The Waitress Becomes an Officer’s Wife

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It was the only formal gown my mother Doris ever owned–aqua, short-sleeved, accented by lots of small ruffles. Another army wife offered her pearl necklace and bracelet. Doris wrote home that she felt like Cinderella at the dance, and had fun.

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 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 1942, become 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 “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 U.S. 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. They caught a ride to Texas with another couple. Warren didn’t have a car.

Texas

Their first home was the Crews’ Hotel in Marfa, since everything else was taken. Day after day, while Warren was instructing at the base, Doris hunted for a cheaper place to live. But so was 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.

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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 was afraid.

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,” 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 hots, tight pants, and high-heeled books, a lot of Mexicans and there you have it–from the eyes of an outsider. . . . But as for me, give me God’s Country. People who have never lived in Iowa have really missed something, if only the change of seasons–that’s enough.”

A few weeks later, Warren and Doris moved to their “home” for the next year and a half  –a room in the Church of Christ.

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Church of Christ

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 so unhandy as 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 officer’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 just a few months earlier.

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 Wilsons were tenant farmers and had plenty of food. Red stamps were for meat, butter, and cheese and didn’t last long at all. And they had expiration dates. She didn’t mention officers’ wives’ get togethers much after that.

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Lots of Dexterites sent Drew’s Chocolates for Christmas to hometown boys in the service. Warren got some from his uncle. Come Christmas break, Warren used a Drew’s Chocolates box as a square to build a little table for their room.

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.

About the same time she learned that Dale was Missing in Action.

Dale never got her message. It was returned to her, “Missing” written on it, still sealed. I was the first person, decades later, to open it.

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—–

There’s no picture of Doris in the aqua gown. I saw the lovely formal only a couple of times when I was a child, among her keepsakes in the old farmhouse storeroom. I’d forgotten about it.

But now it’s come to the keeper in the family, to wonder about. Did she ever get to wear it again?

To feel like Cinderella again?

 

5 comments

  1. I love this story. You are finding more and more stories as you go along thru your Mom’s things. They are so beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

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