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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Mother follows that dream

Try imagining the America of early 1941. Slowly coming out of a great depression that staggered the nation, leaving millions without jobs or often enough to eat, the country now was getting caught up in the cross currents of a war that appeared to be headed toward a global conflict.

Even Tampa, almost a backwater southern town on Florida's Gulf Coast, was coming to life as troops came into town to train and wartime industries began to crank up.

My Mom — and this is her day and part of her story — had taken a job at the McCloskey Shipyards, where they were building 5,000-ton ships made out of concrete.

After work, there were all those young men rolling into the new MacDill Field and other training centers. There were dances, such as the one at Plant Field where the Hipp Cats came to town to play such classics as, “It Must be Jelly ('Cause Jam don't Shake like that).”

She had met a young soldier from Massachusetts, Keith Gordon Otto, when his buddy had duty and gave him five dollars to take out his date for him.

Mom doesn't say it was love at first — or even second — sight, but the two became a pair.

By the time he got the word he was being sent to Blythe, Calif., for more training, she knew this was the guy.

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Blythe might as well have been on another planet. It's in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, about midway between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Today, Interstate 10 runs through the middle of town. Of course, in 1941 there was no I-10 and not much town, although thousands of Army Air Force types were packing the area for fighter and bomber training.

Back in Tampa: “After a few days,” Mom says, “I knew I had to be with him and I told my parents I was going out there on the train and we would be married.”

With nobody's approval, the 20-year-old packed a suitcase and got on the train with only a vague idea of where Blythe — and even California — might be. “All I know is it took forever, and all there seemed to be when I got there was dust.”

They were able to get married, but just as quickly he received another assignment, and she came back to Tampa.

“One day a woman in the shipyards said she was going to Phoenix where your dad was and was looking for riders,” Mom told me. “I said I wanted to go, and with another girl in the office and a third who was a Mexican immigrant we headed West, towing an old trailer.

“I had no idea Texas was so big, especially with no interstate and driving an old car towing a trailer. We finally broke down, and I can't tell you where, except it was in the middle of the desert.

“The Mexican woman hitchhiked into whatever town was next on the road to see if we could get someone to fix our tire. After a couple of hours a truck loaded with workers came by. They slowed down but kept on going. A little later a couple of them came back with some sandwiches and water for us.”

Somehow my mother made it to Phoenix, where she met up with dad. But the looming war caught up with them, and again he was gone and she was back in Tampa.

The war would take him around the planet, ultimately flying over the “hump” from India into China.

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Eventually the war ended and the couple — like thousands of wartime couples throughout the country — could start a new life. Hers would be following the military, moving off to Japan and a dozen other places.

I'm not sure Mom ever was completely sold on life as a military spouse. In a lot of ways, she had the tougher end of the deal, hauling two kids and a dog from the Pacific to the Black Hills to Germany and beyond by herself. But that is only one reason why — at age 92 and now living with us — she is like all moms: such a special person to celebrate today.

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