To Be Honest
A Strange Funny World
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In September 1942 Martha began teaching science at Thornburn Junior High, where she was taken under the wing(s) of more veteran teachers like Esther Ewald, her good friend and “hitchhiking buddy,” and Mr. Lauchner the Principal, a marvelous man—he taught me the little tricks of the trade.” After school and on Saturdays she worked on her master’s degree, taking classes at the University of Illinois. Martha contributed her share to the American war effort during the summer of 1944 by working as a hostess at an Urbana USO show. There she met a sailor from Florida named Murel Lewis, who was stationed at the Navy base in Champaign and attending a specialist training program at the University. As Martha put it: “We danced together, chatted together, and then got married.”
“He really had her walking in the clouds, too,” Esther Ewald would add.
To each other they must have appeared totally exotic—Murel the southern Baptist with the Byronic profile and head of dark curls; Martha the urbane college graduate with That Certain Chicago Sophistication. Murel was far from home, Martha “ready for marriage,” and in the heady wartime atmosphere their mutual exotic-appearing attraction turned rapidly into matrimony.
Joseph had always been consciously and deliberately overprotective of Martha; now she wanted to marry a sailor she barely knew. Did Joseph pound (or at least slap) the table and demand to know how Mr. Murel Lewis intended to support his beloved only daughter?
He did not. Joseph’s reaction was: “Even if it doesn’t last long, it’ll be a good experience for her.”
“He was probably so relieved I finally had a boyfriend that he didn’t want to say anything,” Martha would remark.
So on or about August 19, 1944, Martha Ehrlich and Murel Calvin Lewis were married in Chicago by a grumpy justice of the peace. The J.P. ‘s attitude during the hastily-performed ceremony gave the bride the giggles, which scandalized her mother, who elbowed the bride to make her stop. Joseph and Mathilda gave the newlyweds a set of silver and a pressure cooker, and Joseph got the Lewises a ten-dollar suite at the Ambassador East Hotel.
Martha and Murel then traveled to Wachula, Florida, to visit Murel’s parents. His father Calvin, a prison guard, accepted the marriage and made Martha feel welcome, or at least more so than did Murel’s mother, who was aghast that her son had married (of all people!) a Jew from Chicago. The elder Lewises lived in a one-room country shack without electricity or plumbing; Murel made Martha her own outhouse seat, and the junior Lewises honeymooned in the back of a pickup truck.
Returning to her own element in Champaign-Urbana, Martha received her Master of Science degree in October. Murel was able to attend this ceremony before being transferred to San Francisco, with the strong likelihood that he would then go overseas. But things did not work out for Murel; he was not sent overseas, nor did he become an officer and aviator as he had hoped. Around February 1945 Martha gave up her teaching job and went to join him in California, leaving her master’s diploma in Joseph’s safekeeping.
Her having chosen to leave the classroom was a decision which Joseph clearly seemed unable to fathom; but he tried coming to grips with it in a letter to his daughter, one of the very few he wrote in English:
1945 Feb. 13. Hello Martha! I know you was a Master, but still it was nice to see on paper. Valentine is an occasion to send something like this. I will save you this diploma with the others and someday you will take out from the safe to see it, or (I hope) someday maybe you want to use it. It will be always something for you, to depend on it. I know your ideas are all different now and I hope you get what you want, but we live in a strange, funny world. If it would happen, that the teacher overpower the woman in you, you can depend on your diplomas. Something else, if I won’t be here no more, and you would like to talk to me, ask your Master degree, she will give you always an answer, what to do, because I feel a little part of me is in your diploma. One thing more I want to see in my life, George’s diploma from the Eng. school. This must be all of our duty in the future. So long Martha, Love Popy.
At first the Lewises occupied a motel cabin in King City, California, southeast of Monterey. Sometime during the spring of 1945 Murel’s father was killed in a prison uprising, and Murel went to Florida to find out what had happened, insisting that Martha keep a shotgun to defend herself with while he was gone. She was uneasy having it, and gained no confidence after managing to accidentally shoot out a screen door and pepper the cars in the motel parking lot.
After Murel was discharged from the Navy he and Martha moved to Ferndale, Michigan, in suburban Detroit. Murel remained in the reserves and worked as a mechanic in the auto plants; Martha tried to get a new teaching job but was viewed as a “Navy wife” and therefore too transient to teach. So she fell back on her Walgreen’s experience and found work as a waitress and cashier in what she later termed “ill-fated places.”
Martha’s entire life had been directed toward education, first in becoming a teacher and then in being one. Now she was in a position where she could not teach—not even as a substitute, since she had never learned to drive and therefore could not get about town—and this led to great frustration, as it had with Joseph.
Moreover, in Ferndale she had no one to relate to in a way she understood. This emphatically included Murel’s widowed mother, who lived with them for a very brief period; Martha was thrown for a loop by Mrs. Lewis’s “strange little hillbilly Mammy Yokum habits,” like ignoring the hamper and stuffing her laundry under the bed instead.
Like many couples who had met and married during the war, Martha and Murel found themselves joined together without a whole lot in common or much to talk about. Martha patterned her married life after her mother’s, remembering that Mathilda never made waves or argued with Joseph, or at least never in front of the children. And the Lewises attempted to make marital progress the traditional way, by having children of their own; but in 1947 Martha miscarried.
Afterwards they decided to buy a trailer with friends from Ferndale, jackleg carpenter Howard Johnson and his wife Bobbi, and move together to Florida. They set up life in Miami where a big construction boom was going on. Murel got a job at the airport servicing planes for Eastern Airline at the Miami airport, keeping up his hopes of someday becoming a pilot by taking flying lessons. Joseph and Mathilda had resumed their annual winter vacation trips to St. Petersburg, which had lapsed during the war, and the Lewises were now able to join them and share some leisure time fishing. Joseph, though not a serious fisherman, enjoyed this sport (perhaps for its peace and quiet and chance to commune with Tampa Bay) and he and Mathilda would spend hours catching little fish, then throwing them back.
In Miami Martha remained a “transient Navy wife,” unable to find work as a teacher. She continued waitressing and cashiering “and I was good at it, too,” but remained less than happy.
As part of his freshman orientation at Illinois in the Fall of 1942, George took a battery of tests which resulted in his being placed in an accelerated chemistry course. “I started out like a house afire, and slowly began to disintegrate... I did so poorly that I got a D.” Like Martha five years earlier, George’s first semester of college was not a happy one; he discovered he had neither vocation nor genuine interest in chemical engineering. And at the semester’s end he had to tell Joseph (“which was not easy”) that, because of a too-low grade-point average, he had been dropped from the chemical engineering curriculum.
Promptly drafted after turning eighteen in January 1943, George was allowed to complete his second semester at Illinois. “Your past and present have been closely tied up with school,” Joseph had written in presenting George with his Scrapbook the previous Christmas, “and for the future... we wait to see.” They were not to wait long: in June 1943 Private George no-middle-name Ehrlich was out of school and in the Army.
There was another battery of tests to take at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, to determine selection for officer training. Some were told they could take further tests for aviation cadet training; George took them in order to get out of guard duty and KP. While he waited for the test results, most of Camp Grant was shipped out to Australia. George qualified for the aviation cadet appointment and was sent to Miami Beach for three months of basic training. Most of the pre-cadets were shipped out after basic; George and a few others went through more advanced training, then they all were shipped out—except for George, whose records had been misfiled. Once they were found, the Army seemed uncertain just what to do with Private Ehrlich.
He was finally sent to Henderson State Teachers College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, to undergo special college training for officer candidates. In February 1944 he moved on to the San Antonio classification center and took yet another battery of tests, this time to determine specialty training. 95% of aviation students wanted to become pilots, but George had no such yen; with a “Hooray” he wrote his parents that he had been classified to study navigation.
For the next three months George went through pre-flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio. Though now a full-fledged aviation cadet he spent no time in the air, but did get visited by an encyclopedia salesman wholly unable to step out of his memorized spiel. When George asked him questions about the Britannica, the salesman had to go back and recite until he came to the relevant answer. George bought the encyclopedia one volume at a time over the next eighteen months, having the books delivered to Chicago. Joseph found the Britannica vastly interesting and starting reading through it, from “A” on.
When the Navigation School at San Marcos Army Air Field announced the graduation of Class 44-47 N-6, George sent his parents a class photo with capsule descriptions of his fellow students. Himself he captioned: “His mother is famous for cookies.” News spread quickly at San Marcos when packages for Ehrlich arrived; Mathilda’s Hungarian “fancy cookies” always left the competition crumbling.
George was now an officer—A hadnagy úr (“Mr. Second Lieutenant”) to his father. He had taken a strange test in radar training, still “pretty hush-hush” at this time, and George was one of three who received Restricted Special Orders to undergo it. In February 1945 he completed his radar course, having struggled with temperamental equipment, and then got thirteen days of furlough in Chicago. Photos were taken of him in his officer’s uniform; when Martha saw them she burst into tears.
He joined the 315th Wing of the 20th Air Force in McCook, Nebraska. One B-29 wing was being made up to fly with specialized radar, and following a month’s training in Jamaica George’s crew picked up their plane. They were supposed to be the first in their squadron to go overseas but ended up among the last, since the authorities kept insisting that George’s records were not complete.
Finally his crew made it to Guam. It was the summer of 1945, and they assumed they would take part in the imminent invasion of Japan. George had just completed his first combat mission, a flight to Truk Atoll, when news came of the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima. The A-Bomb was said to have the power of 2,000 B-29 bombloads, which George’s crew had a hard time believing. Seven days later they flew a more conventional bombing mission to the north of Honshu; a day after that, Japan surrendered.
There was still plenty going on to keep George busy. In September he flew on a mercy mission to the Philippines, carting in Red Cross material for released prisoners. On the way back the crew encountered a typhoon, and when navigator George was able to get a fix on their position he found the plane had been thrown 750 miles offcourse. (The B-29 flying behind them was lost.) A month later he spent nine days at Iwo Jima with no gear; he, who had once refused to touch vegetables, would later say that World War Two had taught him to eat. Returning to Guam at the end of October, George was promoted to first lieutenant.
George began his trip home in April 1946 on an old-fashioned steamer to Saipan. From there he could have flown home, but opted instead for the S.S. Cape Mendocino, a troop ship captained by an ex-POW. It turned out to be a wretched ship and a grim voyage, including a stop in Honolulu to pick up a group of reform school students. After eighteen days, the “Mendocino Maru” arrived at last in San Francisco, and “if there was a welcoming band, it was gone.”
Discharged in June*, George returned to the University of Illinois as an architectural design major. He had taken a drafting class while still pursuing the chemical engineering curriculum, and had found it far more enjoyable than chemistry. Architecture was “kind of like engineering... professional, respectable, and it includes drafting.” With the G.I. Bill and three years of saved-up military pay, George was now economically independent and so attended the University year-round—winter, summer, and fall. “I actually had a hell of a good time going to school.” He met the local Unitarian minister, Phil Schug, whose church† ran a co-op food service of sorts on Sunday evenings; and although George did not become a church member he took part in these Sunday socials. At them he became close friends with Don and Marion Holshouser and others of their circle at the University.
It was not long before George found he was more interested in the history of architecture than in design. He asked Frank Roos, Head of the Illinois Art Department, about job prospects in the art history field; Roos was bluntly realistic about the lack of such, but at the same time encouraging. By 1948 George’s job prospects were becoming better defined: he was hired as a studio assistant in sculpture classes, and discovered that he enjoyed helping students with technical questions.
To aid his study of architecture he got his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, and learned how to develop his own film. He often took pictures in Chicago but it never occurred to him, then or later, to photograph his parents’s fur shop, their apartment at 1553 Devon, or the surrounding neighborhood; and in later years George would kick himself for not doing so. He visited his sister and brother-in-law in September 1948, taking many photos of booming Miami Beach and one—still being the incorrigible kid brother—of Martha’s rear end. (She captioned it “My Sister Fanny.”)
The Lewises now had their own tiny trailer at the Northwest Trailer Park, and commuted to and fro by motorcycle. Murel was still working as a mechanic and hoping to become a pilot, but George got the impression that he really had no practical plan for achieving this dream other than to take lessons and work at the airport. There remained the idea that a child would make a difference, and here was a dream with a definite chance for practical achievement: in the fall of 1948, Martha became pregnant.
When George returned to Illinois he realized he had accumulated nearly two hundred hours of coursework, having indulged himself with extra classes in sculpture and art history; but he was still semesters away from earning any established degree. He set his sights on becoming a Bachelor of Science in the Division of Special Services for War Veterans, and received this degree the following June. Joseph’s graduation present was $200 to finance a trip to New York.
On the same day that George graduated—June 11, 1949—Sherry Renée Lewis was born at Edgewater Hospital in Miami.
1949 June 15. My Darling little granddaughter! You made us the happiest and proudest grandparents in the world, by arriving to be part of our family four days ago. We love you with all our hearts even without seeing you yet. But your dear parents promised to bring you to Chicago, as soon as you are old enough to travel without doing any harm to your health. We are looking forward for that time which we all hope it won’t be too long. I hope when you see this, you won’t think it silly to write to you when you are so young, and couldn’t know much about anything. But if you grow up to be something like your Mother, you will like it, just like she did her diary Grandpa and I started for her just about the time she was as old as you are now, and presented it when she was fifteen years old on her birthday. She loved it, although she could not read it herself as it was written in “Hungarian.” But now that you are “born” I am going to translate it to English so some time you might be able to read it, and see how much we loved her too. Here together is all the letters your dear Mother wrote since your birth, I saved them all to form a nice diary for you from your early childhood. Hope you will like what we had to say about you and your progress of life. Your loving Grandma Mathilda Ehrlich.
“Oh how good it feels to no longer resemble the rear view of a baby hippopotamus,” Martha wrote in one of eleven letters she sent her parents in the next six weeks. Sherry Renée’s progress was spelled out minutely, sometimes clinically, and once in awhile liltingly:
She smiled today for the first time that it wasn’t a grimace but a real smile. Murel was tweaking her nose and poking at her chin this morning, and she enjoyed it so she broke into a wide toothless grin each time. I had to stop my work and go hug Murel, he was so tickled at her and proud, and was so cute. He’s going to be like you Dad—strict and firm in his ideas about raising her, but he’ll be a very proud and loving father. We’re so happy—with each other and with Sherry, that I can hardly wait till you come down and can share it with us. I’m a very fortunate person indeed...
News galore today. Stinky grins like a “chessy-cat” now when we play with her, and I know for sure she can see. Her eyes and head follow a moving rattle, or the drape swaying in a breeze, and I can no longer sneak up on her to see if she’s asleep or uncovered. She sees me and wants immediately to be picked up. Which incidentally led to her first scolding and “potchy-potchy.” She simply would not be quiet and go to sleep, and yet could hardly keep her eyes open. Pick her up and she’d snuggle down in my arms and go right to sleep. Put her down and she’d scream herself purple—with rage—not one tear. So, says mama, if the young lady is old enough to get mad, she’s old enough to get mad at. So she got a couple of sharp pops in the spot nature intended and I scolded in a stern voice. She was so surprised she stopped howling, and while getting over the surprise, she fell asleep. Peace and quiet reigned supreme. Five weeks old...
Sherry’s first checkup left no doubt that she was the daughter of the little girl who had bargained with the Kolozsvár doctor not to look into her throat with a spoon. The Florida pediatrician checked Sherry’s “heart, lungs, ears, etc., and finally throat. When Dr. finally removed the tongue-depressor from her mouth she was so mad she would have sworn if she weren’t a lady. But she got even with him a few minutes later—she baptized him, but good.” In August Martha took Sherry to visit Chicago, and on the 19th Mathilda wrote:
Dearest Sherry Renée! You and your Mommy are with us for ten days now, it’s your first visit and you are only two months old. But what a joy you are to us already. I don’t know how we will live after you go back to your Daddy, and Grandpa and me have to stay here in Chicago alone. We will miss you little as you are you like him too. Whenever you see him you smile at him and he’s as happy to see that as can be. He told me yesterday your smiles are worth a million dollars to him... We have so much fun watching you when you are awake, your Grandfather can sit by you for hours and enjoy every second of it...
You were out on the porch, Grandfather was watching your antics, you were lying on your tummy and didn’t see him, but when he laughed out loud you started to smile too although you did not see but recognized his voice and he was tickled silly for that. We both have lots of fun with you, you are a darling and so good too, sleeping all night almost, just whimpering a little when feeding time comes. I gave you a bath alone today the first time and how you love to be in the bathtub. It was a lovely experience for me. But Grandfather helps your Mommy every day while she bathes you. Your Uncle George came home too to see you and he helped once also, he received you after the bath, he loves you too although he doesn’t say it with words, but we can tell.
1949 Aug. 30. We are alone again as your Mommy took you home on the 27th. We all five of us drove out to the airport and the three of us watched till you boarded the plane and it took off. Grandfather and I felt very lonesome, but George was with us and he drove our car home. We are glad at least he’ll be home for another week so at least he is here yet. He had to admit it before you went home that you are a very unusually bright baby for your age... Now we are like to push the time so Christmas would come sooner because Grandfather and I will count the days till we can see you again right after New Years. Till then, all our love and blessing goes with you wherever you are. Grandma Ehrlich.
Around this time Joseph and Mathilda finally bought a new car. They had gotten their one and only Plymouth in 1941, and when the war had dried up the auto market it had had to last the Ehrlichs for the duration. Now they returned to Chevrolets, and the one-and-only Plymouth went to George. He was back in Champaign-Urbana, beginning work on his graduate degree, but with wheels of his own it was easier for him to go up to Chicago for an occasional visit. He was at 1553 Devon about a month after Martha and Sherry had returned to Miami. The phone rang, George answered, and Martha was glad of that because she had news to announce: “Murel and I are breaking up.”
At first there was dead silence from George, and when he went to tell his parents it was with an absolutely white face—“probably because I was trying to figure out how to break it to them. ‘Divorce’ was not a word in their vocabulary.” But Joseph and Mathilda took the news calmly enough; they told Martha to come home, and they would take care of her.
The Lewises had never communicated well, and Martha’s attempts to emulate her mother’s make-no-waves style had not helped. When displeased Martha had a tendency to clam up, letting resentments grow and build and never giving them any ventilation. “And you can’t make a marriage on non-talk where you bottle things up,” she would later observe. Something sparked a blowup, and with it the breakup; Martha cut her losses and returned to Chicago with the only things from her five-year marriage that she considered rightfully hers: the pressure cooker, the set of silver—and Sherry Renée.
Proceed to Chapter 16 of To Be Honest
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* George agreed to join the
Reserves for five years, although no provisions were made for radar
† George's initial contact with Phil Schug and the Unitarian church was through involvement with the Student Community Interracial Committee (SCIC), which was to accomplish a great deal during the later 1940s toward enforcing equal accommodations in Champaign-Urbana.
Last updated August 22, 2009
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