By Dan Verner
I came from a working class family. My parents, members of the Greatest Generation, experienced the Great Depression and World War II. My dad joined the Army in 1943, falsifying his age so he could “join the fight.” He ended up with General Joseph Stillwell’s army in the China-Burma-India Theater. The troops there were at the end of a supply line stretching for thousands of miles long, and the materiel and supplies they received tended to be scant and late, unlike the ETO (European Theater of Operations) and PTO (Pacific Theater of Operations) which had first call on everything…according to the CBI vets, and I believe them. Most military historians agree that they were in the war to keep the Chinese involved against the Japanese. My dad told me, “You could say anything you wanted about ‘Vinegar Joe’ (Stillwell) to his face, but you’d better not say anything bad about ‘his’ Chinese (officers or troops) unless you wanted to be in some serious (stuff).” The CBI troops called themselves “The F.B.I.,” which stood for “The Forgotten B*****ds” in India,” and they were, largely. But he made it home after two years there, arriving back in the states in October, 1945, receiving an honorable discharge in January, 1946, and marrying my mom on February 15, 1947. I came along on November 15 of that year.
My mom served in the home front army, which was arguably as important as the ones waging war overseas. She told me about rationing and graduating in May, 1945, valedictorian of a high school class made up of nineteen girls and one fellow who was 4-F. She went to work in Atlanta, but came back to her home town of Ducktown, Tennessee, when the war ended. She recalled an incident on a bus toward the end of the conflict in which a man said he was glad the war had continued for so long because he had never made so much money in his life. The other passengers pulled him off the bus and beat him severely. My mom allowed as how there were certain comments that were not wise to make in public.
My parents were concerned with my brother’s and my behavior, admonishing us to do the right thing, to “sit up straight,” “don’t talk with your mouth full,” and “be respectful of your elders.” We ignored these injunctions at our own peril, and had another dose of ideas about the right way to speak and act at school. Westmore Elementary School in Fairfax served a community that was about half working class families (carpenters like my father, plumbers, and other tradesmen—women by and large stayed at home to raise the children and keep house, although my mom did begin work as a crossing guard when I was in sixth grade. She went on to work in the cafeteria at Woodson High School in Fairfax when I started there the first year it opened in 1962, rising over the years to assistant manager and then becoming manager of the Fairfax High School cafeteria, a position she held for decades before retiring. The Fairfax County School Board named the cafeteria for her, and there is still today a small bronze plaque commemorating that event.)
The other half of the attendance district was populated by middle class families. I had friends whose fathers were bankers, engineers, government workers (one friend of the family set up the First Day of Issues for the Post Office Department. At one time I had a collection of about 100 first day covers. I don’t know what happened to them, but they’re long gone now.) I don’t recall any class warfare at our school: our teachers would have put the fire out before it had a change to get started. Their mission was to make civilized, polite and well-spoken citizens out of us who were well-informed and took all their responsibilities seriously. Woe betide anyone who stepped out of line. They didn’t use corporal punishment much, although I did have one teacher who flew over to any miscreant, grabbed him by the hair (she never had to do this with any of the girls) and yanked his head in circles until the poor fellow could hardly speak or walk. I never earned such treatment, and I was glad of that. The same teacher had one of those “teacher bells” which she rang to get our attention. One day she misjudged the distance between her hand and the desk and smacked her hand hard on the edge of the desk. We dissolved into gales of laughter. She didn’t find it so funny, and the whole class, girls included, wrote sentences for the rest of the day: “I will not laugh when Mrs. Brown hits her hand on her desk because I have been an irresponsible citizen of my classroom, school, city, state and nation.” That was pretty heavy stuff. I don’t recall how many sentences I wrote, but we labored in silence for two hours. Now it takes me a minute to write that sentence, and I write about like a third grader, so I must have written that about 120 times. My pencil holding fingers took days to recover. I went home and wrapped them in bandages. My mother wanted to know what I had done to myself. I told her I hurt my hand playing softball. Had I told her what really happened she would have punished me as well.
The point of all this (and there is one) is that we learned manners in school and at home to equal any graduate of any charm school. We learned the order of introductions, flag etiquette, rules for wearing a hat (never indoors), how to write business and “friendly letters,” invitations, RSVP’s, thank you’s, and telephone manners: how to answer the phone, take a message and say good-bye. It’s in the area of phone manners that I’ve noticed something peculiar. Some people from the older generation, say in their 80’s and 90’s, don’t necessarily say good-bye at all. I was taught to say “hello” as a greeting (Alexander Graham Bell answered his calls by shouting “Ahoy!” into the receiver, which might be worth trying someday. The Brits famously answer the phone by saying “Are you there?” which strikes this American at least as a frivolous exercise in self-evident rhetoric. I would want to answer by saying something like, “No, I’m not. This is my astral projection calling you. Where did you think I would be except here on the phone answering senseless questions?” I haven’t ever done this and probably never will, but it’s nice to know I’ve thought through the situation and have a ready reply.
So, we were taught to end a call by saying “Good-bye.” I would venture to say that most people use this closing to a call, or some slight variation of it, such as “‘Bye’” or “‘Bye-bye.’” (More sociological and psycho-linguistic insight from yours truly: men tend to say “Bye” while women say “Bye-bye.” I conducted a scientific survey by noting the closing each gender used by sampling my calls for a week. I received 46 calls, 30 from women and the rest from men. All the women said “Bye-bye,” while 15 men said “‘Bye.’” I will not speculate on the masculinity of the man who said “Bye-bye,” but will defend to the death his right to say it.
Dan was named “Best Writer in Prince William County (Virginia)” by readers in a “Best of Prince William 2014” poll conducted in June of that year by “Prince William Today” newspaper.
He is the author of the first two books of the “Beyond the Blue Horizon: the Story of an American Hero series, On Wings of the Morning, and On the Wings of Eagles”. Both are a republished by eLectio Publishing, Midland, Texas.