Laughter and tears
Residents of the Sahara know first-hand the truth of the Arab proverb, “All sunshine makes a desert.”
Applying that provert to life, you could say that all laughter would make life a farce; some tears are needed to give meaning to the laughter. So you know it has been a good life – actually, it is being a good life – when you can reminisce, look at old photos, and revisit events in your life that bring out not only crazy laughter, but also a few painful tears.
That was evident recently when Bob Lewis spent an afternoon chatting with his grandson, Mike, and Mike’s wife, Regina.
Bob was born in Stoneboro on March 27, 1923, and grew up there in a broken family. His father, a coal miner, and his mother split up when he was just seven years old. While living with his father and grandmother, he attended school in Stoneboro – the “big” school, as Bob put it. But when he was in seventh grade, his father passed away, so he moved to live with his mother’s parents on a farm. He attended eighth grade in a one-room county school on Route 173.
At Sandy Lake High School, he belonged to the Future Farmers of America, boxed, played basketball, and served as goalie on the soccer team. Most importantly, he met his future wife, Betty Louise Morris.
After his junior year, he got a job working for the Township.
“I was hired to work for two weeks,” he said. “It rained every day except three days, so I only got three days of work.”
Bob decided he liked work better than school, so he got a job with a contractor.
“We worked on Route 18 up near Albion. We would stay up there during the week and come home on weekends.”
From that time on until he retired, he was never without a job.
Once when Bob came home from the work at Albion, he applied for jobs at Cooper Bessemer in Grove City and Westinghouse in Sharon. A while later he got calls from both companies – on the same day.
“I flipped a coin,” he said, “and went to Westinghouse. I stayed living in Stoneboro and commuted in a car pool with five other guys.”
He was just 17, too young to operate machinery. When he turned 18, he worked on jigsaws, bandsaws, and other machines. He also took company sponsored courses in the shop, including blueprint reading. He got into laying out the walls of the big transformers.
In February, 1942, Bob joined the Marines. After basic training at Paris Island, he attended aircraft mechanic school at the Jacksonville (FL) Naval Air Station.
“In December, I got a 15 day furlough to come home and get married,” he said. “I had my blood test in North Carolina, and Betty had hers here. We went to the Mercer County Courthouse to get our marriage license, but they wouldn’t accept the blood test from North Carolina. I didn’t have time to have a blood test here and still get married before my furlough ended. But I had an aunt who worked at Greenville Hospital. She talked with a doctor who said he could take care of it. He copied everything down from the North Carolina test and signed his name. We got married in the rectory in Stoneboro on December 24, 1942.”
Unfortunately, Betty couldn’t move down south with him until he got assigned to a training squadron at Eatonton, North Carolina.
“After training at Jacksonville, I was promoted to corporal. I was eligible to stay off the base, so she came down on a bus. She got a job in a floral shop, and stayed with me almost a year. When I found out I was going to be assigned overseas, I drove Betty back home to Stoneboro. I found out later that she was pregnant.”
With the rest of his crew, Bob rode a train to Linda Vista, California, just north of San Diego, then boarded a ship which, unbeknownst to them, was headed for the South Pacific.
The first night on Emirau Island turned into an adventure.
“The air raid sirens went off. I didn’t want to stay in the tenting area, so I ran up over the hill into the woods and lay there until they sounded the all clear.”
A couple of days later they found themselves on another island.
“We were replacing a whole squadron. They checked us out on the aircraft for about six hours. Then they all vanished. The next day they were on a ship going home and we were responsible for everything.”
Later Bob was assigned to Zamboanga, on the southern tip of the Philippines, then to Manila, and finally to Hawaii.
“I was made crew chief on the plane of General James T. Moore and General Roy S. Geiger, commanding general of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. We flew all over the Pacific area, even to Japan not long after the atomic bombs were dropped. I saw all of the destruction. People were living in cardboard boxes.”
One flight on October 16, 1945, proved to be particularly memorable.
“We were flying out of Australia, out past New Guinea, when the pilot received a radio transmission. He turned to me and said, ‘Congratulations, Bob, you’re a father.’ That’s how I learned that my son Jim had been born.”
During early 1946, the generals spent a bit of time in China, and of course Bob was with them.
“One time our plane had an oil leak. After I fixed it, we took it up to test it – just pilot, co-pilot, and myself. I was sitting right behind the co-pilot. I happened to look out the window, and there were two Russian fighters alongside us. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and pointed to them. We had strayed over the Great Wall into Russian territory.”
Bob was promoted to staff sergeant before he got out of the Marine Corps in 1946. When he came home, he had the option of taking advantage of the 52/20 Club – $20 a week for 52 weeks.
“I thought I would take 30 days off before I went back to work. But after week or two, a butcher came and asked if I would help him build a slaughterhouse. After it was done, he asked me to come to work in the store. The borough also asked me to work for them. But within 30 days I went back to Westinghouse, and kept a part-time job cutting meat.”
On September 29, 1947, Betty completed their family by giving birth to their second child, Barbara (now McKee).
Bob continued to work at Westinghouse.
“One day my supervisor came to me and said, ‘Bob, have you got any white shirts?’ I said, ‘Sure, why?’ He said, ‘Tell your wife to get them washed up. We’re making a supervisor out of you.”
Time away from work was family time, much of which was spent at Bob’s cottage in Ontario. Memories of those vacations produced a great deal of laughter and banter between Bob and his grandson Mike.
“The grandchildren used to come up and drive me crazy for a month or so,” Bob said, “The first time Mike was away from his parents, he was with us two weeks. His mom and dad were going to a cottage up north with a Canadian friend of theirs. Betty and I drove Mike back to Toronto so he could go with them. His mother and dad pulled into the parking lot where we were waiting for them. They got out or their car and came over to ours. She was crying, and thought Mike would be crying too, for his parents, but Mike said, ‘I don’t want to go, I want to stay with Grandpa.’”
During the 17 years Bob worked as supervisor at Westinghouse, Betty worked as a postal clerk. Bob retired after 42 years of service with Westinghouse.
“After I retired, I was enjoying myself so much that Betty decided to retire, too,” Bob said. “I went back to meat cutting part time. The main meat cutter got sick and they made me main meat cutter. After a month I told the boss to get somebody else, because I only wanted to work part time.”
Unfortunately, Betty was diabetic. As her health declined, Bob sold the cottage in Canada. She passed away in 2003. Her grandchildren remember how she loved to sew quilts and knit afghans, arrange flowers, and play cards. Most especially, they remember the great cookies she made.
Bob, his two children, three grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren miss her greatly, and that brings a few tears now and then. But the memories of the good times with her bring lots of smiles and laughter.
And that’s just as it should be.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010