In the thirteenth episode of the ‘Visits from the Heart’ series, we continue our transition from learning how our residents are dealing with the pandemic and focus on their rich life stories. Mark McNeary, General Counsel for Primrose Retirement Communities, sits down with Betty S., a resident at the Primrose Retirement Community in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Betty starts their chat off by disclosing to Mark how well the staff at the Primrose Retirement Community of Grand Island has been treating her during the pandemic. She talks about the activities Primrose provides to keep her busy and that she is happy that some of her seven children are able to come to visit. At a distance and outside on the patio of course. She proudly mentions her 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild that is only three years old. She regrets that her husband, Cecil, who passed away about four years ago, isn’t able to be here and see the grandchildren grow up. After 64 years of marriage, one could only imagine that the last four years have been an adjustment for Betty.
But Betty isn’t the sort of gal who just sits back and watches the world go by. She’s been a busy bee since she was quite young. Betty might not realize it but in the 1950’s, she was at the onset of the age of working mothers. With a national average of two children per household, imagine the struggle of being a working mother with seven children. That seems like quite an undertaking no matter how much support you may have.
Betty first tried to get a job at the Cornhusker Ordnance Plant in Grand Island, Nebraska when she was just 18 but the age minimum was 19. They told her to come back after her next birthday, which she did, and she was hired. What might have been a disappointing delay in employment at the time, ended up being a stroke of fate. After she began working, she met a young man named Cecil. While it would be a bit taboo these days as Cecil happened to be Betty’s boss at the Ordnance Plant, a romance began that lasted over 60 years. The couple was married in 1953.
Betty’s job was to make rockets and bombs. In fact, she’s part of a later crop of ‘Rosie the Riveters’. While she wasn’t putting rivets into airplanes or ships, she was helping build the rockets and bombs that were deployed by them. “Rockets and bombs,” is how matter-of-factly Betty describes what she made at the Ordnance Plant. As you might imagine, it was anything but simple. While the Ordnance Plant first opened to assist in the WWII efforts, Betty worked there during the Korean and Vietnam War years. Her main job was putting ‘black sticks’, an explosive propellant, into the bomb casings. In addition to her husband working at the plant, she had several other family members working there. She had two sisters who added the TNT to the bombs, plus three brothers, two sisters-in-law and two brothers-in-law. That may seem like a lot of family working at the same company, but the Cornhusker Ordnance Plant employed over 4,200 people1 at its peak. And with it covering over 12,000 acres2, they were more likely to run into each other at church on Sunday than at work.
Mark was surprised by the thought of the potential dangers involved in the bomb making process. Betty agreed that it was a dangerous job. She shared a story of a young coworker that succumbed to ‘powder poisoning’. In addition to the obvious potential explosive dangers of bomb making, powder poisoning referred to the regular exposure to the chemicals in black powder and other elements of bomb making. Betty continues to share about a time that the conveyor belt in the production line got a kink in it and caused on the bomb to fall to the floor. While she didn’t know that it had happened, the look on the face of her line boss when he told the girls to ‘get the hell off this line’ was all she needed to know. Betty and the others didn’t waste a moment to as they swiftly exited the building. All ended well, but the moment is clearly etched in Betty’s memory. And, in nonchalant fashion, Betty just called it, “an experience.” Mark inquired if most of her time there was a positive experience. She shared about how the girls on the line would sing throughout their shift, which must not be something that was looked at very kindly since she added with a rebellious tone that the ‘guys upfront’ just let them do it.
Betty describes the different stages of bomb making from adding the powder to placing the safety caps to the final inspection. If they didn’t pass inspection, the bombs would then be stripped down to the bare metal to be placed back into production at the front of the line. Once a bomb passed final inspection they would be transported to another building where they were packaged for shipping. The talk of other buildings revealed the volume of staff and acreage that the Ordnance Plant occupied. The knowledge that the buildings were each about a mile apart gives gravity to the breadth of the safety zone between the lines. Adversely, while the acreage afforded safe space between dangerous work areas, it made break time a bit of a challenge. With only 30 minutes for lunch, the cafeteria in the next building a mile away, and no running allowed on the lines; sometimes breaks were spent taking a nap instead of eating. Especially during the winter.
Betty explains that a typical work week was 40 hours with 8-hour shifts that rotated around the clock and changed every month. That could make childcare a bit tricky as she and her husband usually worked on different shifts. Often, she would have the neighbor lady watch the kids until her husband was home. We should all be so lucky to have neighbors like that.
If there wasn’t enough to worry about as far as safety is concerned at the Plant, the clothing they wore while on the production line was not to be overlooked. It was essential that only clothing they wore was a special white uniform and steel toe boots that were provided by the Plant. Any metal or other foreign matter that could be on their street clothes could potentially be a tragic contaminant on the production line.
Mark quizzed Betty about the end user of the munitions created at the Plant. Betty confirmed that the ones she produced found their way overseas to her brother-in-law, who was a pilot. He relayed that he learned that some of the bombs he carried were from Grand Island, NE and to honor her support of the war efforts, he signed her name to one. In Betty’s words, “it kinda made me stop and think.” Many miles traveled to make a final stop in Vietnam.
Mark guessed that it must’ve been a pretty good paying job to which Betty countered that “it’s not like it is today”. She shared that at most she was making $1.65 per hour. And a quick search on Google shows that was a median wage in the mid-1950’s. For more perspective, in 1955 an average house cost around $18,000 and a loaf of bread was around 18¢. Those were much simpler times, even for someone like Betty who had a bountiful family to provide for while she was unknowingly a female ahead of her time.