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 terrible ones.
After high school in Iowa, she’d played basketball for her tuition at American Institute of Business in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, 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.
Doris Wilson ended up waitressing–for Parrish’s Cafe in Guthrie Center, the Pattee Hotel in Perry, then the McDonald Drug Store, which had a soda fountain and restaurant area. In fact, she was serving the after-church crowd at that McDonalds when the announcement of the attack on Pearl Harbor interrupted the background radio music on WHO-Radio.
A few months later she returned to the downtown Bishop’s Cafeteria. Her brother Dale stopped in to see her there while on furlough after becoming a pilot and earning his “wings.”
Dale Wilson and Warren Neal, both Iowa farmers, had enlisted as cadets in the Army Air Corps in 1942. They 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 instructor for advanced cadets.
Doris and Warren had dated 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 the First Christian Church.
First Christian Church, Marfa, Texas
They 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 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 loaned Doris a pearl necklace and bracelet. Doris wrote home that she felt like Cinderella at the dance.
But with the war really ramping up in Europe and in the Pacific, the Air Corps tried to graduate pilots as quickly as they could. Warren worked long hours, especially when they had night-flying and cross-country trips.
Early in December, 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, still sealed, marked “Missing in Action.” 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?
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