It was the only formal gown my mother Doris ever owned–aqua, short-sleeved, accented by lots of small ruffles. She needed it for the opening of the officer’s club at the Marfa Army Air Base in Texas. She’d just become an officer’s wife by marrying Warren Neal who’d earned his pilot’s wings.
WW II caused so many changes. Good ones, and awful ones.
After high school in Iowa, she’d played basketball for her tuition at A.I.B. in downtown Des Moines, worked at Bishop’s Cafeteria for two meals a day, but had to drop out when her Navy brothers couldn’t keep up with her $10 a month rent.
But Doris ended up waitressing–for Cronk’s Cafe in Guthrie Center, the Pattee Hotel and McDonald Drug Store, which had a soda fountain and restaurant area, in Perry. In fact, she was serving the after-church crowd at McDonalds when the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted the background radio music.
Doris later returned to the downtown Bishop’s Cafeteria, where her brother Dale stopped in when on furlough after becoming a pilot and earning his “wings.”
Dale Wilson and Warren Neal, both Iowa farmers, enlisted as cadets in the Army Air Force in 1942, became pilots, and were awarded their “wings” and became officers (2nd Lieutenants) on the same day in early 1943–Dale at Roswell, New Mexico. Warren at Marfa, Texas.
Dale was sent to North Carolina for combat training. Warren was retained at Marfa as an advanced instructor.
Doris had dated Warren off and on since high school and were writing each other during the war. Doris even wore his pilot’s wings on her coat.
But with four of her brothers already in the service, and calls for women to enlist to help with “the cause,” Doris collected recommendations from teachers and had begun the process to apply for the WAVES, the WW II women’s branch of the US Naval Reserve.
Warren was afraid they’d get separated forever so asked her to get married instead.
Doris, wearing an aqua suit, and Lt. Neal in uniform were married in May, 1943, in Iowa. Warren didn’t have a car so they caught a ride to Texas with another couple.
Their first home was the Crews’ Hotel in Marfa, since everything else was taken. Day after day, while Warren was instructing at the air base, Doris hunted for a cheaper place to live. But so did everyone else. Billy Crews, the hotel owner, said that he didn’t know what people did after he had to turn them away. Even the cots in the hotel halls were occupied.
Some people were even living in the hospital during those war years.
Right away Doris was invited to a tea for officers’ wives, then a luncheon. This Iowa waitress had all of a sudden become an officer’s wife.
The luncheon was quite a “henny affair,” she wrote home, but not as bad as she had feared.
She wrote home often, asking her mother to send hangers and other things they couldn’t buy–even needles to sew with. “Imagine an army moving in on Adel”–which is the county seat of Dallas County, Iowa–she wrote, “then you have an idea what Marfa is like.”
Doris wrote her brother Dale what she thought of Texas: “Well–take a lot of hot sun, hot sand, dust, sagebrush, a few mountains, tall lean men with western hats, tight pants, and high-heeled boots, a lot of Mexicans and there you have it–from the eyes of an outsider. . . . ”
A few weeks later, Warren and Doris found a home. For the next year and a half they lived in one room in the Church of Christ.
Church of Christ
The Neals rented a small room in the front of the adobe church–$13 a month for room, water, lights, a bed, and two chairs. That’s all. The “bath” was unhandy since it was at the opposite end of the church, but they so so thankful to find someone moving out so they’d have a cheaper place to live.
They’d just gotten settled when they were to attend the formal opening of the new officers’ club. Another instructor’s wife invited Doris to go to the town of Alpine to get formals for the dance. Doris’s was nearly the color of the aqua suit she’d been married in a few months earlier.
The other woman offered to let her wear her pearl necklace and bracelet. Doris wrote home that she felt like Cinderella at the dance, and had fun.
But with the war really ramping up in Europe and in the Pacific, the Air Corps tried to graduate as many pilots as they could. Warren worked long hours, especially when they had night-flying and cross-country trips.
Doris wrote home for ration stamps her folks didn’t use, since they were tenant farmers and had plenty of food. Red stamps were for meat, butter, and cheese and didn’t last long. And they had expiration dates.
Doris wrote to her brother Dale, then in combat in New Guinea, that she was expecting a baby, and that he was the first person in the family she’d told.
A few days later, she learned that he was Missing in Action.
Dale never got her message. The small V-Mail was returned to her, “Missing in Action” written on it, still sealed. I was the first person, decades later, to open it.
There’s no picture of Doris in the aqua gown. As a child, I saw the lovely formal only a couple of times, among her keepsakes in the old farmhouse storeroom. I’d forgotten about it.
But now it’s been passed on to Doris’s first baby–who became the keeper of poignant family stories and treasures–to wonder about. Did she ever get to wear it again?
To feel like Cinderella again?