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A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Sara Etgen-Baker — Rosie’s Daughters

A Rosie the Riveter Story Told by Sara Etgen-Baker

by Matilda Butler on May 3, 2015

Post #67 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Over the coming months, we'll be sharing some of the fabulous stories we received--stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, we're posting Sara Etgen-Baker's vignette.]


by Sara Etgen-Baker*

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” announced the captain, “in approximately five minutes, we will begin our descent into Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport where the weather is slightly windy and 78 degrees. At this time make sure your trays are clear and in their upright position. Please fasten your seat belts and remain in your seats until we are safely at the arrival gate. Thank you for flying with us today.”

Just as I fastened my seat belt, the plane tilted slightly to the left and began a slow, steady turn. I looked out my window; the ground below looked like square plots on a huge map of some kind. Gradually, the Kansas prairie came into view with its wheat fields waving as if to welcome me home. As the plane neared the ground, small cars heading down long highways of black ribbon appeared, as well as homes of different sizes and shapes.

Then a sudden bump—I jumped slightly as the landing gear was released. Trees and rooftops whizzed by as the aircraft made its final turn toward the waiting runway and ended with a mild rumbling as the tires kissed the tarmac. Once the plane taxied to a halt, I was the only passenger who walked through the fuselage door onto the jetway bridge disembarking into the airport.

AAF Classrooms, circa 1943

AAF Classrooms, circa 1943

Once inside the airport, I found it virtually empty—still with anticipation and a tinge of sadness in the air. As I made my way toward baggage claim, the floor beneath my feet creaked with the voices of the pilots and soldiers who once worked at this airfield during World War II. I glanced out the huge plate-glass windows and spotted the deserted AAF classroom buildings, abandoned hanger, and empty storage facilities. I fought back the tears wondering, Why did I expect this place to remain the same when nothing else does?

At baggage claim the skycap handed me my luggage. “If you hurry, you can catch the cabbie before he leaves for town.”

I scurried through the lobby toward the automatic sliding doors, stepped outside, and stood at the crosswalk waiting until the cab appeared. “Let me help you with your luggage, ma’am.” I watched as the young cabbie easily lifted my two large suitcases into the trunk of his vehicle. He opened the backdoor on the passenger side and said, “My name’s Tom. Where ya headed today?”

“I’m heading into town….734 North Webster Avenue. Do you know where that is?”

“Certainly do, ma’am.” Tell me…,” he paused, “are you from around here or just visitin’?”

“Both. I grew up in Liberal. During the war I worked as a clerk at the Liberal Army Airfield. Then when my parents moved to Missouri in 1943, I moved into my Uncle Claude’s house on North Webster Avenue. He recently passed away so I’m here for his funeral.”

I looked out the window as the cabbie turned onto 8th Street heading west past the fairgrounds and Bluebonnet Park. The cabbie turned right onto North Webster and said, “Here we are ma’am…734 North Webster Avenue. I’ll pull into the driveway.”

Before getting out of the cab, I stared at the vacant, old house not knowing what to expect. Although it looked familiar, the paint was weathered and peeling off in spots; the slats in the shutters on the upstairs windows were mostly broken out. A slight breeze made the shutters tap against the house, and the hinges squeaked. Despite ivy clinging to the outer walls of the house, I could see inside the front door into the house past the banister and stairway that led upstairs.

“From those second story windows, I watched as the airport, hangars, and runways were constructed. From there I also watched the military parade march through downtown Liberal the day many of the soldiers and pilots arrived at the airfield for their training.”

“A parade during war time must have been moving,” he commented.

“Yes, it was, Tom. Those parades kept us all—civilians and military—motivated and focused on the war effort. That parade convinced me that I somehow needed to join in the war effort.”

“So, what did you decide to do?” he asked.

“I took a job working as a clerk at the new airfield. When not working, I tended to our Victory Garden.” I pointed to the vine-covered backyard. “As a matter of fact, my Aunt Jean and I planted it back there.”

“A Victory Garden?” he raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “What was that?”

“Because sacrifice was part of the war effort, the government rationed foods like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat, and canned goods. Like many other women, we planted a garden so we’d have our own fruits and vegetables. At some point we canned our fruits and vegetables leaving commercial canned goods for the troops. Later, I built nest boxes for eggs and raised chickens just so we’d have eggs for eating and cooking.”

“Must’ve been hard to make those sacrifices,” he said.

“Like most Americans I didn’t feel like I was making a sacrifice at all. I felt patriotic doing my part—however small—to insure America’s victory.” I opened the car door. “Tom, would you mind waiting for me while I go inside?”

“Sure thing, ma’am. I’ll wait as long as you need me to. Take your time.”

I stepped onto the gravel driveway and gingerly climbed the rickety steps onto the porch. Using my antique skeleton key, I turned the rusty lock and opened the front door fully expecting Uncle Claude and Aunt Jean to greet me. As I entered the house, the sun—now low in the sky—illuminated the downstairs rooms.

Although the old house was decaying, the floors inside were not rotten and looked sturdy enough to bear my weight. As I walked through the entryway, I found the grandfather clock had long since stopped. I closed my eyes and imaged myself in another time altogether when blackout curtains hung over the windows and I sat in the living room listening to radio shows like “Amos ‘n Andy,” “Bing Crosby,” and “The Green Hornet.” I even thought I heard the old phonograph playing songs from big band leaders like Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller.

I opened my eyes and discovered the chandelier that once shone upon the piano was now covered in cobwebs and dust. I headed toward the kitchen, looked back and caught a glimpse of Aunt Jean—her hands dancing across the keyboard—playing her favorite wartime song, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The buffet and china cabinet were just as she’d left them; but mold from damp nights had seeped into the walls making gray streaks across my aunt’s favorite wallpaper. In the kitchen I found an empty teakettle sitting on the stove patiently waiting for Aunt Jean’s return.

Ribbons of moonlight drifted through the kitchen window and shimmered across the kitchen table where I often drank coffee and talked with Uncle Claude about the war. At this table, my future husband—a mechanic on the flight line—asked Uncle Claude for my hand in marriage. Despite the war, the old house was alive and always full of people—a sort of wartime oasis for soldiers, pilots, and locals that my uncle invited to his home.

Now, though, the old house—hallow and lifeless—echoed with memories. Although the night was new, darkness soon forced me to say goodbye to the old house. So I walked through the moonlight down the driveway turning back as though summoned and drinking in the sights—relishing the flood of memories. I stared up at the moon. Then something caught my eye. On the second floor, the curtain moved; and I saw the woman I used to be—an innocent, patriotic wartime bride full of hope and anticipation about her future.

Just as we pulled out of the driveway, I thought heard my aunt playing her piano and singing her favorite song to me:

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces all day through. In that small café, the park across the way, the children’s carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well.

I’ll be seeing you in every lovely, summer’s day; and everything that’s bright and gay; I’ll always think of you that way. I’ll find you in the morning sun; and when the night is new, I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

* [Sara Etgen-Baker] took a slightly different approach in trying to capture her mother’s wartime experiences. Sara says: “Many years prior to her death my mother returned to Liberal, Kansas, for her uncle’s funeral. I distinctly remember her telling me of her thoughts and feelings upon her arrival in Liberal, the Army Airfield, and her uncle’s house. I decided to let her become the narrator of her own story (as she told me); her voice seemed the most appropriate. My mother, Winifred C. Stainbrook married my father, Edwin R. Etgen on November 19, 1944. She was 19 and my father was 22.

Thanks Sara for sharing your mother’s story with us. –Matilda Butler

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