September 21 2019
“Last Night in Exposition Park”
by Paul Saevig
At 10 PM on Saturday night, four young woman sat Indian style in the big bedroom they shared. They wore pajamas, or nightgowns, and robes, and listened to the big band radio broadcast from the Top of the Mark in San Francisco. They ate chocolates from a box one girl got from her date last night, and sipped bottles of Coca Cola, Hire’s Root Beer and Vernor’s Ginger Ale from the ice box in the kitchen downstairs. All the Gamma Phi Beta girls had traveled in the USC bus to see the Trojan football team wallop the California Bears yesterday afternoon, except for one girl who went with her date to the Mocambo nightclub on the Sunset Strip, and all the travelers were dog- tired.
Still, two girls who lived in this room went downtown today to see “Suspicion” with Cary Grand and Joan Fontaine at the State Theater on South Broadway, one drove to visit her parents in Glendale, and the other spent the day pretending to study in the Doheny Library, where she met good-looking guys from Bakersfield and Santa Ana, water polo players both, and she’d heard they were great dancers, too. Three of the girls wore their hair in curlers as well, and three of them smoked cigarettes. They are careful to tap the ashes into a Cocoanut Grove ashtray from the Ambassador Hotel where the debutante society liked to hold dances.
“This is boring,” said Eunice Maureen Conklin, a freshman English major from Glendale, believed to be the best gin rummy player in the house. She looked for another Bordeaux chocolate and finding none, frowned.
“Oh, I adore this song!” said Thelma Catherine Margate, a freshman French major from San Francisco who played violin. She cocked her head to listen and closed her almond shaped light blue eyes. Without pin curls tonight, her black hair fell midway down her back, and she was said to resemble actress Merle Oberon. She’d been to the Mocambo and refused an offer to dance from a young actor named John Garfield.
“I still feel a little green at the gills from the lobster I ate in Oakland,” said Pamela Ann Dunnally, a freshman Accounting major from San Bernardino and daughter of a county judge. She pressed her fingers against her head and touched her stomach afterwards.
“We drove out to Mt. Lowe,” said Alma Margaret Blalock, a freshman pre-medicine student from Salinas, California. “Unimaginable railroad track across thin air! Her brown eyes danced at the memory and the other girls smiled.
“I swear, you’d like to marry a mountaineer and live at the base of Mount Everest, Alma,” Eunice chided her, and the others nodded in mock-certainty.
“Well, if I could deliver all the local Sherpa babies, maybe!” Alma Blalock retorted.
Outside their window, the sycamore trees of 28th Street grew damp with mist and the sparrows settled in for the night. There were couples strolling hand in hand, illuminated by the soft street lights, and a couple of Tau Epsilon boys played catch with a football seven houses down. At the sorority for Jewish girls, they were playing Charades and howling with laughter. The air was crisp despite the scent of automobile exhaust, back yard incinerators, and the musk of the Lily of the Valley flowers next door. The girls wondered about the conceited Kappa Phi Delta guys who said they’d go slumming on Central Avenue at the Negro nightclubs, and Thelma knew enough to realize they put themselves in danger. The little steak shack on Hoover smelled good from the house, and there would be alley cats and tomcats fighting and mating in the alley behind the Gamma house this morning.
These were nice girls, well bred by good families, sent to USC to meet a husband and acquire an education. If they minded their Ps and Qs and applied themselves in class, they’d all have June or August weddings after they graduated, and enjoy honeymoons at the Royal Hawaiian, or maybe Del Monte up the coast, or even the Grand Canyon or the Palace in San Francisco. They kept their wardrobes in order, worked carefully on their makeup and remembered to make their eyes smile at all times. Alma was the top student in her organic chemistry, differential equations and physics classes, but made sure to miss enough questions on her exams so as not to beat every single boy in class.
“I wish there were something to do!” Thelma snapped, and pressed her Chesterfield out in the ash tray. She was a tall brunette with almond eyes, wore clothes gloriously, and was rumored not to be a virgin. She worried that practicing her violin only two hours a day was insufficient, but what was she supposed to do, practice in a warehouse?Already she’d gone out with members of the basketball, tennis, track, baseball and swimming teams, and pronounced them every one jerks afterwards. She didn’t like people to put their hands on her. Only her best friend Alma Blalock knew that Thelma suffered from chronic depression and saw an elderly Austrian psychiatrist on Wilshire Boulevard twice a week. She wrote poetry and short stories for the school literary magazine, and plotted to meet her idol Thomas Mann the German novelist at his home in Pacific Palisades, except that on many days, her depression even in a mild state left her unable to do more than attend her classes and eat her meals. Her parents wanted her to rest for a season at a sanitarium in Switzerland, and Thelma had begun to consider the idea. Secretly, she found USC vulgar and even somewhat common, and would have preferred to attend Mills College or Lone Mountain, except that her father insisted she go to a college where there were men. She wondered if he worried she’d become a Lesbian, and she hated the crude, casual manner of Southern California and the infinite sloppiness of Los Angeles. Only because she was afraid to get an apartment of her own did she remain in the sorority, and Alma Blalock told her she ought to transfer to Bryn Mar or Radcliffe or Smith or Wellesley. What Thelma wanted most at the moment was a swarthy Spanish matador lover and an opulent apartment in Paris to entertain him. Her father was rich but not that rich, and as soon as her mother’s mother died, Thelma would blow this town, being the old lady’s favorite. Meanwhile she went to classes and suffered what she considered dimwitted retired Protestant ministers who lectured on Shakespeare and Milton in dead Midwestern voices that made her cringe. “You’re too hard on people,” Alma told her, and Thelma wondered what was wrong with that. The boys she met were clumsy apes and always tried to take advantage. She had obtained a small Beretta and concealed it in her coat.
But Pamela Dunnally idolized her, Thelma. Prone to chubbiness, Pamela saw her friend as chic, gifted, and cosmopolitan. Her own father was an orange rancher originally from Tabor, Iowa who’d been appointed judge and still mopped up his gravy with a biscuit and pronounced “Hawaii” to rhyme with “Ha-GOYA”. The way Thelma smoked was as sultry as Carole Lombard, and every boy on campus wanted to take her out. Pamela believed that by staying near Thelma and learning from her, some of that magnetism would rub off on her, so she, Pamela, never finished a plate of food, made herself walk completely around the campus three times a day, and read Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the school library. Thelma had taken her to buy clothes at Bullock’s Wilshire and Saks, and managed to smile in approval of Pamela in jersey, damask, darling cotton shirtwaists, a fetching lime bolero suit, and dressy blazers and plaid skirts. Her father refused to pay the bill until her mother coaxed him to.
Pamela had her eye on a debonair Jewish boy from Denver, a pre-law student named Marvin Kirsch. He was in her World Civilization class and her girlfriends said he gave her the look. She ran into him at the Student Union when all the tables were full and she offered him a place to sit. He surprised her with his high-pitched voice, but his arms and hands were covered by sexy black hair, even the top of his fingers. They talked about their class and she noticed he wore bay rum, her favorite scent for men. He told her he took flying lessons in Santa Monica and wanted to become a pilot. She hoped he would invite her to fly with him, but that would be a ways off. When he got up to leave, he smiled at her and his dark eyes twinkled. He was a catch!
Alma Blalock was the oldest child of four sisters and a brother, so she knew what was going on. She felt protective of her roommates, and felt bad when they were hurt. She longed to take care of babies and little children, to stop their crying and make them smile, and to watch over the sick ones while they lay ill in the hospital. Of course the other girls called her St. Alma, but she was the one they loved. Alma would let you borrow her scarf, her umbrella, her favorite fountain pen, her history homework, and loan you $2 for lunch, and give you a lift to the train station or the dentist’s office. Her mother made all her clothes, and many no longer fit Alma, while other items were dowdy and drab. She danced awkwardly and her small talk was too predictable, because she was nervous around men. If she kept growing she would be six feet or more, and she even had a faint mustache she needed to remove with depilatory cream regularly. Thelma the Cat thought to herself that Alma would make a typical lady doctor and wished she could help her.
The girls finished the chocolates and Alma neatly placed the crumpled wrappings and the box in a paper bag she’d saved, and carried the package to the hallway dumbwaiter to the basement trash bin. She ran into Ruth Nora Bridges, a sweet girl who lived next door and pretended not to be crying. Alma offered her a Pall Mall and they sat down in the stairwell to smoke.
“What happened?” Alma began.
“Oh, nothing, really,” Ruth began. “I went bowling with some of the kids and we had a snack at Pig N’ Whistle. I lost every game by quite a lot, but I don’t claim to be very coordinated. I sat next to Mort Sullivan, the one I told you about. The big wheel from Huntington Beach, the varsity swimmer. Gosh, is he ever a cool drink of water, you know? He’s always been nice, but he never really talked to me before tonight. He must have heard my grandpa owns an avocado ranch in Fallbrook and asked me all about it, you know? He asked if Grandpa has horses, and how many acres it was, and if he has only Hass avocados. How would I know? He was really interested, and he has dreamy hazel eyes. All the chlorine from the pool turns his hair blond, and he surfs, too. It seemed like we were the only ones there, talking. When it was time to go, he offered me a ride back, and he drives a nice big Dodge sedan. I think his father owns a dealership. Well, naturalIy, wondered if he might do something, you know. I wished I could have brushed my teeth, at least. Instead of starting back, he asked if I’d like to see Griffith Park. Well, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, and I know what that means. Before I could even answer he was heading north on Western, you know, and I just couldn’t ask him turn around. I couldn’t. I wish I had now.”
She cried some more and Alma waited, and the stairway was cool and drafty.
“Sure enough, he found one of the Lover’s Lanes to park, and the whole city was spread out below us, with all the lights. He even pointed out a couple of places, whispering, you know? The Richfield Building was one. Then he was smooth. He just leaned over and started kissing me. So ..”
When Ruth could speak again, she said, “He tore my sweater. He didn’t stop. I asked him, ‘Mort, please, no, c’mon,’ but he didn’t stop. I was afraid he was going to rape me. Then he said, ‘Let’s get in the back seat.’ That was too much and I said, ‘No!’ He slammed his hand on the dash board so hard I thought he’d break it! He started breathing hard and really snorting, like an angry bull, you know? I had my hand on the door handle, ready to jump out. Then all of a sudden he said, ‘All right, then!’ and started the engine. He drove down the hills so fast, and down Los Feliz and Western, all the way to Jefferson, much too fast, and then stopped in front of our house for me to get out. Without saying a word. He didn’t even look over at me.”
“What a rat.”
“Then he burned rubber down to Hoover.”
Alma held Ruth, who’d stopped crying. In a minute, Joyce Otterbein from across the hall came down and said, “Oh, I’m sorry!” as she passed them.
“It’s one of the nice sweaters I bought at Bullocks Wilshire,” Ruth said.
“Maybe there’s a way to get his money for a replacement,” Alma said grimly.
For some reason that made Ruth laugh, and Alma joined her as they went back to the hallway. She found the other girls acting wistful in their bedroom, and Alma brought out a fifth of bourbon she kept under her sweaters in a drawer. When they all had clean glasses, she poured a nip for them and they drank to Luck. When Thelma asked Ruth what was wrong, the girl blurted that a guy ripped her sweater open. When Eunice mentioned his name, Thelma’s features darkened and she was silent. They had another glass and the room fell silent.
They believed that tens of thousands of people their age were out in the city enjoying the most wonderful time of their lives tonight why they moped around in a sorority bedroom and twiddled their fingers.
“What would you like to be doing some day? I mean twenty or thirty years from now?” Pamela asked them all, and they seemed to have given it quite a bit of thought. They looked around and Eunice answered first.
“I’d like to be married with at least two children, at least one of each. Faithful husband, of course, he doesn’t have to be Clark Gable, kind hearted, and I’d be teaching high school English,” she began. “Maybe not too far from the mountains because I love snow and mountain air. Quiet neighborhood, size of town not too important, but not a big city. I’d have plenty of time to read and knit, and cook. We’d all go to the movies at least twice a month. I’d like it if we could all sing, too, and at least a couple of us play instruments. Close family is the main thing,” she concluded.
“That sounds like something that’ll happen,” Alma said. “For me, I’d like to be a pediatrician in a busy hospital, big town or city. Kids of all kinds, maybe a hospital for the poor, Negro kids and Mexicans, Indian kids, too. I want to make sure they get a healthy start in life. It might be ideal if I married a doctor but it’s not essential, that is if I can find a husband at all. I’d like to be somewhere where the rest of my family aren’t too far away, too, especially my mom and dad. I want to learn how to play tennis and be competent at it. That’s it for starters,” she said with a smile.
“Why not? Hell, yeah,” Thelma said, and it appeared tears had welled in her eyes.
“Sure! Good plan!” Pamela said, and then Thelma rose to put on a coat and went to the door.
“I need to get some fresh air, everybody,” she said, and left.
“Where is she going?” Ruth asked.
“It’s OK. She needs to be by herself sometimes. Ruth? What about you?” Alma asked.
“Well,” Ruth began slowly, as if she’d given the question extensive consideration.
Alma poured everyone else another drink of bourbon, a big one.
“I’d like to have a family, first of all,” Ruth continued. “A good husband who’d be a good father to our children. I’ll like to live on a sunny street on a hill where we could look out and see the ocean on clear days. I might be a teacher, or a nurse, or maybe a secretary or store clerk. As long as I had time for my family. I’d hope there would be horses and plenty of trees, oak, pepper, cedar, pine, palm trees, jacaranda, bougainvillea, ash, elm, locust. A little market in our neighborhood, where we could go and get there quickly. A nice barn or building where we could meet, square dance, hold parties. It would be nice to have a hospital nearby. A drug store, a beauty shop. Plenty of parks and fields where the kids can play baseball. You know, space to breathe, and even with all the people, quiet and peaceful. I’d encourage my children to take piano lessons, dancing lessons, tennis, golf, swimming, cooking, even foreign languages. Whatever they were interested in, but I wouldn’t force them. I’d hope that we were friends with our neighbors, and have them over for drinks and dinner, you know. Barbecues. Swim parties. Christmas parties. The men would play Horseshoes. Maybe we’d have a neighborhood parade every year. That would be fun. Just so we all got along, you know? No bickering. A nice little neighborhood like that.”
Ruth’s soft, steady voice a had a hypnotic effect on the other girls, along with the bourbon. Halfway through her recital, they’d all begun to yawn and stretch. They’d emptied the bottle and it was late.
As if on cue, Mrs. Cudahy the house mother came through the hall, rapping her knuckles on each door and calling, “Time for bed, girls! Good night!”
They had a lot to think about, too. One by one they got ready and climbed into their bunk beds. Alma turned off the light and the radio, and there was stillness, except for when automobile exhaust pipes backfired on South Figueroa like gunshots. Before long they all slept.
Pamela was a light sleeper and awakened when a driver on 28th Street honked his horn, then she couldn’t return to sleep herself. She sat by the window on the front lawn and stared through the darkness of the trees toward the hills in the far distance. When Alma began to snore, as she always did, Eunice arose and got her cigarettes. She saw Pamela and they went outside together.
“You feel OK?” Pamela asked her.
“What do you mean?” Eunice replied.
“Well, it’s just kind of funny. Not funny ha-ha. Strange, I guess. Maybe it was just what happened last night,” Pamela said.
“Well, kind of. I do. Like something in the air.”
“That’s what I mean. Like something’s wrong but we don’t know what.”
“Yeah. But it’s probably nothing,”
They went downstairs and found girls in the kitchen, eating slices of peach pie from last night, so they had some, too, with cold milk.
“Did you hear the firecrackers?” a girl from Monrovia asked them.
“When? No,”Pamela said.
“Couple hours ago.”
“Exhaust backfires on Figueroa?”
“No, this was over on Hoover.”
Pamela felt sleepy again and went back up with Eunice. They slept till breakfast at 8 AM.
Most of the girls went in car pools to their churches. A few stayed at home, or walked onto campus. Thelma joined a foursome for bridge, and they sat on the patio with shade from an elm tree.
Engrossed in the game a while later, they heard a scream and a girl named Dorothea from Pomona ran out yelling that the Japanese were bombing, Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. They all crowded around the two radios downstairs as the announcer read news when it came in. Many of the girls held each others’ hands so tight their fingers hurt, and others cried. Still others took on blank, numb expressions, and some staggered away to sit, stand or kneel.
Everybody on the West Coast expected Japanese planes would be here any minute to bomb Los Angeles and San Francisco first, the everywhere else. By the time Civil Defense wardens made their way to the Gamma Phi Beta house, there were hundreds of cars parked along 28nd Street from Hoover to Figueroa, where parents came to take their daughters and sons home from the sororities and fraternities. Many kids had already left, and any of the rest not leaving were ordered to follow the warden into basements on the block, separated by sex. There was forced merriment from the more outgoing girls, but everyone was terribly scared.
No one knew where Thelma was and there was no time to search for her. Alma worried her friend might have taken her own life, but didn’t say a word to anyone.
The next morning, the presidents from every house on the street carried out the first blackout regulations, showing everybody how to cover all the windows in thick black drapes as soon as it got dark.
Starting early that same morning, hundreds of streets across Los Angeles stood still with jammed traffic. USC men volunteering to join the service immediately commandeered the J-Line streetcar to the draft board offices in downtown Los Angeles. The college administration canceled classes until Wednesday, and Eunice invited Pamela, Alma and Ruth to stay at her parents’ home in Glendale.
When the girls returned to the campus they found new faces everywhere, including adults who re-assigned classrooms for new uses, coordinated the enrollment of new students in uniform, and what seemed like a thousand other activities. The anxiety everyone felt thawed enough to take on a coating of resolve and optimism. Movie stars from the major studios came by every afternoon to sing, dance, tell jokes and entertain the students. Military men, some barely older than the students, gave speeches explaining what would happen nest and how to be safe.
On Friday morning, Alma noticed a one-inch article on the bottom of page 9 of the morning Herald stating police had found the dead body of Morton Sullivan, 20, of 687 Pecan Avenue, Huntington Beach, in an alley behind the 600 block of South Catalina Street, on the morning of December 7 at 1:22 AM. The deceased had gunshot wounds in his chest and torso. He was described as a USC student and member of the varsity swim team. Police had no suspects. No services had been announced.
Alma accepted the news at face value and tried not to consider it any further. She knew a death of that nature would ordinarily be front page news. What was done was done.
There was so much going on, and so much on everyone’s mind. Fears of local Japanese attack faded somewhat but strict blackout policies remained. Rationing would begin soon. There was more talk every hour of rounding up all the Japanese and either placing them in prison or in a safe place where they would not be harmed. Attacks on Japanese property, businesses and individuals occurred around California but were kept to a minimum.
Pamela was the first of her friends to decide she needed to leave USC. Two of her brothers had enlisted in the United States Marine and the other was a junior in high school. That left her mother and father alone with him and Pamela baby sister, Irene. They needed help.
The girls all gathered in the dining room to sing tearful songs about how they’d miss Pamela. She was the first hero of the war they knew. They made her promise she’d return to finish her degree the moment the war ended, but none of them believed that would happen, at least not so simply. Her dad came in a 1938 Chrysler and helped her pack her luggage, and they all cheered and waved when Mr. Dunnally drove Pamela east to Figueroa and back home.
Alma heard about a brand new program at Stanford where qualified undergraduates could apply to a special two year medical school program, running twelve months a year. As it so happened, her Aunt Mildred was married a Stanford man, a banker in San Jose, and he pulled strings, and within two days, Alma was admitted. She had to leave within an hour to board a train at Union Station. Eunice drove her, “like a mad woman” and Alma promised to write.
Ruth felt empty losing her friends this way, and decided to transfer to a nursing program at St. Vincent Hospital, 3rd & Alvarado. The nursing students lived n a dormitory on South Lake Street and walked to the hospital together every morning at 6 AM. She liked it immediately and soon rose to the top of her class. If she could work at the edge of a combat zone, that would be her preference.
Only Eunice from their group remained to hear Mrs. Cudahy two weeks after the attack, when she announced to all the girls that “poor” Thelma had suffered a complete nervous collapse due to personal problems and the shock and stress of the Jap attack. She had somehow managed to drive herself to her aunt’s house in Hancock Park, where she went to bed immediately. In the morning she asked for a plate of strawberries with wheat toast and a glass of milk, to be sent to the gazebo by the rose garden in the back yard. When the maid returned for the dissed and mentioned that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, Thelma returned to her bedroom where she swallowed a quantity of sleeping pills that left her unconscious. The maid discovered an hour later on the floor, and called an ambulance to rush Thelma to Good Samaritan Hospital on Wilshire where her stomach was pumped and she soon rested comfortably, if depressed and forlorn. The next morning at 9 AM she was released with her physician’s approval and subsequently flown by private plain to a sanitarium in Marin County, where her psychiatrist prescribed a prolonged rest.
Eunice felt both stunned and not at all surprised. She could not believe the part about the sanitarium but neither could she deny. Anything at all under the heavens seemed possible with Thelma Wingate. Eunice simply did not know what to think, and wondered if she’d ever see or hear about Thelma again.
USC, UCLA, Loyola, Pepperdine and all the colleges soon expanded to unheard of size. American young men in every uniform walked over their sidewalks, lawns, hills and halls, into their classrooms and laboratories, and later with judicious speed, went on to their next assignments, stateside, in the Pacific, in England, in North Africa, in Alaska and elsewhere.
America had gone to war.
Marvin Kirsch from Denver completed an ROTC course in 1943 and was assigned to the Santa Ana Army Air Base in Orange County where he underwent initial training as a pilot, and later flew Grumman F4F Hellcat and F6F Hellcat carrier-based fighter aircraft throughout the Pacific Theatre of war. He sustained a minor shoulder wound from Japanese fire during the Battle of Okinawa, and returned to the USA to recover and train pilots. After his discharge in 1946, he attended USC law school and later began practice in Beverly Hills. In 1947 he married a 20th Century Fox starlet named Amanda Ashbury and by 1950 they had two sets of twins. He became a prominent entertainment attorney, and made national news in 1957 when he rescued a teenaged girl swimming one hundred yards off Malibu and panicking in heavy surf. Photos of Marvin in his swimming suit, dripping wet and grinning were published in the United States and Europe. Over the next six months, he received over five thousand fan letters, and had to endure considerable needling from his fellow attorneys and not a few judges. He and Amanda divorced in 1961 and Marvin later married a Mexican heiress from Guadalajara. In 1979, they retired to a horse ranch on the island of Kauai, where Marvin wrote a series of best-selling adventure novels about mercenary pilots in South America, Australia and Africa. He owned a number of costly European sports cars, and in 1986, he died when his 1966 Lamborghini Miura went off the road on Federal Highway No. 80 between Lagos de Moreno and Guadalajara and Santa Cruz de las Flores. Local officials ruled the death an accident.
Pamela Dunnally ran her parents’ house in San Bernardino, fixed lunch for her sister and brother every day and volunteered with the American Red Cross. In 1944, she married Dr. Lamar Holdren, M.D., a surgeon assigned to the March Army Airfield nearby. After the war they moved to Yorba Linda and had the first of their five children, and in 1958, Lamar accepted a position at the new St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton. Pamela was pregnant with her fourth child and they moved into a house off Valencia Mesa. Ten years later, Pamela completed her master’s degree in Speech Pathology at Cal State Fullerton and found a position as a stuttering specialist at a clinic in East Whittier. The Holdrens have a weekend home in San Clemente and enjoy paddle boarding, scuba diving, building driftwood furniture and Northern Italian cooking.
Alma Blalock was awarded her Doctor of Medicine diploma in January 1944 and sent to the 95th Evacuation Hospital in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In late 1946 she enrolled at the UCLA Hospital and completed her residence in pediatrics. She joined a practice in San Leandro and met Edward Poincare, a classical French horn player with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Eventually they had two children, and for a while Edward toured Europe and Asia with the orchestra four months a year. By 1992, Alma accepted a position as a professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medical Center. She and Edward live in Portola Valley where they own horses, dogs and box tortoises, enjoy folk dancing and make their own pasta.
Eunice Conklin finished her degree in English at USC and added a master’s degree. In 1946, she married the Reverend Harold J. Sheldon, a young Presbyterian minister in Ventura. She and Harold remained in Ventura for three years, and then moved to San Ramon, California, where he became the pastor of a new congregation. Their three sons and one daughter were born there, and all eventually attended Stanford. In 1976, they moved to Corona Del Mar, California, where Harold took a position with a leading real estate firm and also led seminars in comparative religion at UC Irvine. Eunice began teaching freshman English at a new high school in Irvine, and retired after twenty-five years. When Harold died of a coronary thrombosis in 1992, Eunice volunteered with an organization that sent American teachers to work in schools in Uganda. Eunice stayed five years, returned to Southern California, and at age 87, entered Morningside of Fullerton, a scenic, maintenance-free senior living retirement community, where she lives today.
In March 1942, the Navy Corps of Nurses assigned Ruth Bridges to service in the Philippines. She was one of the many nurses called the Angels of Bataan, and participated in the evacuation from Corregidor on USS Spearfish (SS-190). Later she served on USS Relief (AH-1) during the Okinawa campaign and the return of American prisoners of war from Japanese-occupied China. She eventually met Captain James T. Phelge, a naval aviator, and after the war they married and settled in Ojai, California. Eventually they had six children: two boys and four girls. Ruth earned her teaching credential and taught biology at a local high school until 1962, when she re-entered the navy and worked at the Station Hospital, Naval Support Activity, Saigon and later at Kien Giang Province in the Mekong Vietnam. By 1967, she was with Naval Support in Da Nang. During the Tet Offensive of February 1968, Ruth was at the Da Nang Air Base and died during North Vietnamese shelling. Two of her sons became medical doctors, a psychiatrist and an orthopedic surgeon. Her husband never married, became a Pan-Am pilot, and later studied Buddhism in Nepal.
Thelma Wingate began her service as an Allied spy in Amsterdam in February 1942. Posing as an expatriate from an American family that owned tin mines in Venezuela, she entered the local social scene and soon entertained high ranking officers in the Gestapo. She was able to transmit valuable information to couriers who sent it along to Allied intelligence in London until January 1943, when her identity was compromised and she fled to British-held Egypt. She underwent a complete makeover, refreshed her Spanish, and made her appearance in neutral Seville in the guise of a courtesan. She soon made the acquaintance of a Wehrmacht colonel on temporary assignment recruiting Spanish pilots, and when he subsequently returned to Marseilles, Thelma became his mistress. She cooperated with the local Resistance and eventually contributed intelligence useful in planning the invasion of Normandy.
One month before the German surrender, however, she was betrayed by a partisan and held captive in the basement of the Hotel Terminus in Lyon, headquarters of the local Gestapo. For three days and nights, she was brutally tortured, leaving her deaf in one ear from truncheon blows, but she would not confess or share information with her captors. When she slipped into a coma, she was left for dead and liberated troops in the 36th Division, U.S. Army. She recuperated in a Scotland hospital, and went to Nuremberg in 1946 to testify to investigators in the war crimes hearings.
Afterwards she went to Zurich where she studied Analytic Psychology with Carl Jung and his associates. In 1951, she returned to the United States and opened an office in Santa Barbara. She became Thelma Soulet, taking her mother’s maiden name. Soon she saw forty patients a week and hired an assistant, a Polish analytic psychologist who’d survived the death camp of Auschwitz. Thelma lived quietly by herself and three Lakeland terriers near Gaviota Pass, and resumed playing the violin. In 1966, a cancerous growth was discovered in her right breast, and she traveled to the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla for a controversial surgery where only the growth itself was removed. After ten, twenty, and thirty years she remained cancer-free, and believed the disease was gone. In 1990 she became interested in Plein Air painting and traveled when she could to study with a teacher in Laguna Beach. When arthritis made it impossible for her to sit with a patient, she finally moved to a cliff-top home in Moss Beach, three hundred feet from where actress Bette Davis had once lived. That amused her.
She was seventy-three years old now, and a Dutch documentary journalist discovered recently released OSS records hinting Thelma’s service during the war, with rumors of photographs. She refused his interview requests for five years, including when he threatened to leak her story to tabloid journals.
She was too old and ill now to fight back, with her emphysema, digestive problems and bouts of depression. Finally friends helped her leave Santa Barbara quietly and without notice and she began living at a Roman Catholic convent near the Mexican border in Arizona. She later mailed brief handwritten letters of apology to her patients. Reports were that she enjoyed the solitude and serenity, rallied briefly and gained several pounds, and after three years, died at age eighty in 2001. She left her entire estate to the nuns and requested there would be no obituary, service or notice of any kind of her death.
In August 2013, Pamela Dunnally and her daughter drove down to pick up Eunice Conklin in the Sunny Hills neighborhood Fullerton so they could attend a USC reunion on campus, where Alma and her husband would meet them, after flying down from Portola Valley. The three old friends strolled over the campus, Eunice in her wheelchair, visited 28th Street and the old Gamma Phi Beta House. They absorbed their own surprise and vague sadness at the passage of seventy years and the patina of a human lifetime of change everywhere. They were assisted by attractive young students of all colors, grim Los Angeles Police, and bubbly sorority guides. A handsome Mexican-American police captain with steel gray hair and matching mustache warned them gently enough not to “wander” off campus, and they understood the neighborhood was a high crime area.
Students rode bicycles everywhere on campus, half the buildings looked impossibly new, and the friends found their perspective puzzling everywhere. They found a reception at Seeley Mudd Hall next to Jefferson Boulevard, now a multiple-lane highway. In the courtyard they’d always loved, they sat and sipped champagne next to the wizened olive trees.
Alma monitored Eunice and held her hand until her friend laughed and asked her to stop.
“There are worse things than dropping dead at Troy, if it comes to that, Alma,” she said.
They remembered old friends and events, and there were silences. They would not pass this way again.
“I forgot to say Joyce Otterbein died last winter,” Pamela announced.
“Oh, I remember Joyce. Down the hall. Mathematics major,” Alma remarked.
“She was a good kid,” Eunice said. “A brain. From Honolulu.”
“Her dad was killed on the USS California. She became a physicist and worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena,” Pamela continued.
“That’s wonderful,” Eunice added. “Perfect for Joyce.”
They all knew cause of death had to come next.
“Problems related to Cushing’s Disease,” Pamela explained in a soft voice, and they all moaned in sorrow.
Sooner or later, they’d have to account for Thelma Wingate, too. They looked northeast toward City Hall and saw girls wearing short shorts, bandeaus and army boots, boys with what they called dreadlocks who rode skateboards at high speed, other boys with full beards like the Smith Brothers Cough Drops box, and everyone wore cell phone wires in their ears, and checked their little screens often.
“So many Asian kids,” Pamela whispered, apologetic on second thought.
“Everybody looks like they’re going to the beach,” Eunice pointed out, and Alma chuckled. She was remembering Thelma Wingate at that moment and so were Pamela and Eunice.
“Do you want to go to the dinner?” Pamela asked them, with her sweet face that showed all her thoughts and feelings.
“I’d prefer to go on home. I can get a ride if you girls want to go,” Eunice admitted.
“I’m not that interested,” Alma said. “Pamela? I think we’ve seen everybody from our class. All seventeen of us!”
“Naw,” Pamela decided.
“Let’s not leave yet,” Eunice suggested.
They enjoyed the silence, the relative silence with the ten thousand campus noises. Two alumni women in their forties shrieked with laughter outside by a birch tree, and bent over with their hands on their knees to weave and shake with extended mirth. An impeccable Chinese girl of no more than twenty years walked by with opaque black sunglasses, holding a tuba in black case strapped to her back and proceeding with insular dignity. The Class of 1944 friends giggled.
They noticed a medical doctor or resident of East Indian or possibly Pakistani ancestry, perspiring in a rumpled white coat, pumpkin-colored dress shirt and stained white pants, his breast and coat pockets laden with a stethoscope, index cards, ballpoint pens, a plastic ruler, a bus pass, what looked improbably like a retail enclosure of latex condoms, and a fist-sized key ring attached to his belt, and scuffed running shoes, a young doctor who sprinted toward the center of campus as if to answer a ten-alarm medical emergency, maybe an oil refinery fire, maybe, a construction crane collapse downtown, or a fifteen-car collision on the Harbor Freeway, possibly an outbreak of bubonic plague at a local high school, eight miles from the medical center and county hospital, Alma estimated, four from Whiteman Memorial, six from Good Samaritan. Maybe his parking pass had expired.
“What are you thinking about, Alma?” Pamela asked her.
“Just the kids, I guess. The way they look,” Alma admitted.
“I can’t tell whether they’re having any fun or not, to tell you the truth,” Eunice declared. “They all look so .. burdened.”
“Even more so at Stanford,” Alma said. “I think they enjoy themselves, though.”
“We had the Depression, but otherwise we were cruising along all right,” Pamela said, and then added, “Of course, we could see trouble on the way in Europe. Too late, I guess.”
“Let’s talk about something else,” Alma suggested, unlike herself.
“Look at that blonde kid in Bermuda shorts!” Eunice recommended. “My granddaughter would say he’s a ‘babe’!”
“A ‘hottie’,” Alma added.
A city bus roared past on Jefferson, deafening all living creatures nearby for three seconds. The old friends rolled their eyes.
“Would you go to SC if you had it do all over again?” Pamela asked them.
“Oh, sure. My mother would have killed me if I didn’t,” Eunice said.
“You mean now? My father couldn’t afford the tuition,” Alma admitted. “How about you, Pamela?”
“Probably, I guess. Except for meeting you girls, I think a smaller place might have been better for me.”
“But SC was small then,” Eunice protested.
“I guess so,” Pamela admitted.
They all watched a Class of 1930 Trojan, one hundred three years of age. He dressed in a crimson sport coat that drooped at the shoulders, a starched white dress shirt with a gold-colored tie, several commemorative medallions hanging from blue ribbons on his chest, white slacks on thighs thin and sharp, and apparently brand new black wing tipped shoes. He leaned on a walker and his great granddaughter or great great granddaughter assisted him, holding his other arm, and both alumni and current students cheered and applauded as he passed. His eyes were a brilliant blue and watery, and he lifted his thin hand to shout, “Fight on!”
“Old Josh,” Alma explained. “He’s at all the reunions. A thoracic surgeon from Pasadena who was a baseball star here.”
“My Lord,” Eunice sighed.
Old Josh kissed several young coeds impulsively on the lips and continued on his way.
“What happened to Thelma?” Pamela suddenly asked.
“Completely lost touch after the night before Pearl Harbor,” Alma answered a microsecond too soon. She did not think Eunice noticed.
“Somebody said she died in a mental institution,” Eunice said quietly, and added, “Somebody else said she jumped off the Holden Gate Bridge.”
“Who?” Pamela demanded.
“I don’t remember,” Eunice muttered.
“Who knows?” Alma said in a melancholy tone. One of her own patient’s mothers, a Chinese woman from Taiwan, mentioned her sister in law who saw a Caucasian woman “with beautiful Asian eyes”. Alma asked about who she was and the patient’s mother said, “A Jungian therapist down around Santa Barbara, tall with mostly black hair still, and looks aristocratic, my sister in law said.”
Alma asked her age.
“I think about your age, doctor,” the woman said, and Alma felt something contract in her own stomach and then relax in sourness.
“I miss her,” Pamela said simply, and the others agreed.
“I always thought that under it all, she was a good person,” she added.
“Oh, I know she was,” Eunice replied. “She went through terrible suffering, and we just didn’t really know.”
“She was a good kid,” was all Alma could say.
It got late and long beige shadows fell over the patio. After another minute they all left to drive home. The sun would set soon.