Water Wells and World War II: Rationing and Scrap Metal Drives
Columnist Remembers Another Difficult, Unusual Time
It’s no secret to any of you readers that we are in difficult, unusual times. I think most of our elected leaders are trying their best to protect us citizens from Coronavirus, sometimes called Covid-19, but they really don’t know what to do. There are some exceptions, where their decisions seem rather stupid and nonsensical. But I agree that the stay-at-home orders are effective, if unpleasant.
When I send columns to my editor, I usually add a few comments not for publication about my most recent effort. Last month, I included the statement that I was living in the darnedest time I had ever lived in. He communicated back that this, to him, was a strong and somewhat scary statement considering I had lived through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 9/11 and two decades of this century. I replied that he missed two of the big decades in my life: the 1940s, which included World War II, and the 1950s, which I remember as good times.
Since then, I got to thinking that the World War II era from December 1941 to September 1945 was, for us in the United States, also a difficult and unusual time. Talking to a granddaughter on the phone recently, she asked me if what we are going through is like the World War II days. I responded that I think this is much worse, because in those times we knew who the enemy was and how to defeat them. Now we can’t see the enemy and don’t really know how to beat it.
So, with the editor’s permission, I’m going to write some lines about what I remember about the time 1941 to 1945, and how it affected me and the water well and pump industry. I was 6 years and 8 months old when the Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. I was 10 years and 5 months old when the Japanese surrendered in September 1945. I’m sure many people, most of whom are deceased, had more vivid memories of that time but I’m going to write what I do remember.
I am aware that most of you readers did not live in that time. But I remember at least four important matters from World War II for civilians: blackouts, saboteurs, scrap drives, and — the most dreaded of all — rationing. That rationing included many materials needed to drill a well or install a pump.
The blackouts were a requirement at night. We covered the windows of houses when lights were on so the enemy could not see anything to bomb. The fact that they did not have planes capable of reaching our country did not seem to occur to anyone. At night, we put curtains and heavy blankets on the windows.
Saboteurs of that era are what we now call terrorists. Their supposed targets included war industry plants, public utilities and other things that would harm the populace. I don’t think I ever heard of any sabotage in the area where I lived, and about 25 miles away was the famous Willow Run plant. This plant, operated by Ford Motor Company, produced B-24 four-engine bomber planes. I understand from people who worked there that it took nearly a year to produce the first plane, and in the last year of its operation the plant produced 27 bombers in 24 hours and worked 7 days a week. I never heard of any sabotage at that plant but, needless to say, security was very, very tight.
Scrap drives were quite common in rural areas and at the one-room school I attended we did several, accumulating small mountains of scrap iron. Today, collecting old farm tractors built between 1910 and 1940 is a cottage industry. Well, for that matter, any older tractor — either original or rebuilt to better than new. These tractors are more common than one might expect, but the implements of those days — plows, harrows, rakes, mowers and things like that — are just about impossible to find. They were melted down for scrap during the war.
Rationing affected every person in the United States. We rationed just about anything of value. A partial list, as best I can remember, included gasoline, rubber tires, meat, sugar, butter, shoes and, yes, steel pipe, pumps, tanks and valves used in our industry. Local ration boards issued every person a ration booklet filled with stamps that had to be surrendered to make a purchase. If you did not have the stamps, you could not purchase that item. For instance, a butcher shop might need a certain number of stamps for a beef roast. If you had the stamps, you could buy it. If you didn’t, no way.
One of the more humorous parts of this rationing was the fact that butter was really, really hard to get. Grocers substituted margarine, which in those days my mother called oleo. (I think the correct name for margarine is “oleomargarine.”) Now, there was a law in those days — at least in Michigan — that margarine could not be sold if it was yellow and looked like butter. Housewives purchased something that looked a lot like lard, a kind of whitish-gray gooey substance, that was not appetizing to look at. A package of granular dye was included. The purchaser was expected to let the oleo warm up and then knead in the dye, resulting in a product that looked like butter. Some years later, these laws rescinded and we have the yellow margarine many of us buy and enjoy today. However, my wife and I still use butter.
That’s all I’m going to write about the home front during WWII. I think you get the idea. It wasn’t a great time to be alive, but we were alive and living as best we could — very much like April 2020. Next time, I will write about the effect the war had on the water well and pump industry, as my father struggled to keep people in water with very limited resources. When I related these same stories to the same granddaughter who asked about our enemies of that era, her reaction was, “Crazy.” I think that is a pretty accurate reaction.
My infamous lawn is nice and green as I write near the end of April. It isn’t long enough to mow yet which will seem strange to you folks in the South, or at least south of Michigan, but temperatures have been plenty low. We had snow for three straight days last week, including about 2½ inches on Friday that all melted by Saturday — strange weather for strange times. ’Til next time, use your God-given brains to live safely and use common sense, which seems in short supply these days. Don’t forget to keep in touch with loved ones by telephone, email, what have you. With God’s help, we will all be here next time for me to write and you folks to read. I hope you learned something from this column. God bless you all.
For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.nationaldriller.com/schmitt.