of their show-business partnership. 

“The audience roared,” he wrote. “Either I was the greatest straight man who ever lived or Gracie was something special. By the time we finished those three days in Newark, Gracie had three-quarters of the punch lines. I didn’t mind, I still had 60 percent of our salary.”

Partners in Life, Too

When Nathan Birnbaum, from the Lower East Side of New York, and Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen, from Irish Catholic roots in San Francisco, started their vaudeville act, it was strictly a business partnership. Gracie was in love with a big star named Benny Ryan. But theirs was a long-distance relationship, since she and Ryan were always playing different cities. Soon, George fell in love with Gracie and began a determined campaign to woo and win her away from Benny Ryan.

With the disarmingly honest self-assessment that is one of his charms, Burns wrote: “I fell in love with Gracie because she was pretty, smart, nice, and talented. But I’ll tell you the truth. I also fell in love with Gracie because I fell in love with making a good living. If she had married Benny Ryan, what was I going to do for an act? I had no real affection for the seal [with whom he had once performed]. The Siamese twins already had partners. Where was I going to find another Gracie? Remember, she was born Gracie, she wasn’t manufactured. Gracie didn’t come by the dozen. I fell in love with her just like our audiences did.” 

Extra Tidbits

George Burns, who lived many years after Gracie’s death in 1964, turned out to be the bestselling author of ten books. I have not read any of the others. But I suppose Gracie, A Love Story is the one you need. Besides the tiny glimpses given above, it reveals many facts I had not previously known about George and Gracie, even though I grew up in the era when they were household names.

  • Gracie Allen ran as the Surprise Party’s candidate for President in 1940 against FDR and Wendell Willkie, on the slogan, “Down with common sense. Vote for Gracie.” She even did a whistle-stop tour.
  • Gracie was never seen in public except in full or three-quarter-length sleeves, because her upper arm had been badly scarred in a scalding accident when she was a child. 
  • She had one blue eye and one green eye. 
  • George and Gracie, unable to conceive, adopted two children, Sandy and Ronnie, as infants from a Catholic orphans’ home in Evanston, Illinois. Ronnie later appeared on television as their handsome young-adult son, Ronnie.
  • Jack Benny, fellow star of stage, screen, radio, and TV, was their dearest friend—a man beloved by all who knew him. His wife, Mary Livingstone (née Sadie Marks), not so much.
  • When Gracie retired in 1958, she was physically worn out and had a debilitating heart condition. In those days there were no heart transplants or coronary bypasses. She was given nitoglycerin pills to control the pain, but eventually her heart gave out.

Nattie summed it all up very fittingly in the opening line of the book: “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

Antique Road Show, Part II

Grandma and Grandpa Sommers, about 1950.

On October 7, 1949, my grandparents, 65 and 60 years old, cast their fate to the winds and drove Route 66 from Illinois to California in their 1946 Hudson sedan. Recently retired, but with enough savings to travel, frugally, they set off to see the Great West. 

They reached San Bruno, California, two weeks later. They had added 2,871 miles to the Hudson’s odometer and spent $143.11 in total for meals, lodgings, 150 gallons of gas, a new tire, and incidentals.

With Mabel and Bob

The reason they fetched up in San Bruno—near San Francisco International Airport— was that their daughter, Mabel Hiler, lived there with her husband, Bob, and their son, Dickie. Grandma and Grandpa must have let Mabel and Bob know they were coming—mustn’t they? Having known them, I cannot completely rule out the possibility they just showed up on Mabel and Bob’s doorstep one bright Thursday afternoon in October. 

Since Bob Hiler had a good full-time job as a mechanic with United Airlines, and since Dickie was a young boy, Mabel was almost certainly a full-time housewife. Later on I know she worked at a variety of jobs “outside the home,” as we used to say. 

Women drilling a wing bulkhead for a World War II transport plane at the Consolidated Aircraft. Photo by Howard R. Hollem, U.S. Office of War Information. Public Domain.

Probably most women of Aunt Mabel’s generation—which was also my mother’s generation—worked outside jobs at one time or another; but that’s not how it was supposed to be. For one brief, shining moment after World War II, all of America conspired to jam life back into “normal” channels. The men were to wear the pants, the women skirts and aprons. The men would bring home the bacon; the women would cook it, put it on the table, and wash up afterwards. 

Before long, that arrangement would crumble in household after household. How could we afford our everyday needs plus late-model cars plus television sets and of course the finer things of life that were advertised on those television sets, unless Mom took a part-time job “just in the middle of the day, while the kids are in school” to supplement the family’s income. In 1963, Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique would advocate for women as full-time breadwinners, no longer to be chained to traditional women’s roles.

Bob and Mabel Hiler, second anniversary, 1938

But I sincerely hope Aunt Mabel was a full-time homemaker when her parents came to California, since they stayed seven months! Grandma kept careful notes on their ramble  across the range, full of where they stayed, where they ate, and what they saw. But not one word about the whole time spent in San Bruno. It’s a mystery. All the principals—Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, Aunt Mable, Uncle Bob, and Dickie Hiler—are gone; I cannot ask them now and did not know enough to ask them when they were still with us. 

Just to picture all five of them spending seven months together in a bungalow in San Bruno beggars the imagination. How did they ward off madness? They must have done something.

The Hudson’s mileage yields one clue. By May 1950, Grandpa and Grandma had clocked 5,326 miles driving to and from California; but their odometer was 8,232 miles older  than when they started. Therefore, while visiting in California, they drove 2,906 miles. That’s about what it would have taken to commute every day into the city from San Bruno—but that’s a silly thought; they had no reason to go downtown daily. They probably made shorter trips for everyday purposes but also drove from time to time to tourist destinations such as Yosemite. (Disneyland was not available yet.) However, they left no record of such trips, nor did I ever hear them spoken of.

Stint in Seattle

There was also a month and a half when they did not drive at all, because they left the Hudson behind. Grandma’s notebook says that on Valentine’s Day 1950 they went to Seattle and stayed a month and a half. They did not drive, they flew. The flight was two and a half hours from San Francisco to Seattle on a DC-6, a modern four-engine prop job. In those days, most airline employees got free flights as a benefit, and these were often transferable. Most likely, Grandpa and Grandma flew United Airlines to Seattle on Bob Hiler’s employee pass. 

In Seattle, they stayed with Edward, the elder of their two surviving sons, his wife, Mary, and their three children. Uncle Ed was a pilot for Pan American World Airways and at that time flew out of Seattle, to and from Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau. 

Grandma’s notebook gives glimpses of this interlude in Seattle: 

Grandma’s notebooks
  • “Sat Feb. 25 – Went to Everett by car with Mary & Edw. Called on Lloyd Engels’ at Everette [sic]. Up Monte Cristo Way as far as roads would permit. Too much snow Early in Season. Dinner in Marysville – nice town.”
  • “Sat. Mar 4. Went to Mt. Vernon. visited with Aunt Susan Beecher and daughters Eva – Ada – & Nina. Back by way of [Whidbey] Island.” They crossed the Deception Pass Bridge at the north end of Whidbey, drove the length of the island, and took the Mukilteo Ferry back to the Mainland near Everett.

Still, they must have passed a lot of time in humdrum ways. (The Space Needle and the Monorail did not yet exist.) Mary was a full-time homemaker and therefore, by prevailing notions, could entertain visiting inlaws without limit. When I knew her, later in life, she was a gracious, adaptable person. No doubt she met the challenge with aplomb.

On April 1, Grandpa and Grandma caught an overnight train from East Olympia for San Francisco, arriving at 11:20 am the next day. After another month and a half with Mabel and Bob in San Bruno, they headed home. 

West to East

Now the silence ends, and Grandma’s pithy travel notes resume the narrative.

They struck straight across country, going by way of Sacramento, Placerville, and Lake Tahoe. Grandma notes the rising topography: 

  • “Plenty Snow – Echo Summit – 7282 Elevation.” 
  • “State Line—Bijou Pines at Bijou near Lake Tahoe.  Spooner’s Summit, East Edge, L. Tahoe (10 miles from Carson City) – El. 7140 ft.” 

They spent a morning sightseeing in Carson City but still made Reno by noon. They got gas, oil, lube, lunch, and back on the road by 1:30. In those days you could leave the car at the gas station; they took care of everything, and you went to lunch.

Outside Heber, Utah, Grandma noted: “Drilling Surprise Wildcat No. 1”—a reference to a new oil well being opened up. Several more wells and refineries were noted as they made their way across Utah and into Colorado.

At Craig, Colorado, a flurry of notes:

  • “Interesting facts about Craig, & Moffat Co. – El. 6200 ft.
  • “(1) Largest wool shipping point in world.
  • “(2) Largest Gilsonite processing & shipping in world. 
  • “Moffatt [sic] County
  • “90 ft vein of coal.
  • “Enough to supply U. States for 900 yrs.
  • “1,600,000 sheep raised annually
  • “20,000 cattle raised annually.
  • “Many Deer.
  • “3,460,500 acres – area of county.”

Think on that, Gentle Reader: Moffat County, Colorado’s 90-foot vein of coal in 1950 was enough to supply the United States for 900 years! It gives one pause.

Enough Coal for 900 Years

First of all, how much coal is a 900-year supply? You need not guess, I can tell you.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration says total coal consumption in 1950 was just shy of 500 million short tons. So, a 900-year supply would have been almost 450 billion short tons. When you consider that just one short ton contains two thousand pounds—that’s a lotta coal.

Does Moffat County still have enough coal to supply the entire United States for 900 years? Probably not. For one thing, almost 70 years have passed, so now we’re talking about an 830-year supply. Except that we no longer use 500 million tons a year. The figure for 2018 is more like 700 million tons—so we’re using it up faster. 

That surprised me. I would have thought we use less coal now, because in 1950 we mostly heated our houses with coal—as a lad I shoveled it into our basement furnace three or four times a day. But now, we heat our houses with natural gas or fuel oil. So, why do we use more coal now? Because coal is burned to generate electricity, and we use way more electricity now than we did then. This graph tells the story:

Source: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=37692

So, what I thought I knew—that we’re using less coal today—is what Will Rogers would have called “things we do know, that ain’t so.”

Even though we use more coal now than in 1950, the consumption trend is steeply down, having peaked at about 1.1 billion tons in 2009. This is for multiple reasons, including government actions, but mostly because natural gas has gotten a lot cheaper recently. Indeed, coal consumption may plunge below 1950 levels and continue downward. 

There is a retrospective irony in all this. Moffat County could soon have a 900-year supply of coal once again, but it may no longer be worth mining. Still, economics being unpredictable, a resurgence of coal, or a plateau in its decline, may be in the offing. However, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Meanwhile, they still mine coal in Moffat County. 

Through the Rockies and Home

Grandpa and Grandma continued through the Rockies via Steamboat Springs, then on through snow-covered Rabbit Ears Pass at 9,680 feet, and across the Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass—11,314 feet. Arriving in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Grandma wrote: “1418 miles Denver from San Bruno. Lg. wet snow with trees & elec. wires down making streets impassable – so had to stay here 3 days.” They left Englewood Saturday, May 27, and drove home through Kansas and Missouri, noting “Lots of black walnuts” around Seneca, Kansas, and “lots of apples & some peaches” near Troy, Kansas. 

On May 29, 1950, they arrived at Dwight, Illinois. Now, the thing about Dwight is that we lived there. My father, Lloyd E. Sommers, was the second of two sons who survived the Second World War. He was a radioman with the 132nd Infantry in the South Pacific. Uncle Ed was a Naval Reserve pilot who continued to fly in his civilian capacity for Pan Am. Uncles Stanley and Franklin, bomber pilots, were shot down early in the war—Stanley in the Solomon Islands, Franklin over France. 

In 1950 we lived in Dwight, where Dad taught high school chemistry. I was nearly five. My sister, Cynda Jo, was born May 2, 1950. She was a 27-day-old baby when Grandma and Grandpa came to visit us on their way home. I would be fibbing if I said I remember their visit. But Grandma’s book says they stayed three days. They needed to ogle the new arrival, no doubt.

They reached home on June 2, having spent $143.30 for gas, oil, food, shelter, and incidentals on the road between California and Illinois. It was a long trip, but it must have satisfied their longings for that kind of adventure, for they never went West again.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author