JOAN BELLMANN ::: MATRIARCH ::: SPRINGFIELD, MISSOURI
I'd like to introduce my maternal grandmother, Joan Rita Bellmann, one of my most favorite humans. If you do have the chance to meet her, you will know within about 5 minutes that much of who I am today was inherited from her. During a recent visit to her home in Springfield, Missouri, I took some time to interview her. We covered quite a lot - from her childhood to being married with kids and moving to the house she lives in to this day. Below are just a select few stories.
PART 1 : CHILDHOOD : 1923 - 1941
Let's start from the beginning. Tell me about growing up in Struthers, Ohio.
Well about the first thing I can remember really is probably when I was about 4 or 5 and we lived in steel mill town. I played hopscotch, marbles, or with dolls on the sidewalk in front of our house and there were always other little children around that would come over. That's the first thing I remember. We lived in the third house on the block, no one behind us, no one in front of us, and no one beside us, so there were acres and acres of places to play & things to do. About that age, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 even, we would go to the area where the cows were. We would climb trees, see how high up we could climb, and there were violets and all kinds of flowers. We would just run around there. Across the street was a 2 foot area where they were going to build a house, but never finished with it, so when it would rain, there would be little puddles here & there. We'd go over and get pollywogs and all kinds of little things and put them in jars. We always went out & played in the rain. We made little paper boats and let them run down the sidewalks between the curb and the street. Anything that was there to do, you had somebody to do it with. At the time we didn't even have a car, so we walked everyplace. I'd walk across the field to go to school from 1st to 6th grades. I was in the school play. And I was the 4th grade spelling bee champion.
A spelling bee champion? What word did you win with?
Columbus. I was up with the smartest fellow in the school, who as it happened turned out to be the Valedictorian of our high school. We were on the last word and the word was Columbus. He spelled Columbus right, but incorrectly because he did not say, "capital C". So I spelled Columbus with a capital and I won. And that was a big thing to win over him. Rudy Seburg was his name. He later became a soldier and died in a prisoner of war march in Germany. I think about it every once in a while. How kind he was, how gentle he was, and how awful to have such a wonderful person leave the earth like he did.
You've always said you were close with your father. What kinds of activities did you do together?
We were very close because I guess I was very much like my dad. I still remember going to my first basketball game with him. It was the House of David that was playing and they were all tall, with black beards and from then on I guess iwas kind of a basketball fan. My dad volunteered to coach basketball teams at many of the Catholic schools. My dad took me many places. To movies - we especially liked Indian movies. We went to basketball games. When he would go on day trips for business, why I would often go with him and we'd go to meetings and just sit in the living room just looking at the splendor of people who had much more money than we did and see the beautiful ceilings that had angels and all kinds of celestial paintings on the ceiling. My dad and I used to walk down to where the bus would stop and for 10 cents you could ride the bus way up to town, which we did often, because you could get the best hamburger in the world for 5 cents! Back then, the theaters played a movie and had a live show, like Frank Sinatra or some of the other big time people. Though that didn't mean much because when you're that young, you know, you're looking at the boys in high school.
Who were your best girl friends in school?
My best girlfriends were Lillian Burt, who named her oldest daughter after me, Charlotte Brauer, Jean Pope, and Margie Lucas. We played cards together every 2 weeks at each other's house. It was a game called 500. Most people haven't even heard of that game and I can't remember myself how to play, it was so long ago. But we just had fun. At school, we didn't have a cafeteria so you either took your lunch or walked home for lunch. Sometimes one of the seniors had a car and if he saw us, he would stop and all of us girls would pile in and get a ride. I was in the band and the orchestra. I played the clarinet very poorly but the uniform was beautiful! It was red, heavy material, just a shocking red. And gold feathers on the hat. We played in every football game and all the big events. When the war broke out, we would go down to city hall as a group and play as the men were being called up to the Army. Of course, we would also play for the school play or operetta that was going on that particular year.
PART 2 : WARTIME : 1942 - 1945
After Pearl Harbor was bombed December of 1941, the US joins WWII. What are your first memories of the war?
Well I graduated high school June 3, 1941. At the time, I did part time work at a blueprinting company. June eventually flowed into December and as it happened, I was at church when the war broke out. It changed the lives of all of us. At the time, my dad was not in very good health and couldn't be drafted, but my mother happened to see a notice in the paper about needing all kinds of people for 'war work' in nearby Dayton, Ohio. I was kind of glued to Struthers and the thought of moving away was not a happy one for me. But as it happened, in the early part of '42, my dad answered that notice and moved to Dayton as an engineer. He was one of the inventors of the night vision goggles and flew once a month to Washington to confer with the upper echelon of the government in that division. I went to visit him in June of 1942 and of course he talked me into applying for a job. It was $1,440 a year. So I moved there in August and rented a room in one house and he rented a room about a mile away. I had about 1100 planes to account for with very large sheets of paper. There were 1500 parts to the planes that I was working on. My job was to account for parts that were replaced on about 1100 planes that each had 1500 parts. They were lend/lease planes, meaning we loaned them to England because they didn't have the number of planes that they eventually needed. So I worked there and met lots of friends and enjoyed it. It was a period of growing up for me.
Was it strange and/or noticeable that so many young men were absent from everyday life in Dayton?
Yes it was! Everyone was really close, so you missed a lot of them. Many of them, my good friends, never came back. But I wrote letters. I remember sitting in the backyard, writing. I would write letters every day and maybe average 20 a week. Back then they gave you names of soldiers who didn't have anyone sending them letters. So I wrote to somebody from New York who was in the Coast Guard and to Clarence Doan, who graduated from the aeronautical school in Texas. He was captured after his plane was shot down in Germany. I still have envelopes from letters that he wrote to me. I wrote to a Marine, I wrote to an Air Force pilot, who was on patrol in and around Cuba for submarines. The pilot was killed in a horrible plane crash in the shores of Cuba. A plane was having motor troubles, so he and a third planetried to use their wings to lift the troubled plane & keep it from crashing into the crowded beach. But it didn't work. He was just 23 years old. It certainly opened your eyes to things that went on. I also wrote to a friend who was stationed in Alaska. Another in Tripoli. So they were kind of here and there. Their letters were mostly about what they doing, but it was very limited. They always had hope and they always talked about home. Of course, it was very hard to send packages because they were so many places. You never knew when you'd have a lucky day and get a letter from one of them.
Tell me about the day you found out the war was over.
I had a voice lesson on that particular day in August (V-J day was August 14, 1945). I remember as I left, just when I opened the door, I heard all this screaming and yelling. My teacher's studio was maybe half a block from the center of Dayton. There were hundreds and hundreds of people singing and dancing and I just remember walking through, as though I was the only person in the whole world that didn't know what to do. I just remember that I finally got the bus to where I lived and was just kind of in shock. It was so dramatic, so sudden, so unbelievable.
PART 3 : MEETING BERNARD : 1942 - 1946
Tell me about meeting your husband.
Meeting Bernard Robert Bellmann was one of the main points of my whole life. I saw this young man coming up the steps from the factory floor to the office floor of Dayton Rubber Company where I worked. His eyes met mine and then he went along and I thought, "This is it, I've met him." I immediately went downstairs to the lobby and back. Then they had a book called the Polk, p-o-l-k, and it had every kind of information: whether a person was married, if they owned their own home, their address, phone number, and usually where they worked. So I looked and I saw that he was not married. So, that solved the problem! I went back to work. As events turned out, we did meet, we did later on go out, we went steady for 6 weeks, we got engaged, and were married 6 months later. It took 6 months only because it was almost impossible to find a place to live. Back then, of course, nothing was being built. Every place was taken before you could bat your eyelashes. So we moved into what I, to this day, call a dump. It was: living room, dining room, kitchen, and it had a door latch on the door between that area and the front hallway. The houses faced each other and the sidewalk was about 12-15 feet wide, so it was usually pretty quiet & very neighborly there. And everything was booming because there was so much scarcity & rationing during the war
So why wasn't Bernie drafted?
Well he was born of a German father and a French mother and he studied for a number of years at Dresden Institute of Technology in Germany. He went over there in about 1932 only because one of his relatives had quite a bit of money and died, but Hitler would not let any money out of the country. You could spend it, however, if you could accountedfor it. So, that was why he went to Germany - to go to college. He was there oh almost 8 years and dragged it out, eventually graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering (equivalent of a Masters). The day that war was declared, German soldiers picked him up -- actually, in the middle of the night -- because he was an American citizen, but was living in Germany and spending German money. They kept him in prison for 2-3 months as a sort of prisoner of war.And the only way he got home was when the US found someone in the U.S. of German heritage and 'equal quality' that he could be exchanged for. He came back and went to Ellis Island. Well, it so happened that prior to that, the U.S.government let a few thousand people into the country who they found out should not have been admitted to the U.S. Soby the time he got to Ellis Island, he was kept there for a few months as well. Soon after, he got a job at Gates Rubber Company and later Dayton Rubber Company where I met him.
And how did he propose?
Well, we got engaged at a little nightclub while dancing. He wouldn't stop dancing until I said yes. The band had already quit to take a little siesta and so that's how it happened. That was June 1, 1946. From then on, we tried to find a place to live. We spent an awful lot of time looking around, having people check and so on and so forth. We finally found this little place and so he kind of picked the first of the year, Jan 1, 1947 for the wedding day. My great aunt came in from Altoona, PA, his mother came in from New York City, and we planned a very small wedding at a very small church, Westwood Methodist church. I had a white wedding gown & veil of course and we had a little party after the wedding at our place. The problem was that that day we had a blizzard and everything was ice. Hardly anybody could get to the house because you couldn't get up the alley. So they had to park 4 houses away on street parking. So, we had a very small reception, but it was family and that's what was important. The next day we left by train to go to Chicago. But when we got to Chicago, we ran into another snowstorm - I didn't even have boots! So we tromped over to the biggest store we could find - Macy's - and I got a pair of boots. We stayed in a hotel on the 21st floor that overlooked Lake Michigan and Harry James was playing at the hotel that week so we had dinner down there to hear him and we were there 3 nights and 2 days. It was beautiful and I look back on it as a very happy time. We came back and had $50. left so we went to the Hotel Biltmore and had a dinner there. Then, the next day started our new life.
Time ran out & we didn't quite get to talking about her married life. Hopefully next time. Until then, some photos of her house & the fabled garage (or as she likes to call it, the sunroom) where she keeps her 'miscellaneous important stuff.'