Graduation from apprenticeship was truly an anticlimax — more of a relief than an honor. Each of us had to make up every hour we had missed from work other than annual and sick leave, and I had nearly two months of military leave in connection with my National Guard activities. Others were delayed by various reasons, so that the graduation came weeks after most of us had assumed journeyman status. By this time Marion had taken a position as a secretary in the office of Senator Tom Connally of Texas, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, and one of the most powerful men in Roosevelt’s captive Congress. When Congress was in session, as it was from January to mid-year or later, the GPO had a night shift to produce the various documents Congress generated in its sessions and committee hearings — the Congressional Record and copies of the original and all amendments to bills submitted in either house. Since night work paid a 15% differential, and would give me more freedom in my university work, I had Marion get me a letter of recommendation from Senator Connally to have me transferred to the night side. Since the graduation was scheduled at night, when I would be at work, I wrote a letter to ask if I should attend as part of my shift time, or should take annual leave to do so. The Public Printer, Mr. Giegengack, held me up to ridicule (though he did not name me), as wanting to be paid to graduate. Work at night may have paid better, but it had its drawbacks. I was attending day classes at GW, and on some days would have to go to class or laboratory with very little sleep. At night I would get sleepy, and go to the washroom to recuperate. On one occasion, one of the informers saw my head down below the door of the stall, and reported me to the foreman. Fortunately for me, I left just before he came storming in. I am sure they would have fired me if they caught me sleeping on Government time!
That year (1935) the Congressional session went through the whole summer, so I took advantage of my night work to take a course in organic chemistry in the daytime. The whole year’s work was to be completed during two six-week marathons of five classes and five labs a week. My grade for the first term was a "C", largely, I believe, because I could not get acceptable yields in my experiments, and because I forgot the structure of one dye on the final exam. I didn't take the second term that summer, as it overlapped National Guard camp. I planned to take it the following spring, when Congress would again be in session, and I could work at night.
With the success
of Hitler in rearming Germany, attention was being called to our
pitiful Army, and the National Guard was one of the first areas of
"defense" to be beefed up. Our regiment was considerably
enlarged, and more officers were needed. I took the competitive
examination along with a dozen or so other sergeants but was not
ranked high enough to be commissioned before camp. Our regimental
commander, Colonel Burns, gave me the position of master sergeant
(the only one in the regiment), however, and I went to camp as the
highest ranking non-commissioned officer the Army had at that time.
As I was only 21, and looked it, the regulars at Fort Monroe once
told me as I was rushing to a formation, "Take it easy, buddy;
you’ve got everything!" The first sergeant, who had
previously had no competition as senior NCO in the battery, now had
to recognize that I technically outranked him. The captain came up
with the compromise that the first sergeant would be in charge of the
battery at infantry drill, and I would be in charge at artillery
drill. The man who actually maintained our equipment as a full-time
civilian employee at the armory couldn’t score well on a
written examination, and was not at all pleased to see me get the
job. However, after camp was over and more officer vacancies were
allotted to our regiment, I was commissioned a second lieutenant and
he was made master sergeant. The fact that I had already been a
second lieutenant in the high school cadet corps, with the same Sam
Browne belt and saber, took some of the prestige out of the event for
me, but my rapid promotion (due solely to the expansion of our
regiment) soon made up for it.
The worst part of the year was when Mary Charlotte got involved with some girls at school who were caught smoking, and all were campused for six weeks. I considered that as most unfair to a young man who was head over heels in love, particularly as she had not actually smoked. But Mrs. Bushnell was the law at Mary Washington College, as I had been reminded many times by Mary Charlotte, when matters of proper and improper conduct were discussed between us.
On August 24, 1935, Mary
Charlotte’s best friend, Teenie Smith, and her boyfriend Norman
Kerlin, went to Ellicott City (near Baltimore) to get married
secretly. We went along with them, and decided almost at the last
minute to do the same thing. Mary Charlotte had already planned (and
I believe announced) that our wedding would be in June 1936, but that
seemed very far away after nearly a year of betrothal. Although it
was all supposed to be hush-hush, Teenie and her husband revealed
their relationship, but Mary Charlotte and I stoutly denied having
done likewise. To this day we have said nothing to anyone about it!
We were duly punished for our "sin" by — of all
things — a filibuster in the US Senate! Louisiana’s
Senator Huey Long chose August 24, 1935, to make one of his famous
filibusters. At least four times during that interminable night I
went to the foreman and asked to be excused, but I could not tell him
why, and he said "No!" When I finally got released, it was
five-thirty in the morning — hardly a time to get to know your
new wife! When Mary Charlotte came to Washington with me on week-ends
during the following school year, we registered in the Dodge Hotel as
Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Fitzgerald. We managed to keep the secret, not
only during the year until we were publicly married in June 1936 in
the church in Newport News, but all the years since.
That Christmas season Dad took Mother to Florida, and the house was vacant. I took the occasion to have Mary Charlotte with me at the house on one of those week-ends. Dad had turned off the water before he went, but I turned it back on, and then neglected to drain the pipes (as he had done) when turning it back off. When Mother and Dad returned, they found that the water had frozen in the pipes of the hot-water heating system, ruining them, and requiring the whole system to be replaced. That was a blessing in disguise, as the old coal furnace had nearly killed the whole family several years before, because of carbon-monoxide gas generation. But Dad soon learned who had turned on the water, and required me to pay half the cost of the new system. He didn’t inquire very closely as to the circumstances of our being there.
All during the spring of 1936, Mary Charlotte worked on her wedding
plans. The date was to be June 20th (a Saturday), and it was to be a
noon wedding with the groom and groomsmen in formal attire (see
left). I had selected Charlie Haig to be best man, and Mary had
chosen Teenie Kerlin as her matron of honor, since they were the ones
who had brought us together for the first time. My groomsmen were
fellow former apprentices who were also fellow National Guardsmen.
Mary’s bridesmaids (see right) were her classmates in
college but also included my sister Mary Jo as bridesmaid and my niece Margery Huff
as flower girl.
Her church was the place, and her family had gone all out to decorate it for the big event. In the picture on the left (back row) are Mary Charlotte's mother's brother Claude Montgomery and the bride and groom; (front row) Mary Charlotte's parents (Sudie and George Chapman) and my mother and father. The wedding was set for twelve o’clock, but didn’t actually get started until well after twelve because Charlie Haig, who brought one of the bridesmaids from her home, was late in bringing her to have her dress fitted.
Since National Guard camp was only a few weeks away, and I had planned a six-week wedding trip to the West Coast, Mexico and Canada, we had a mini-honeymoon in New York City. I can remember driving through Baltimore on our way to New York, when I became involved in an altercation with a local driver. I had passed him, and cut back into line too close to his car for his liking, so he passed me and deliberately banged my left front fender. I immediately stopped and got out, as he did. He then walked up to me and hit me in the left eye with his fist. Not wishing to end up in jail on my wedding night, I refrained from hitting back (or maybe I was too cowardly!). We resumed our journey, and as luck would have it I saw a motorcycle cop just up the road. Coming abreast of him, I told him to stop the driver in the car ahead, which he did. After taking us to a side street, he got the story and saw my black eye. He advised me to take $2 to repair my fender and not charge the man, as I would then have to appear in court the following Monday. I suppose I looked rather suspicious with that black eye when Mary Charlotte and I checked into our New York hotel at five-thirty the next morning.
The only event of that week in New York that I remember was the night at Billy Minsky’s burlesque theater on Times Square, which featured strip-tease artists. Bob and Margaret (who lived in nearby New Jersey) had invited us to go as their wedding present. Neither of us had ever been to such a place, but we had heard all about them. I’ll never forget my embarrassment at Mary Charlotte’s shriek when the first girl bared herself to the waist.
Shortly after the wedding, Dad had an announcement placed in the local county paper, which published it under the headline "Mr. Mitchell marries belle of Virginia." For years afterward, Dad would address Mary Charlotte as "Bridey Belle."
Our National Guard regiment went to Virginia Beach that year, much to my disappointment, as it was too far to be with Mary Charlotte at her Newport News home. As a rookie shave-tail, I got the low end of the stick in assignments, but did have the job of preparing the formal reports of the target practice. I’ll never forget the dig I got from Captain Bullis of E Battery (which I later commanded as captain) for not knowing that the score had to be multiplied by four, for the four AA machine guns involved. He made me recalculate the whole thing, although that was the only error.
wedding trip was something else! (see left, but taken much later)
I had acquired another second-hand car, the engine of which John King
had overhauled, working almost all the night before we left to get it
finished. In those days, one had to drive 500 miles at 25 miles an
hour to break in new piston rings, and there was no time to do this
before leaving. So we drove nearly all the way to central Tennessee
at 25 miles an hour, stopping at Bristol for a few hours rest, but
not reaching Mary Charlotte’s relatives’ home in
Lewisburg until mid-afternoon. Nearly all her many Tennessee
relatives had gathered for a welcoming lunch, but by the time we
arrived many of them had left. In Kansas we spent the night with one
of Mother’s friends that I didn’t remember ever having
seen before. We had only enough time with them to eat meals and sleep
— hardly a good way to get acquainted with one’s friends.
We found out how hot it can be in August in Kansas, but who could
then afford rooms with air conditioning (which was available only in
the most expensive hotels). We went to Estes Park in the Rockies, and
I tried to realize a lifetime ambition by climbing to the top of one
of the major peaks — Long’s Peak. We got a late start,
and rented horses which brought us to the timber line. Mary Charlotte
had had enough by then, and waited for me to climb alone to the
continental divide, where I could look out over the Great Plains to
the east, but time didn’t permit going any higher, and I never
got another chance!
We went from national park to national park — Yellowstone, Mesa Verde, Cedar Breaks, Zion, and then on to Seattle and Vancouver. When we had finished our lunch (for 25 cents apiece) at a delightful little restaurant in Vancouver, I discovered to my horror that I had lost my wallet. Fortunately, Mary Charlotte had some money and we could pay for the meal and call the motel in Bellingham where we had spent the night. Much to our relief the motel owner had found the wallet (with my two-weeks pay I had just picked up at the Seattle post office) under my pillow where I had placed it the night before for safe keeping. We got it on our return to Seattle. In Yosemite, I got a picture with our 8-mm color camera of a bear cub, which Mary Charlotte had tried to pet. We went to Los Angeles, San Diego and Tia Juana, and then back east through Arizona and New Mexico to El Paso, thence along the Rio Grande to Laredo. I remember one stretch of highway where we drove for more than an hour without seeing another person, car, or animal!
At Laredo, the room at the motel was so filthy that Mary Charlotte wouldn’t sleep on the bed provided, so we set up our camping cots in the motel room. The Trans-Americas Highway to Mexico City was still under construction, and we had 70 miles of torn-up road to negotiate. Near the end of it our second tire blew, and we had to leave the car on the highway and take a "bus" to Jacala, the next town. The bus was an old truck with wooden planks on sawhorses for seats, and the driver drove through mountain fog at full speed when I could not even see the road beneath us. But we got to the town and spent the night there while waiting for our tires to be repaired. The "motel" had only one john for the entire place — a full-sized room with only the toilet in it, and no door — common gender! A returning tourist graciously gave us a ride back to our car, which was undisturbed during our 24-hour absence. Returning from Mexico, I ran out of money, so drove continuously for over 1,000 miles from Mexico City to Austin, Texas. In Dallas, a State fair was being held and a friend of Marion’s (from her Senator’s office) was in charge of exhibits. We eventually contacted him and he gave us a draft on Mother for $40, the amount we had written to her to send to us "either at Dallas or New Orleans." Of course, she had sent it to New Orleans, but we went broke in Dallas, after registering, at Mary Charlotte’s insistence, at the Adolphus Hotel, one of Dallas’ finest. Mother had a hard time with that draft, as it took over six weeks for her to get her money back from New Orleans. I remember going to the dining room for dinner, and being told I had to have a necktie. I was too tired to eat, but Mary Charlotte insisted, so the waiter got me a tie and I watched her eat, although I couldn’t. At Memphis, we stopped at Sears Roebuck to get our tire guarantees honored, and got three new tires at $1.50 apiece. We went broke again in Tennessee and borrowed $10 from Mary Charlotte’s uncle, Claude Montgomery. This got us to Bristol VA with 21 cents after paying our motel bill, and filling the gas tank — 425 miles from home. We decided to go to Newport News (which was closer) and went all day at modest speed, coasting down every hill to save gas. We managed to get to Norfolk, where the 21 cents bought a gallon of gas and paid for a telephone call to the home of one of Mary Charlotte’s classmates in Portsmouth. I can still remember how good those sandwiches tasted at 3pm after nothing to eat since the night before. The next few months were tight financially as we had to settle up all our borrowings, but we eventually cleared the deck after our 13,607-mile odyssey.
Mary Charlotte went back to school for her senior year that autumn, having already earned her "MRS", but she also wanted her "BS". I got a jolt when told by the school that I would have to pay out-of-state tuition rates for her, as they considered her residence to be where her husband lived. It was nice to be above-board with our living together, even if it was only week-ends.
My time at George Washington University in 1936 was spent on furthering my training in engineering, in completing Organic Chemistry, and getting started on modern physics. It was a good thing for both of us that Mary Charlotte was at Fredericksburg during the week, as work, school, and National Guard completely occupied my waking hours (which were all too many). I learned later what charity some of my GW profs exhibited, when the class would be diverted from the lecture by my bobbing head, some even betting on whether or not I would break my neck! At work one night, the desk clerk (who didn’t like ex-apprentices) gave me the last piece of copy for the Congressional Record, and made it three times as long as it should have been. I could hardly keep my eyes open as I set it up, and fell asleep at the machine a dozen times or so, judging from the proof that came back to me, so badly marked up that the original type could hardly be seen. It showed the bull headedness of these people that they made me reset the copy, and the foreman had to stay overtime to get the final okay proofs to the press room for printing the Congressional Record. Needless to say, I did not get on the night side the following year!
graduation had brought with it the need to find a place to live. One
of Mary Charlotte’s classmates had acquired a new home in the
fashionable part of Washington’s suburbs that was a financial
burden to her and her doctor husband, and persuaded us to take a room
with them for a few months, which we did. Never again would we want
to live in someone else’s home! So in early January we moved to
an apartment at 3432 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, where we would
live for the next 3-1/2 years. It was a good choice for us, both
geographically and financially, and we enjoyed those months, busy as
they were. We had not had a church home since Mary Charlotte had
given up her childhood relationship with the Presbyterian Church in
Newport News. I don’t remember why, but we started going to the
Gunton-Temple Presbyterian Church on 16th Street (NW) shortly after
locating at 3432 Connecticut Avenue. We liked it, and I even taught
Sunday School. When it came time for Mary Jo and Clyde Balch to be
married (April 1940), Mary Jo selected that church for the wedding,
even though she had Rev. Custis perform the ceremony. Mary Charlotte
tried several different vocations — waitress (one day!),
typist, file clerk, and teaching (she held a teaching certificate in
Virginia). Several months at Strayers Business College convinced her
that she was not cut out for the business world, so she contented
herself with occasional substitute teaching at nearby Washington
Mary Charlotte’s father had failed in health very noticeably during the first half of the year, and he finally died in July, when I was in National Guard camp at Virginia Beach. The family tried unsuccessfully to reach me, so I was unable to attend the funeral. Mrs. Chapman now was faced with living alone, which she did until 1948, when she came to live with us for the rest of her life.
My request to be transferred to the night side for the congressional session of 1937 was denied, even though I got a nice letter from Senator Connally. I’m sure the turn-down was due to the incident of my sleepiness on that last piece of copy for the Congressional Record, described earlier. Even so, I was able to take several engineering lab courses without infringing upon my National Guard nights (Tuesdays and Thursdays).
The big event of the year, for me, was the opportunity to attend the 3-month special course for National Guard and Reserve officers at the Coast Artillery School, Fort Monroe. Not only would this be a valuable asset in my National Guard career, but I got my full pay from the GPO as well as my pay as a first lieutenant. All my absences from the GPO for military duty were considered as paid (military) leave, much to the disgust of the powers that be at the GPO. Another officer from my regiment, Robert Martin (6-foot-4, 250-pound ex-Texan who worked for the US Weather Bureau) and I boarded with Mary Charlotte’s mother while attending the school. Jo-Bob, as we called him (his full name was Robert Joseph Michael Cameron Kent Martin) could eat six meals a day! Mrs. Chapman thought she had not put enough food on the table if there was less food left than had been consumed, but Jo-Bob delighted in "finishing things up." He was such a lot of fun — never sour, never critical. It was a very good three months! I remember one senior instructor, Major Townsend, was quite taken aback at my brashness on one occasion. He had just written a very involved formula on the blackboard which represented the calculation necessary to determine the trajectory of a shell after it had been fired from a gun. I raised my hand and asked if one of the signs in the formula shouldn’t have been "+" instead of "-" as he had written it. When he checked his notes, he found I was right. I never did tell him that the square root of a negative number could not be calculated in the ordinary number domain — one of the things I had just learned in my math courses. He was later instrumental in getting me my most rewarding war-time assignment.
bars became a reality early in 1939, and I was given command of
Battery E, formerly "belonging" to now-Major Bullis. This
was my first experience with automatic weapons, and it was a little
awkward to learn from the top! Even before the promotion came, I had
another training course opportunity, this time at Fort Meade, just a
few miles away in Maryland. Here I was introduced to map warfare, as
we students re-fought on maps some of the Civil War battles. At the
conclusion of the course I was given a certificate of capacity as
major, and I hadn’t even made captain yet! My only recollection
of these two weeks was a lunch at the officer’s club. I was
staying at Mother’s house in nearby Hyattsville, but even so
had to leave at six-thirty in the morning to get to class by eight.
So by lunch-time I was starving. This day the no-options menu was
liver and turnips, the one meat and one vegetable I thoroughly
detested — but I ate them.
The captain of a National Guard battery had to do his own recruiting, and if he did not have at least 60% attendance on a drill night, the officers did not get paid. We had a new Regular Army instructor named Col. Villaret. He was a stickler for smart appearance and our old moth eaten discarded Army overcoats dismayed him. On my second or third drill night as captain he threatened not to allow about a third of my men to be counted because they had buttons missing on their overcoats! I don’t know who straightened him out, but he quickly abandoned that approach and became a valuable tutor to us in the important things of soldiering. The rapid expansion of our regiment had put a strain on our recruiting abilities, and I was almost desperate to find new men. I talked to all my colleagues at the GPO, including Ken Romjue, one of those who had made consistent 100’s on his weekly spelling tests during our apprenticeship. Ken succumbed to my solicitations, and became a private in Battery E. He later made sergeant, and by taking correspondence courses, qualified as reserve second lieutenant. This allowed him later to be called to active duty as a first lieutenant, and he finished the war as a lieutenant colonel. His closest buddy at the GPO, William "Dusty" Rhodes, however, would have none of us. He was later drafted and spent the entire war as an enlisted man in the South Pacific.
Our regiment was supposed to take tactical training every third year, that is, go on an extended maneuver for the two weeks, and we had done so in 1931 and in 1934. So, after five years, we were ordered to do so in 1939, having been equipped with modern trucks and weapons. Col. Burns chose the nearby Virginia area in the vicinity of Appomattox Courthouse, which we dutifully provided with antiaircraft protection. My battery ('E') was assigned to protect the regimental headquarters, which put me under the thumb of Lt. Col. Mann, our regimental executive. Since the headquarters battery had just been formed, it was low in manpower and experience, and Col. Mann kept calling on my battery for details of men for this or that menial task. I refused to strip my gun crews, and sent men from my own battery HQ. Finally, only the first sergeant and I were left, and we received a demand for two men to build a privy for the officers. So he and I took our hammer and saw and trudged off to Regimental Headquarters, working most of the morning on a three-holer. Not having a keyhole saw, we made the holes square, and this brought the gibe from everyone that we were expecting round butts to fit in square holes. This incident did lessen the demands for details, but it didn’t improve my standing with Col. Mann any!
In September Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began. Our regiment was given extra active duty during the month of December, two days each of the four week-ends. There was frenzied scrambling to beef up our defenses, and soon I was notified of inspection after inspection of every kind of equipment we were supposed to have. As each one meant a day of military leave from the Patents Department, my boss there — a real tyrant named Broderick — breathed fire and brimstone each time I went to him with an order for my presence at the inspection. But he was helpless in this particular matter, and had to let me off.
The advent of the European War made my National Guard work top priority for me, but I continued with my graduate physics studies at GW. One of my courses was a seminar in theoretical physics, under another recent import from Europe, Dr. George Gamow. He was a tall, Viking-like person, whom I seldom saw, as my assignments were mostly in physics journals. One major topic I had to pursue was cosmic rays. I found that a fascinating subject, as these extremely high-energy particles that come from outer space into our earthly environment are supposed to cause, among other things, the mutations in DNA said to be responsible for evolution.
major family event of 1940 was Mary Jo’s marriage to Clyde
Balch (see left) on April 14, 1940. It was held in our church
of the time, Gunton-Temple Presbyterian, on 16th Street (as earlier
mentioned). I don’t have a wedding picture, but this is a good
one of the couple. The wedding must have drawn a family gathering, as
the picture to the right shows (left to right) Marion with Bobby
Caruthers in front of her, Uncle Wilbur holding Lynne Caruthers, Mary
Charlotte, Margaret, Mother and Dad (with Bob Caruthers in the
Back to the military, our regiment had been brought up to its full number of units this year, and given Table-of- Organization equipment. For our summer training we were ordered to take part in the First Army maneuvers in northern New York State. This was new territory for most of us, and we certainly didn’t anticipate the frost on our pup tents during the August nights. Although we had adequate woolen blankets, our summer khakis were no protection from the cold morning winds. Only the bravest dared to swim in the ice-cold rivers nearby, and recreation was hard to come by. One of the local people quipped that Ogdensburg has only two seasons — July and winter.
Our regimental commander, Col. Walter Burns, evidently had some contacts with the First Army brass, because he told us that we were going to be called into Federal service soon, and his prediction was that it would last at least five years. His prediction was uncannily accurate. We were in Federal service six months later, and my period of service was five years, one month and ten days. Congress had hastily installed the draft right after WWII had started the year before, but the debate was bitter about continuing it at the end of its first year — the continuation hung on one vote! At the same time Congress voted to call up the nation’s National Guard units for a year’s training, and we were on pins and needles awaiting our call.
When we left on the summer maneuvers, we were so sure that we would not return to civilian status that I gave up our Connecticut Avenue apartment, sold our furniture, and parked Mary Charlotte in Mother’s house while I was on duty. However, it soon became evident that our Federal call was months — not days — away, so we rented a furnished apartment month by month in the 1800 block of Columbia Road.
I didn’t even bother to register at GW that autumn, but I did wind up my course work for a master’s in physics that spring. GW required a thesis for the degree in addition to classwork, and my National Guard activities left me no time or energy to compose one. The highlight of that work in graduate physics was a report to the class by Dr. Brown of the work of Lisa Meintner in Central Europe of the fissioning of a uranium atom. We eagerly asked if this presaged the development of atomic energy, but Dr. Brown was skeptical, as it seemed to take more energy to fission the atom than was produced. It was some three years later that another experiment in Chicago proved otherwise, and the first successful release of atomic energy took place, leading almost immediately to the A-bomb.
Go to next chapter
Return to Table of Contents