“I will surely make thy seed as the sands of the sea.” Genesis 32:12
I hear “them” talking. They are saying that this is not really my story, that I should not be telling it. But they are wrong.
I confess: it is the story of others—of my parents, of my family, and of millions of other men and women and children who lived or who were born along with me and ahead of me in our century. I admit that it is their story. But it is my story too, for I was there. I was surely there, as each of us is there, at least a little, even before our consciousness gets on its feet, for each of us is part of what happened before we were ourselves apart from all the others who came before us.
We are there, first, in bits of our parents, in their DNA, the twisted parcels of humanness that are our ancestral birthright, the miraculous molecule in whose fantastic shape—first conceived in the 1950’s by Watson and Crick—is written our flesh and form. We are there, also, in the knotted choices and intertwining events that knit our fate and our nascent being together, there whether we follow a beaten path or first trace it. We are part of their history and of their flesh and they ours. So this is our story, my story.
It is my story, too, because of my memories. Wondrously, I remember tales that transpired before I was born. Surely, I must only recall what I was told. That must be so, else I did not come into the world without a past, as I always thought. These must be memories of what I was told and then remembered as my own, because I held them close and turned them over and over in my mind, caressing them like a favorite plush animal or fingering them like a prayer thread. I know that I found them precious and comforting, even if they were incidental gifts. So those memories became my own as the story became my story when I relived it in memory.
What is more, the story will become part of your story as I relate it to you, and it will live again in your memory henceforth. This is the “why” of who I am and the “how” of my coming to be. As you see yourself in it, you will find that this is your story, too. And as Oliver Sacks chronicled in his memoir of clinical neurology, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: “We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative,’ and that narrative is us, our identities.” Thus, this is or will be our story.
Child of War
The sad truth of this story is that I was born because of a war. My life and its history are linked to the deaths of millions of other humans. I will not deny it. I cannot. The mid twentieth century was a time of fiery global war and the perpetual and imminent threat of war, a “Cold War.” It is fact: I was born because the Second World War of the century began for our country in 1941 and because it ended when it did, abruptly in 1945. I was born when I was because of its ending, and it concluded with a colossal explosion, a reverberating boom that echoed through to the end of the century in millions of lives.
Sociologists and demographers refer to us born then as “Boomers.” They call us that because of the “boom” in the birth rate that began with the Second World War and persisted for about twenty years. But I submit that I am a “Boom Child” also because my birth was a direct result of the repercussions of the horrendous blast that signaled the conclusion of hostilities in the Pacific. To be sure, it was an infinitely kinder explosion among the families of Mobile, Alabama, United States of America than the cataclysm that our Air Force unleashed on the hapless citizens of Nagasaki or Hiroshima, Imperial Japan. I was born in mid winter of 1947; I speak with a slight Southern drawl; I am because of that concussion.
Mark Twain wrote that “There was never yet an uninteresting life….Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.” And I would add—there often is a romance, also. While in the history of the world the courtship of my parents hardly warrants a footnote, it is, nevertheless, momentous to me and to my family. It was my beginning. Their story is the story of so many others as well. Here is how it happened.
The Families Matteson and Moates
The Matteson clan of Lewis Edward Matteson had sprung from the loins a seventeenth century follower of Roger Williams—Henry Matteson of Rhode Island, who had been, like other Baptists, expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Over the three hundred years since that time, his descendants had wandered to New York and the Northwest Territories and helped populate the northeastern United States, Texas, and the west coast. Thus, the U.S. census of 1920 documents a notable absence of Mattesons in Alabama, where the family of Audrey Moates, my mother-to-be, resided with the bulk of the American Moates family.
Whether separated by a single mile or a thousand, two lovers will never meet or found a family unless their paths cross at some time. Crucial to our story, my century saw a migration from farm to city. Not so much a movement from one region to another but a general stirring of the population. In this great mix brought on by the war, my parents happened on each other.
When bombs of Imperial Nippon fell on the warships at dock in Pearl Harbor, the United States was irreversibly sucked into the global conflict; yet my father did not go off to fight as did so many other young men. Polio, the scourge of summer and youth, had assured that he would never march, that he would never carry a rifle into battle, that he would never stand watch on the deck of a battleship at sea, that his right foot would forever have its unique shape.
Moreover, FDR exhorted the citizens that the fight was not just in Europe or in the Pacific but on the “front lines” of factories and on the farms of America also. Lew had been schooled on his family’s Ohio farm in hard work. He hired out as a “day hand” or as a “month hand” when his neighbors were short of men but long on work, so he resolved to do his part for the war.
Because it was his patriotic duty and since years before he had left off school after the eighth grade and had begun to earn an honest wage repairing machinery and operating it on the farms of the area, he jumped at the chance to study aircraft maintenance at the National Youth Administration Camp, the “NYA,” when it opened nearby. He saw this, also, as an escape from the dead end of the farm; it was at once a stile over the barbed-wire fence of his family farm bridging the way to a world beyond the Ohio, a world that became especially real when word came in ’42 that the Army Air Corps had opened a repair facility in the Southern port city of Mobile and had need of trained mechanics.
Thus, in March of 1942, at the age of twenty-two, he said “good-bye” to the life he had known in Ohio and—with a comrade from the NYA camp—he turned the wheel of his auto south for Brookley Field, Mobile, Alabama to join thousands of other state-side warriors. That is how my father-to-be came to the steamy port of Mobile and there to wait unwittingly two years for my mother to find her way into his life.
In May of 1944 a pretty Alabama girl, next to the youngest of nine children of Theodore Noah Webster Moates (Noah) and Katie Robertia Holland Moates (Bertie), who lived in the wiregrass and peanut country near Dothan, graduated senior high school. The following day she packed a single plain suitcase and boarded the Trailways bus that displayed a sign in the narrow window over the driver’s head that read “Mobile.” The world she saw lay open to her, like a picnic cloth laden with opportunity. The Maritime Commission in the port of Mobile was hiring secretaries she had read.
Her typing and shorthand classes could be put to good use there, much better there than in the cotton and peanut farming community of Dothan. Soon Audrey Moates had a steady job at the dry docks and ship building facility on the Bay and she shared with new friend May Burnham a pleasant room located within walking distance of work.
Their accommodations were in a boarding house for respectable young women, where they resided with five other girls and the proprietress. Money was scarce and commodities rationed, so entertainment often meant strolls in the park and attendance at church meetings reached on foot—first at the stately First Baptist Church, then at Hershel Hobbs’ church on Dauphin Street, Dauphin Way Baptist.
There the Ohio mechanic and the Alabama typist first encountered each other, but only across the room. They were “nodding” acquaintances in the BYPU, Baptist Young People’s Union that congregated on Sunday night deep within the gothic glory of Dauphin Way. They smiled shyly across the circle of folding chairs and said a quiet “hello” when they saw each other but did not otherwise speak directly.
Lew and Audrey actually met formally at a wedding. After prayer meeting on a Wednesday night, before the benediction, Pastor Hobbs addressed the congregation: “Please remain seated. We are going to have a wedding for Johnny and Vera, here.” The bride and groom stood before the preacher. Audrey and May, seated next to each other in the pew near the front, wanted a better view of the ceremony. They each shifted, one a little to the right, the other to the left. Thus a fateful gap opened between the two roommates. Small acts, deliberate or unintended, can be like intersections on a county road, little noted and unmarked but journey shaping. That gap is one such fork in this story.
Seconds before the rituals began, a handsome young man slipped into the pew and sat down between the girls. They did not protest. They recognized him from BYPU and he was so dapper, with his blond hair wavy and his physique muscular. The wedding was simple and beautiful. “I do—I do. I promise—I promise.” Rings exchanged. “I pronounce you husband and wife.” Kiss! Mr. and Mrs. John Lance. Applause. Benediction. Time to go.
As the smiling crowd drifted out of the door and cascaded down the steps of the church, the trio ambled out together. And—being or playing the gentleman he was or wanted to be—Lewis insisted that he walk the young ladies home to their boardinghouse. The three of them walked side-by-side, Audrey-Lew-May. The autumn air was clean and crisp, and the stars winked slyly from the sky at the sight of the three. It could have been so romantic—for a couple.
“Good night!” said Audrey,
“Good night!” said Lew and nodded.
“Good night!” repeated May.
“‘Night!” Lew replied and smiled at both. Then he turned and disappeared into the night. So began a pattern for the next several weeks: the young Yankee mechanic would walk home the secretaries from Alabama after every service, after every meeting, saying good-bye at the door. Then, safe in their rooms, alternately giggling and jealous, the girls wondered, “Who is this guy interested in, anyway? He surely looks interested. Don’t he?” “Yeah! And interesting, too,” they agreed.
The answer came the week before Christmas. The telephone rang in the hall of the boarding house. It was Mr. Matteson calling for Miss Moates. “Audrey!…Audrey! It’s for you.”
“Would yah . . . ah . . . celebrate Christmas with me? I can’t get back home to Ohio for the holidays. . . . I’ll be alone in the city and I was a-wondering. . . .”
“Oh, Lewis! How sweet! Thank y’all ever so much for askin’ me . . . but Aah can’t. Aah’ve got to spend Christmas with my cousin and all. You know how family is.”
“Sure. Maybe we can get together another time?”
“That would be nice. Aah’d like that swell.”
“Bye…Oh! Y’all have a Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks. . . . and, uh . . . you, too . . . Bye.”
“Bye, now.” . . . Click!
Lew was not ready to “meet the family” before he had had a single date. But a week later he found an occasion and the nerve to try again when Roy Rauls suggested to Lew that they double date in his auto and so celebrate New Year’s Eve. When Lew telephoned a second time, Audrey agreed to go to the movies with Lew, accompanied by Roy and a girl named Carol.
Pooling their ration coupons, they rode in Roy’s roadster. Newspaper advertisements of the day proclaimed the premier of National Velvet introducing Elizabeth Taylor, but Lew and Audrey never recalled what was showing that first date; instead they remembered the excitement of a charming conversation partner and the agony of doubt, the pain of “does he (she) really care for me or not?” Haltingly, the courtship began—uncertainly but yet decisively.
Romance among the Tombs
Long walks after church continued, but now, instead of a threesome, a couple promenaded arm-in-arm the oak-arched streets scented with azalea and camellia blooms. But they did not stop at the boarding house door when they reached it but walked on to Magnolia Cemetery. Among the tombstones and statues of lost loved ones, the young and very much alive lovers talked privately, overheard only by the eavesdropping but departed residents of the graveyard, who could keep secrets well.
They preferred the garden-like setting with crinoline pink azaleas and stately oak trees to the cramped parlor of the boarding house that they must always share with three or five other couples. The cemetery was an oasis in the heart of the concrete and brick metropolis. It was their secret garden.
Lew and Audrey talked for hours of family back on the farm, of their hopes and dreams, about what life might bring for them. They came first to appreciate, then to admire, then to adore each other. Their love blossomed among the tombs, beneath marble angels and lambs, “gone but not forgotten.” Yet there was a price to pay for the intimacy: Lew constantly swatted at mosquitoes, and he frequently returned from their tête-à-têtes with new angry red dots on his neck and arms, where he had lost a battle with a particularly fearless and wily kamikaze insect.
Late in the evening, frequently, the couple returned to the boarding house, only to irritate the landlady as Audrey inadvertently rang the door bell; “Riiiing!” it went, when she swooned against the door jam. So romantic and dreamy were those goodnight kisses that she forgot to avoid the door bell button. How blissful it was! At least until the angry face of the landlady appeared in the crack beside the door jam. Day-by-day the early spring gave way to late spring and the couple grew accustomed to their own company. Was it love? Was he (she) “the One”?
May 10, 1945
Amid the beauty of the azaleas and camellias, on May 10, so Mother often and precisely told me, “Your father asked me casually, ‘Would you marry me?’” I suspect—knowing Dad as I did years later—that he intended his question to mean, “Do you care enough for me to marry me sometime in the vague and distant future if I were really to ask you?” But that is not what he said. He was hesitantly testing the waters, but he slipped and fell in. Audrey did not hesitate. She did not pause to test anything since her heart had decided weeks before. She jumped into the water with both feet. “Yes, I will marry you, Lewis Matteson! I will marry you!”
In the face of her delight and to Audrey’s dismay, Lew was disappointed in her answer. He was unprepared. He did not have an engagement ring. He had envisioned a grander gesture and a more orchestrated scene when he did actually “pop the question.” He had anticipated something different, more than a simple question and an overwhelmingly positive response. Audrey joked years later, “He was disappointed because he wanted to beg me to marry him. But I fooled him; he had asked me to marry him and I had accepted. We were engaged.”
A week and a day later, the great events of the war swept over the lives of the newly engaged couple: the war in Europe ended. V-E Day was a day of joyous celebration. The war, the interminable war that had been both the background and the center of all thought and action was truly ending. But for Lew the joy quickly faded, to be replaced by a gnawing dread.
The end of the war could mean the end of employment for Lew and Audrey. Lew had seen in the years before the war what unemployment could do to a family. Lew had promised to marry, but he was determined not to marry unless he could provide for his bride. After a long talk beneath the magnolias, the couple agreed to wait until the war had ended and their employment situation was settled before they “tied the knot.”
So the courtship languished, waiting, waiting for the great battles and struggles that blacked the headlines of the Mobile Press Register to end, waiting as if they were spies anticipating secret coded instructions from a clandestine operative among the public notices. Thus, August 6, 1945 was a day that forever changed the history of the entire world and of the lives of Lew and Audrey in particular.
A bright, searing light blazed above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow earthlings were obliterated in the flash. The world had finally reached the edge of the pit of global destruction and had begun its dance on the rim above the abyss. The shock waves from that blast reverberated around the earth.
Within two weeks, after a second device detonated over Nagasaki, the Empire of the Rising Sun capitulated and unconditionally surrendered. Peace and victory were at last a reality. The world war was over. V-J Day exploded, too, in a wild rejoicing of release for Americans everywhere; but amid the celebration, uncertainty and apprehension seized Lew. “What will happen now? I could get ‘riffed’” he wondered.
He dreaded the vision that haunted him: a jobless husband and an impoverished wife. He had seen the drama played out before. That was not for him! He had always worked and provided for his meager needs, but far from the farmland of Marion County, Ohio, he was stricken with doubt that he could support them both.
Home to Dothan
Audrey saw things differently, however. “His straddling the fence is not the act of a man in love,” she thought. “He is gettin’ cold feet.” She could not bear to see him again. The pain of rejection was too great. Audrey caught the bus home to Dothan.
The red dirt roads led through familiar fields of cotton arrayed in their summer green. A month more and the pickers would take to the fields with their long sacks slung over their shoulders, bent at the waist, moving slowly, stripping tufts of snow from the withering plants. The cotton gin on the acreage next to the house would be sending up billowing clouds of lint, smelling of earth and dried leaves. But now the air smelled of pine needles and wildflowers. Instantly she felt safe in the clapboard house that wrapped its comforting arms around her. Soon she was absorbed again in the domestic routine of home. She could finally put out of her mind the pain she had suffered in the cemetery.
Then, only two days after she had walked up the broad pine steps of the back porch with her plaid suitcase in hand, a letter arrived postmarked, “Mobile, Ala.” She recognized the handwriting. In the kitchen, shelling peas with Nell, Audrey shared the “pitiful” letter from Lewis. He pleaded with her to marry him as soon as possible. He professed his love and begged her to forgive him his uncertainty. Nell looked up from the pages and the pea hulls and said, “This man loves you. Marry him!” And Audrey agreed.
Events developed quickly then. Lew had also earlier written Pa, Audrey’s father, to ask for her hand in marriage. Pa’s only comment had been, “That was some letter!” He had no other response. Now he stood by, stoic and silent as ever.
Among the heirlooms that sweetly document the reality of these events is a telegram dated August 29, 1945, 12:32 pm. It was a practical itinerary at its inception but has become a public declaration over the years; it reads:
“HI AUDREY IN BREWTON NOW LEAVING TWELVE THIRTY SHOULD ARRIVE FOUR THIRTY PM LOVE=LOUIS”
When he did arrive on the 4:30 bus, the couple proceeded directly from the Trailways station to the courthouse, where veterans of the other great wars of the twentieth century gathered under the pecan trees and relived their battles in clouds of Bull-of-the-Woods and Prince-Albert-in-the-can tobacco smoke and reviewed the strategies of remembered campaigns over battlefields of red and black checkers. Inside the courthouse the obligatory blood test was performed and the license inscribed. The legislated three-day wait began.
The Zbender Parsonage
The time was not wasted, however; there was not a minute to spare; plans must be made. The wedding would occur at the parsonage of the Headland Baptist Church with Pastor Zbender presiding. Lew was prepared this time, with a gold band he had purchased in July at Gabriel’s Jewelry of Mobile. The flowers, a bouquet of yellow sweetheart roses, were ordered.
“If only Pa would take a few hours off from his carpentry job and come to the wedding,” Audrey sighed. “It would be perfect.” But Pa did not attend weddings. He rarely went to church and always seemed uncomfortable with the formality of such occasions. He had no time for such things. Weddings and such were for Bertie to attend to. His was earning a wage to put food on the table.
At last it was time. The wedding party included a few family friends, the couple, and family members: a brother, Ma Bertie—“Mother”—and three sisters, Nell, Mary and Vivian. And what sisters! Mary and Vivian, the very image of legendary elder sisters, loved to tease and torment Audrey with pranks. They did not stop with a wedding; it was too tempting an opportunity.
Mary volunteered to collect the bridal corsage from the florist. “How thoughtful!” But she had another agenda. She asked the florist to show her out back to the garbage can in the alley behind the shop. There she carefully selected from the wilted and decaying compost the components for a second disgusting bouquet that she tied with a yellow ribbon and placed in a second fresh floral box.
Back at the house, Mary delivered the box dramatically. As the couple prepared to depart for the parsonage, the box was opened. Lew was crestfallen with dismay and disappointment when he looked at its contents. But laughter filled the room at Audrey’s sweet, innocent reply to his consternation: “Flowers don’t really matter. All that matters is that we’re together.” But the couple did not share everyone else’s amusement when the real flowers were shortly produced. They only blushed—relieved but embarrassed—embarrassed at their gullibility and flabbergasted by an impish sister’s mischief.
August 31, nearly September, had come. The parsonage was ready, they knew. Mrs. Zbender would have seen to that. The party rode excitedly to the parsonage, but Pa was not among them. All of Audrey’s pleading would not persuade him to agree to come with them. Yet, as the bride and groom—with Ma Bertie beside them—walked up the path to the front door of the Zbender home, they saw a figure reclining in the shade of a magnolia tree beside the door—a tan, lanky frame clad in white carpenter overalls and smoking a Camel cigarette.
It was Pa! As they approached, he silently rose and greeted them, expressionless. His nervousness was not immediately apparent even though his hand shook as it always did with “the palsy,” until he mumbled “Glad y’all could come,” as he shook his wife’s hand. Then he leaned down and kissed the groom on the cheek!
Mrs. Zbender had exerted her best efforts to make the ceremony memorable. The parlor was arranged with a large mirror behind her husband so all could see the faces of the bride and groom. Pastor Zbender did his best too. The ceremony was mercifully brief but meaningful. After the “plighting of troths” and the “’til death do you part,” the couple kissed and the deed was done.
From simple promises life-long compacts issue. Lew was so impressed with the proceedings that afterward, while the crowd exchanged hugs and congratulations, the groom, in a typical fit of generosity, instead of the ten dollar honorarium that he had planned, slipped the surprised pastor an “Andy Jackson,” a twenty dollar bill. The pastor’s wife was pleased.
One last formality remained—the signing of the marriage license. Before the ink was dry, Bertie snatched up the document and declared that they must immediately proceed to the courthouse to register it and have an official seal attached. As the matriarch marched the wedding party out the door, she explained that her girls, married to service men, had had so much trouble getting their allotment checks from Uncle Sam that she would take no more chances assuring the legal status of any union of her children.
Then it was a short ride to the bus station and the newly weds were on their way to Panama City, Florida, for their honeymoon. Audrey blew kisses with a gloved hand as the bus pulled back from the station; Lew leaned over and waved too, smiling. The air was still and the sun shone unblinking on the tarmac. It was the hottest day of the year, the hottest any of the veterans under the pecan trees could remember, but with the windows open and the air streaming through the coach, it was bearable. Audrey and Lew were resplendent, she in her new teal dress and midnight blue sequined pillbox, he in a light-colored tweed suit with maroon and cream silk tie with matching handkerchief.
The passengers shot knowing looks at the couple and then exchanged smiles, as Audrey and Lew whispered to each other and bowed their heads together like mourning doves. The countryside slid by, the rows of cotton plants fanning across the window pivoting on the horizon, the telephone wires dancing up and down in time to the music of the tires on the pavement. As the bus approached Hathaway Bridge the passengers began to relax and settle in for the journey.
At the exact mid-point of Hathaway Bridge, black smoke began to stream from the rear of the bus and the comforting rumble of the diesel engine stopped abruptly, with an alarming “cough” and “clunk.” The motor coach coasted to a silent stop. The driver opened the hot, shiny metal doors at the rear of the bus and a dark cloud roiled out and rose straight into the still August sky. The engine was hopeless. Soon the bus was an oven, and Audrey’s beautiful dress began to darken under the sleeves. Lew removed his coat and tie, and Audrey tried to take off her smart pillbox hat. When she did, her forehead was dotted with sequins that adhered to her perspiring face.
Hours passed. Finally, a second bus hissed to a stop beside the stricken vehicle, and the honeymoon couple resumed their Odyssey. Audrey’s dress bore large indelible purple water marks under the arms as souvenirs of the ordeal of the trip, but that only made the sight of the sugar-white beaches of Panama City more welcome. The couple did not go to the beach that day, however; it rained. And it rained every day they were there. But as Mother told it to me, it was “perfect honeymoon weather—no place to go, nothing to do except only be together.” Thus, was born the family maxim and superstition: “It always rains on important days in our family.”
The rain ended only when they returned to Mobile. When Lew and Audrey arrived at their upstairs apartment, their new home, they found a basket of “goodies” that Ma Bertie had sent by way of Audrey’s elder brother, Louie: a quilt, some preserves, some sugar and other rationed items. From the windows of the second floor apartment the couple looked out over the century-old oaks. In a “tree house” they began their life together, one they shared for fifty-three years, until Audrey died in 1998. “’Til death due us part” was more than a motto to them from beginning to end.
I joined the couple seventeen months later, but that is another chapter. So there is the story, their story, and the start of my story, too. It is a small history that was repeated with varying filigrees of woes and joys by millions of other couples in the middle of a century of struggle and of hope. It is a story that can be told simply in one breath: they met, they loved, they married, they made a life together.
Simple to tell, but the intricate twists make it uniquely their history and my history, also, and that makes it important to us who are their family and yours, for while the singular grand epics play large on the stage of history, the myriad quiet and private scenes lack no significance for their walk-on players who deliver their few quiet lines and then depart , stage right. In retrospect all of history was ordained; yet, in the living of it, all is contingent. And there lies the romance, the drama, the comedy, and the tragedy.
History is writ both with two inch headlines and eight point type. Thus the impact of a single weapon that split the impalpable atoms of a kilo of uranium and that instantly destroyed a hundred thousand lives is, in truth, monumental, but no more so than the repercussion of the union of this single couple repeated one hundred million times over. A hundred million times were we born with the Bomb; thus, Boomers, we are—indeed, siblings of this age. Verily, we are children of the boom, all of us, and this is our story.