Silence framed our homeland
MAMA always did maintain that the redheaded real estate lady sold Papa a bad bill of goods when she sold him that narrow building site on that steep hillside. But I don't think Papa had a choice, for I was there with him. The lady waved her pretty, lace-covered arm over the noisy factory district below us and said, ``You can get a good job at the Door Manufacturing Company at $1.75 a day - get your lumber cheap and build your home evenings and get your stovewood free! All for $50 cash!''
People were lining up to buy lots. Most of these people, like ourselves, were immigrants fleeing from Kaiser Wilhelm's war in Europe. We were longing for a little piece of land to call our own.
Then the lady turned around and pointed her finger at a faucet in the middle of what was to be our front yard. ``Lovely clear, cold water,'' she added, and stepped over and let it run.
By the time Mama and the rest of the family got there, my father had already put up the frame of a house and had it partly roofed and floored. The windows were ready to be placed in their frames. He let the two-by-fours stick out in front and made that into a high porch overlooking the factory district and railroad yards as well as the distant lowland where the Chinese people raised hogs. Beyond was the river.
But Mama didn't say anything.
Papa waited and after a while he said, ``We already have nice neighbors. An Italian family to the left and an Austrian family on the other side.'' We listened to them singing as they hammered nails into their walls. The houses were so close you could shake hands through the windows.
All Mama could say was, ``But John! The noise. How can we stand the noise?''
Since this was wartime, all the factories and the sawmill worked around the clock. ``To help win the war,'' they told us. The screaming of the saws through new lumber and the shrill, ear-splitting screech of the whistle each time the shift changed were enough to curdle milk.
In the middle of all this were four train tracks, and the trains came night and day loading and unloading. In the daytime you got somewhat used to the noise but, oh, at night. The locomotive whistle was the wildest, shrillest of all, and it was the one that sent us piling out of bed and running for the porch.
My oldest brother said, ``It sounds like Kaiser Wilhelm and all his troops are coming right into my bedroom.'' He rolled up his blanket and moved over with Grandmother on the quieter side of this big city.
In Europe, we had heard a great deal from Kaiser Wilhelm on the loudspeakers as he proclaimed that the German flag would soon fly over the whole world. He was coming! he said.
But we huddled together out on our porch, and our hearts slowed down as Papa's arms encompassed all of us. He pointed out the various stars in the sky.
``First the North Star,'' he said. ``Then the dipper. They are always with us.'' ``Look, tonight we have a new star. Right over there is Aldebaran. To the right of the Pleiades.'' I loved that little ringlet of twinkling stars and I wondered if my cousins in France could see it tonight ... if there was still a France.
In about three weeks we began to sleep right through till morning. The various sounds seemed to accommodate themselves into our pleasant dreams. Mama said, one morning, ``I dreamed the pigs were eating in a field of lilies and when the train came through the locomotive engineer waved and rang the bell for the pigs. The pigs all waved.''
But one night in early November of 1918, each one of us, apparently unknown to all the rest of us, sat up and wondered what had happened. There was total silence. No sawmill was running, no train whistles, no lights in the door factory. Nothing but silent darkness! We all tiptoed out onto the porch at about the same time.
My oldest brother, who had moved back home again, said, ``I'll run down to the door factory and ask the night watchman. I think I see his lantern moving here and there through the windows.''
He returned quickly and told us, ``The watchman just received the news over the telegraph. The war is over! There will be an hour of silence for grateful prayer.''
Mama lit one tiny candle in the kitchen and made cocoa. The kitchen door opened several times as various neighbors came in quietly to ask about the silence. I still recall the beauty of the prayers in several languages. Mama's tears were dripping into her cocoa. She said to Papa, ``I like our new home. Even though a board falls off now and then.''
Outside, our shiny new water bucket was turning in the soft autumn breeze, as it clung to our own water faucet.