Over and over, people express surprise when they learn that my mother worked in a bomb casing factory during World War II. Being Jewish, Communist and female influenced her taking that job in several ways. With her newly-acquired doctorate in English (1938), she hoped  to get a college teaching job, but prejudice against Jews, Communists and women kept her unemployed. We forget that in those days many colleges and universities, hospitals, and prestigious law firms refused to hire Jewish professionals. So she had nothing else to do when the war started but write for the People’s World and raise me—and I was already in elementary school by then. As it turned out, working in a war plant gave her material for her column in the People’s World—and I think as a Communist she would have valued the experience of being a factory worker and union member—or if she didn’t, the other party members working on the paper would have. When, much later, she wrote songs about factory work (“Carolina Cotton Mill,” “Overtime”) she knew what she was singing about.
 Malvina sings “Overtime,” © 1977 in support of a California Assembly Bill outlawing mandatory overtime. Single reissued on Malvina Reynolds CD.
The times were also an influence on taking that job. Malvina had been looking for a teaching job in the middle of the Depression. And my parents were supporters of the Loyalists in Spain, where some of their Communist friends were fighting against the Spanish Fascists (who were backed by the German Nazis). And by the time the United States entered the war in December, 1941, she had other reasons. For one, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. Then, according to Ronald Takaki in his eye-opening book Double Victory: A multicultural history of America in World War II, by August of 1941 Americans knew about the Nazi execution squads murdering thousands of Jewish civilians in the German invasion of Eastern Europe. By late 1942, the report of a Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish population of Germany and all German-held territory was confirmed by the American legation in Switzerland. Proportionally more Jews served in the US Armed Forces during the war than Americans as a whole. 
The Second World War also gave many women the opportunity to break into trades and occupations that had been closed to them. I don’t know if my mother had this in mind, but she was certainly conscious of the particular difficulties women faced as they began to work in factories and shipyards. My mother’s column about working on the line was called “War Plant,” published under her pen name of Marjorie Crane. The “as told to” was a fiction; these are her own experiences. I sometimes appeared as Pidge. Here’s a sample, from November 26, 1943, when I was eight-and-a-half. The little brother in this column was also a fiction.
When a Kid Gets a Cold the Job Stops
                    As told to Marjorie Crane
Pidge has a cold.
She needn’t have had it, except that nobody pays any attention to her. She comes in six, six-thirty, seven. She is wearing a cotton dress and short socks, and her thin arms feel icy cold in my hands. 
She moves away from me--her mind is still full of her play. I let her go, and pretty soon she wiggles onto my lap and puts her head on my shoulder. She doesn’t seem to mind that I smell of kerosene and machine oil.
In the night, I hear her coughing, and my heart contracts. Ever since she had the whooping-cough I’ve learned to start up wide awake and my heart beating like fury whenever I hear her cough.
Tomorrow I will have to stay home from work.
No, maybe I can take her to Ethel’s.
She doesn’t like to go away from home, and there aren’t any kids at Ethel’s or nearby--she has nothing to do there. 
We take her over in the evening. Pidge looks at me forlornly, as we go, she clings to me. We have had to leave her somewhere so often, like when we couldn’t afford our own place during the depression, and had to sleep where we could. We left her at Jen’s then, and would get out to see her maybe once in two weeks.
Jimmie never had that and he's littler. We broke him in to nursery school by stages, so he hardly turns around when I leave.
At the plant, I’m glad I didn’t stay home--at least five of the girls are absent. Tessie is working at Paula’s place on the assembly and two of the machines are standing idle. 
It wasn’t much of a cold. Maybe Pidge will be well enough to go to school tomorrow.
Her cold’s better all right, but she’s broken out all over in hives. 
I’d forgotten about the hives. We’re not sure what they come from--we tried everything, we tried cutting out this and that.
But Pidge and I have both noticed that she always gets them when I leave her someplace.
I have to sit up with her in the night, she can hardly stand the feel of the bedclothes. The only thing she wants is for me to hold her, and I am drunk with sleep. She whimpers and shivers like a sick pup.
So tomorrow we will clean house, and Piglet and Dinky will sit on the mantelpiece and give the orders. Dinky will tell us to dust the dishes and sweep the clothes and frost chops and iron the cookies. And Piglet will hit him over the head for being such a dope.
And Piglet will stick his nose in the honey jar and get all sticky. and Dinky will lick his nose to get the honey off.
Pidge is beginning to laugh now.
And that will tickle his nose so he’ll sneeze.
He’ll sneeze honey, she says, choking with laughter.
Pretty soon she falls asleep.
In the morning I call up to say my kid is sick and I can’t come to work.
Well, at least I can get the house clean.
The drawers and shelves and closets are half empty--everything is out in the rooms. On the chairs, on the chesterfield, on the floor.
Pidge has never learned to help; she throws her stuff wherever she finishes with it, and it lays there for days.*
In the long run it would be easier to take time and teach her, patiently, to put her stuff away, to learn to like to help. But on a 48-hour work week--with shopping, cooking, washing and ironing, you don’t do things in the long run.
So I will do a washing and defrost the refrigerator, and change the beds. And I’ll straighten up, and make a roast. Pidge will darn a couple of pairs of socks while she’s in bed--for an 8-year-old she makes a good darn, and will do it till she gets bored.
But how will I ever get to be a machinist. Plants can’t depend on people like me. With me, other things have to come first. When somebody’s sick, I’m the one to stay home. When the house gets so you can’t plough your way through, I’m the one that has to say “to hell with the job. I’ve got to clean out of this.”
I wonder who is working the planetary threader. Next time I go back, I’ll ask Rhoda if she’s ever wanted to run a machine. Texas wouldn’t do it; she’s scared of it. “I couldn’t do that,” she says to Joe, when he shows her.
And when the bases aren’t threaded, the whole line stops.

* I can’t believe my mother wrote ‘lays’ for ‘lies.’ Maybe this is what someone meant when they criticized her fake-proletarian style, or maybe it’s just a slip of the linotypist’s mind.

I remember darning socks in bed, and I remember the hives. I also got them when my parents visited me on the weekend in the summers during the war, when I stayed with my Aunt Jenny in Santa Cruz. The first of her houses that I remember was near the beach, and the floor of the basement was sand. The second was up a long slope. In the back yard were the chicken coop, a tangle of blackberry bushes and the vegetable garden (I remember onions and artichokes). In the house were my capable great-aunt and great-uncle and often a scattering of second-cousins of various sizes and ages. Saturday nights there was a poker game to observe, with chips to play with and cigar smoke to endure. Aunt Jennie showed me the forming eggs in a chicken she’d killed and taught me to make nine-patch squares. I further improved my mind by reading her books (I remember only Mary Lasswell’s Suds in Your Eye) and by reading comic books aloud to my younger cousin Freddy. Freddy had a BB gun, and we hunted snails with it in the blackberry jungle. When big cousin Eddie was around, we would wheedle a trip to the beach with him.     

I remember the whooping cough. My mother had to take Winnie-the-Pooh away from me because I was laughing so hard at Piglet’s description of Pooh in the Heffalump trap that it kept making me cough and whoop. There was no immunization against whooping cough then, or scarlet fever, or polio. I remember skating on the sidewalk at the end of the block with some friends, and the little brother of one skating behind us and falling. He was taken into the house, and I never saw him again. We learned that he died of polio. My mother’s description of her fright at my coughing reflects this reality. Children were in less danger from traffic then, but more danger from illness. The “Ethel” in the column was probably Aunt Bea (not really my aunt), who lived a few blocks away with her husband, Uncle Bill, who was in charge of the grounds at the School for the Blind, and had planted some of the redwood trees my father and I saw on our walks through the grounds and up the hill behind them. On the way up the little stream-worn canyon, my father would teach me the kinds of trees, bay, oak, buckeye, and at the top we would take turns pointing with long curls of eucalyptus bark at landmarks in the cities spread out below and guessing what the other was pointing at.

©2008 by Nancy Schimmel
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Malvina worked on an assembly line during World War II.