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The GI Generation

The GI Generation: A Memoir

Frank F. Mathias
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The GI Generation
    Book Description:

    Frank Mathias was born in Maysville, Kentucky, (pop. 7000) in 1925 and grew up in nearby Carlisle (pop. 1500), where life in his small town was much like that in towns and villages all across America. He came of age in an era of total security; his parents never even had a key to their front door. Daily living was infused with gossip; no one had a secret, and everyone knew everyone else's business. Outdoor life was a vital part of growing up, and teachers and mentors instilled a sense of right and wrong in young people. Raised during the Great Depression, Mathias became a member of a fighting force the likes of which the world had never known, a legion now called "The Greatest Generation."The GI Generationtells Mathias's story of growing up with the sweet whistle of the L&N train and the summer-kitchen smells of hot salt-rising bread and blackberry cobbler, which could instantly halt even the most rousing game of cowboys and Indians. Much of community life focused on the local high school, which, in Mathias's case, was a tiny one with no chemistry courses, no drivers' training, and no guidance counselors. Yet the one hundred students who graduated between 1942 and 1944 became university professors, top executives, military commanders, successful investors, lawyers, and physicians. A vivid portrait of a bucolic pre-war boyhood,The GI Generationtakes readers back to an era when boys rustled watermelons under the hot summer sun and young lovers danced to the sounds of farmhouse bands. Whether describing the unfortunate (but delicious) end of his brother's pet chicken, Don, or the ominous clouds of war, Mathias writes with humor, honesty, and compassion.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4988-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. 1 Lucky and Nannie
    (pp. 1-9)

    The British Colonial Office seldom hired missionaries or lawyers as diplomats, believing they followed either God or the law too closely for the comfort of other viewpoints. It might have rejected my mother, but I feel “Lucky,” my father, would have been a star performer at some far-flung outpost of empire. I base this assumption on the evidence of his dealings with Brother Cedric Peel.

    Almost annually Lucky and several of his fishing friends went for a try at the muskies said to swarm in Mazey Creek. This was a sixty-mile drive, the last half over dirt and gravel roads....

  5. 2 Carlisle and Maysville
    (pp. 10-21)

    I was born into America’s first modern decade, a tangled time struggling to live with Prohibition, the recent advent of radio and jazz, Sigmund Freud, “scandalous” feminine fashions, and the lurid revival of the Ku Klux Klan. For all I know, the fright the Klan gave my mother during her honeymoon may account for my somewhat nervous disposition. The honeymooners were Louisville-bound but stopped for the night in Frankfort. They chose the wrong night. That evening a mile-long parade of hooded, torch-wielding Klansmen marched past their hotel. The lovely honeymoon room quivered in the flickering torchlight. The procession was venomously...

  6. 3 Our Main Street Neighborhood
    (pp. 22-36)

    Sinclair Lewis knew what he was doing when he choseMain Streetas the title for his sensational novel of 1920. The title linked his overly satirical story with most small towns in America, for nearly every one of them had a Main Street. My hometown’s Main Street was about like the rest, I suppose. It lived up to its name in telling where the action was. Sunday mornings it gave way to churchgoers, but Saturday afternoons found farmers and tradesmen, matinee movie fans, shoppers, courthouse denizens, and coveys of kids scurrying back and forth with all the hurly-burly of...

  7. 4 Cigars and Cinnamon Balls
    (pp. 37-48)

    The first grade beckoned. It was the day after Labor Day in Depression-ridden 1931. Dad kissed me and drove off to work; Mom walked me two blocks to Carlisle’s one big public school building.

    When Mom and I entered the first grade room, I looked it over and decided I was not going to like it. Miss McCloud, the attractive young teacher introduced herself as the bell rang. She began talking to the class, telling us how much she would enjoy teaching us. But as she talked the mothers left, slipping silently out through the cloakroom. I kept my eye...

  8. 5 Hammering Catfish and Other Events
    (pp. 49-60)

    Winter had its charms, in spite of what Lucky said every time he wrestled with the chains on his tires. The upper Ohio Valley has much bitter winter weather and over twenty inches of snow annually. Thirty below zero is Carlisle’s temperature record, but several below-zero days usually come to town each year. Coal-burning stoves held winter at bay, but on windless days a light sift of coal soot fell like black snow on hair, skin, shirt, or dress. Kids were warned never to rub or flick it off but always to blow it off. This kept the soot from...

  9. 6 The Uncommon Cold and the Specialty Man
    (pp. 61-71)

    There was no cure for the “uncommon cold” until Smith Brothers shipped three cases of their cough drops to our home. One of the joys of being the son of a wholesale grocery salesman was the arrival of edible, chewable, or suckable promotion samples. Lucky handed out samples along his route, often making a sale of the same brand. As nearly as I can remember, the cough drops came in menthol, lemon, cherry, and horehound flavors. Speck and I begged a few packets and found them almost as good as candy—good enough to swipe, in other words. Dad soon...

  10. 7 Major and Minor
    (pp. 72-82)

    My schoolboy daydreams fancied a genie swirling out of a bottle to grant my wishes. The football prowess of Jack Cassidy and “Bugs” Green was mine. The girls all admired me and I soundly thrashed every bully in town. No genie showed up; I was tightly stuck in place as a physical “late bloomer,” not reaching “keeper size” until my senior year. Unknowingly, I was already unraveling my predicament.

    Schoolboys need an identity beyond their home folks. Some find it in athletics or scholarship, others in acting silly or even in bullying. I found mine in music. My genie had...

  11. 8 The Forces of Nature
    (pp. 83-98)

    Lucky Mathias was always at ease with the forces of nature, and I did my best to follow in his often muddy footsteps. Profit, however, united with Mother Nature’s forces during my seventh-grade autumn when I discovered that money lay thickly among the October leaves under black walnut and hickory trees. Vivian Scott’s produce house paid seventy-five cents a bushel for hulled walnuts or hickory nuts. Although Andrew and I had picked a peck or two for his candy gifts, this small annual harvest was nothing compared to what Speck and I gathered between 1937 and 1943, the year I...

  12. 9 They Called Him Lucky
    (pp. 99-108)

    Mom called him Charlie, his sisters called him Charles, his sons called him Dad, but everyone else in his world called him Lucky. He signed Lucky to his checks and letters. Mail to him from acquaintances was always addressed to Lucky Mathias. Few people in town knew his real name. He liked it that way; I never once heard him complain.

    He did not remember how he picked up his nickname but assumed with everyone else that fishing had something to do with it. Few would argue that he was not the best fisherman in the county. Some held that...

  13. 10 A Shoeshine and a Smile
    (pp. 109-118)

    Lucky Mathias supported his family as a wholesale grocery salesman. It was an uncomplicated job and an era in which a salesman could get by on little more than a “shoeshine and a smile.” He worked for Lexington’s Bryan-Hunt and Company, calling on grocers and restaurants in Nicholas, Fleming, Robertson, Bourbon, and Harrison Counties. The largest communities were Paris and Cynthiana, with populations of six thousand and four thousand respectively. Village and country grocers held most of the purchasing power. Supermarkets lay in the future, but small Kroger and A&P stores were in three of the county seat towns. “I...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 11 Burma Shave and Buzzard Roost
    (pp. 119-129)

    Lucky believed Dunn’s the best place to spend a night in his territory, but he ranked the Stewart Girls’ house in the Fleming County crossroads village of Elizaville as the best place to eat. Five sisters cooked and served dinners (the noon meal) that were works of art. They conducted their business in a handsome frame home near the crossroads. Drummers (traveling salesmen) were always in a majority, yet they were not there only for the superb meals or the silver, china, and linen table settings but also to exchange gossip, pass on useful information, and renew acquaintances. All knew...

  16. 12 Foo-fighters and Kinniconick
    (pp. 130-139)

    Superstitions floated like jack-o’-lanterns in the mists and foggy hollows of the Ohio Valley. I heard many when on the road with Dad, and since Mom pooh-poohed them with such disdain, I believed a few in self-defense.

    Cats were nightmarish creatures to some folks. Mom was disgusted to find that Dad “sort of” believed leaving a sleeping baby unguarded was to invite a cat in to suck its breath and kill it. Several grocers held that cats usually hunkered around a house where a funeral was in progress, hoping to leap up on the corpse and gnaw its face. A...

  17. 13 Making Do with the Great Depression
    (pp. 140-152)

    That word,Depression, was to me a designated way of life, like Democrat, Republican, town, country, Catholic, or Protestant. I had no memory of life without it; it was happening, so what? Since food, shelter, and clothing—love—came my way, typical boyhood concerns were all that really mattered until Pearl Harbor awakened me to larger issues. I think my generation generally took a casual view of the Depression, dismissing it whenever possible, like certain disagreeable aspects of school and religion. Perhaps we were too young to do otherwise.

    Lucky and Nannie had no childish quibbles but met the Depression...

  18. 14 Cops, Robbers, and Characters
    (pp. 153-167)

    Nicholas County has always been a safe place to live, but this is not to say that crime, such as it was, took a holiday between the wars. We kids sometimes penetrated the trappings of shady activities better than adults. Take “Hinky,” for example. He was a kindly appearing soul who puttered around Courthouse Square most Saturday afternoons. Hinky always wore a long black overcoat that hung down to the calves of his legs. He invariably tipped his floppy felt hat to the ladies, revealing salt-and-pepper gray hair, and he had an encouraging word or two for one and all....

  19. 15 Summertime
    (pp. 168-179)

    Each year I faced summer like a miser counting his gold. The hoard of days from May Day to Labor Day were my treasure and were approached with the greedy hope I could somehow spend them yet keep them. May Day annually gave tangible form to my naïve hopes.

    May Day is a traditional spring festival in many northern countries. The old Soviet Union, for example, celebrated it as an international labor holiday. Although not as widespread as it once was, May Day festivals in the United States usually follow English tradition in the crowning of a May Queen and...

  20. 16 Hanging around Town
    (pp. 180-193)

    Carnivals were welcomed to town each summer. They set up rides, the midway, and living quarters on Jackson Field, the pasture where autumn football games were played. Unlike the movies, they were live, gaudy, and challenging, appealing to all five senses. One could risk a few cents gambling, or be the big man by ringing a gong with a sledgehammer, or eat cotton candy and caramel apples, or best of all, walk back and forth on the midway exchanging glances and quips with girls who were there for exactly the same purpose. And anyone jaded with the usual offering had...

  21. 17 Camp Black Hawk and Carlisle Christianity
    (pp. 194-206)

    A bad day comes to everyone now and then, but few post an advance lookout against it by pinning down exactly its date on the calendar. I did. The worst of all days for me was Labor Day, the last day of summer vacation. I was usually swimming at Black Hawk with my buddies, and the sun was going down. The day was going to end. I wanted the good times to go on endlessly, so we could be free to swim and be pals forever. “Hey, Bobby, Steamboat; hey, Popeye, Davey, don’t put your clothes on yet. C’mon, let’s...

  22. 18 Maysville on My Mind
    (pp. 207-219)

    Going alone to Maysville for a summer stay with kinfolks meant getting scrubbed and packed, with repeated warnings from Mom to “behave yourself and act like you’ve got some gumption.” She sent me on the way with a kiss the first time when I was six years old.

    Each summer I walked to the depot, carrying a small carpet-bag with two weeks’ worth of clothes. I averaged about fifty cents in spending money and, until up in grade school, always had a little sign pinned to my chest: “Frank Furlong Mathias to Maysville, c/o J.B. Furlong, 122 E. 5th Street.”...

  23. 19 The Queen City and the Kings
    (pp. 220-236)

    Travel was safe between the wars. In the summer of 1935, when I was ten, I went by bus from downtown Carlisle to downtown Cincinnati. Once I arrived, a bystander directed me to a streetcar routed out Warsaw Avenue to Price Hill, where I visited Mom’s widowed sister Anna Martin Gilkey and family. Nannie had spent 1916 with the Gilkeys in El Paso, Texas.

    A strange thing happened as we chugged up Warsaw; men and women began crying throughout the car. I was worriedly puzzled—only at funerals had I heard or seen such sobs and tears. “Will Rogers has...

  24. 20 Life Went on as Usual
    (pp. 237-249)

    Nicholas Countians, like most Americans, had little fear that the United States would be, or even could be, sucked into another European war. I had never seen a chestnut, but I knew what adults meant when they said, “We’ll not pull Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire this time.” We joined most of our countrymen in hunkering determinedly behind traditional Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Ocean barricades, following the ups and downs of the new war as pictured inLifemagazine, a sanitized version of the horrible mess unfolding in Europe. Meanwhile, the war, like the proverbial camel, soon had more...

  25. 21 Poetry and War
    (pp. 250-259)

    For years I had no idea that my education had been “Oh so tragically flawed!” as some sighed, by the Depression. There was, I suppose, good reason to think so. From the first grade through high school, there were no math teams, no debate teams, no chemistry courses, no math beyond geometry, no school newspaper or year-book, no advanced placement classes, no guidance counselors, and no drivers’ training. The town had no library, and the school library held no more than two hundred books and a set of theWorld Book Encyclopedia. I of course accepted things as they were,...

  26. 22 The Music Goes Round and Round
    (pp. 260-267)

    My audition came during a rehearsal of the Kentucky Kavaliers in the century-old Maysville Armory. My pulse pounded as I walked into the big drill and dance hall. The musicians were seated on a bandstand behind swank silver and blue “Portadesks” with KAVALIERS stylishly lettered across the fronts. I was frightened and prayed silently for help. Moore, a small but attractive man in his mid-twenties, introduced himself and then turned to his band: “Hey everybody, quiet, let me introduce Frank Mathias; he’s trying out for the second tenor seat tonight.”

    Band members, some as old as forty but most much...

  27. Postscript
    (pp. 268-268)

    I wish to honor the following classmates and friends who were killed in action defending the United States during World War II:

    Donnell Baugus

    Nick Feeback

    Ollie Guthrie

    William Hopkins

    Kenneth Jolly

    Fred Kendall

    Marion Letcher

    Robert Mathias

    Andrew Metcalfe

    Franklin Sousely...