Finally the big day arrived, somewhere in the beginning of September 1954. I had to report, bag and baggage, to the 25th Division Headquarters. I had no problem saying good bye to my peers. I was glad to leave. There is no way to describe the feeling a soldier has when, after spending eighteen months in uniform in the backwoods of Korea, he finally leaves to join "normal" people in civilian clothes and without a commander or a sergeant directing his life. And so, for the last time I climbed into a jeep which took me quickly to Pusan, the same trip which I had taken, but in the opposite direction, in that endlessly long train ride eighteen months earlier going North into the combat zone. From Pusan we were marched into a troop transport ship.
This ship was larger and less crowded than the one which had taken me eighteen months earlier to Korea. And this time I knew just what to do: as soon as I was settled at my assigned bunk bed I immediately asked for the ship's chaplain and volunteered for the library job. I told him about all the experience I had had during the last twenty months and he was duly impressed. I again opted to sleep in the library. This time the quarters were much larger and more luxurious and I was allowed to eat with the officers! So, you can see that I got a lot of mileage from my original adventure at Fort Lewis at the beginning of my army career when I sneaked away from our work duty.
After a long but uneventful crossing we landed in Seattle where we received a hero's welcome from a large crowd with a Marine band playing the National Hymn and some marches. The local papers showed a picture of our ship's arrival at the port. It was nice for a change to have a band play for me instead of me playing the flute. It was all very festive and overwhelming for me. As we marched off the ship many soldiers were greeted by their loved ones. I was sorry that I had not asked Anita to meet me at the boat but it would have been very difficult for her to fly all the way from New York. I immediately went to a phone to call her and tell her when I would be in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, where I would get my discharge papers.
That very day I was taken to the airport where the Flying Tiger Airlines, which specialized in troop transport, took me to Midway Airport near Chicago and from there to Camp Kilmer. Was I ever surprised to see Anita waiting for me when the Army bus arrived in the camp. I could not control my emotions! I was still in my band dress uniform and I felt quite dirty after a long day of travel. But that was soon forgotten and we engaged in a long and exciting discussion about our immediate future, which was rather uncertain and about our baby who was being looked after by Anita's mother. After a while she suggested that I should buy some civilian clothes. That had not even occurred to me. I was so used to being in uniform. We went to the PX and we bought a pair of slacks and a white shirt. I had no idea whether I was allowed to wear "civvies" at the base. I found out that I could which was good, because we had to salute officers if we were in uniform and I was not used to that anymore. So, I quickly changed into my civvies. Did I ever feel strange. It was all so light and loose fitting compared to the uniform. I decided right then and there that I would not wear the uniform any more. We spent the evening together but I could not leave the base. It was very hard to say good bye to Anita after such a long time of separation. And I was also very anxious to see my baby whom she had left in the care of her parents while visiting me.
The following days were endless in their routine of waiting for interviews and lectures about benefits and suggestions about adjusting to civilian life and living with a family again. However, all this ended up being of great help to me. I appreciated the information I received about my benefits under the GI. Bill of Rights. During one of the interviews the officer noticed in my records that I had been in the hospital in Korea and he told me to apply for disability benefits. This I found remarkable. Not only were all these benefits available but the Government encouraged us to take full advantage of them and informed us of all that was available. It gave me a heads tart which I will describe later. Also, I could get an aptitude test for free, which I took and which showed that I would be successful in anything I wanted as long as I did not have to stand on my feet. That did not help me much in finding out what career to choose. Well, I ended up in a career which required me to stand on my feet for eight to fourteen hours per day! Later more about that.
In the meantime the days seemed to drag on. First, I was told that I could not get out of the Army yet because I had one more month left to serve (I entered the Army Oct. 21, 1952). This came as a shock to me. Then the good news came: I had one month vacation coming to me and so I was ready for discharge! All of a sudden things moved quickly. I had to go in for my last physical examination. Well, I was not worried about that. After all, I was in the best shape of my life, a trim 139 pounds and strong and healthy. Well, not so fast. The army has its surprises. I had to wait a long time for my examination and when they finally took my blood pressure it was too low to get discharged from the army! This is one of my chronic problems: I have low blood pressure and after sitting quietly for a long time or, worse yet, standing still for a long time, my blood pressure falls below normal. But this was to be my last day in the Army and nothing could keep me there one more day. The doctor was very nice and he suggested first to lie down with my feet raised. When it was still low he told me to run around the table a few times. Boy, did I ever run! Then it was high enough to be discharged from the Army. Thank G'd! After that I received my honorable discharge papers and a check with the discharge money.
This was it. I was a free man. I could just walk out of the gate and do what I wanted and go where I wished. But after I had gone through the gate I did not know what to do! Fortunately there were other discharged soldiers standing around and we shared a taxi which took us to the Greyhound Station where we took a bus to New York. Here I was, now a civilian, still with my faithful little brown suitcase but now also with a duffel bag and a government backing me, starting another new life. In New York it took me a little while to find my way around but eventually I found my way to our coop apartment in Jackson Heights.
It was a very weird sensation. This was my apartment, my wife, my baby. And yet, I was a stranger to it all. It was a difficult adjustment. I wanted very much to take part in the decision making and yet, Anita had had to make most decisions on her own up to this time. I had seen pictures of Mark, who now was more than nine months old, but I was a stranger to him. It took a while to get used to be around a baby and, I am sure, for Mark to have me around. I liked Anita's parents from the beginning but they really did not know me very well. So, for a while I again felt ill at ease. Looking back now from so many years later I do believe that I made a good and remarkably fast adjustment. Many GIs ended up having a lot of difficulties. I was lucky to have the support of a wonderful wife and in-laws who helped me greatly.
The first thing we had to decide was what I would do for a living. I had no idea. It never occurred to me that I could have become a librarian with all my "experience." Anyway, it was very important that some money would come into our household quickly. With my European upbringing I had insisted that Anita quit her job once she had the baby. Before that she had had an excellent job as a supervisor of nurses in the Ladies Garment Workers Union Hospital. It never even occurred to me that she could have returned to that job. I wanted her to be a hundred percent mother. So, we decided to talk to Uncle Maurice again. He said he would take me back but could not pay me more than a minimum salary which would not be enough to maintain our family. So, I thanked him, but no thanks. We parted and remained friends.
But now, what to do. I could not go back to college because, even with the G.I. Bill that would have been too much of a hardship for such a long time. We had no idea what to do. Now, here follows an event that would change my life for good. And it happened in a way as it happened so many times during my life: a combination of circumstances and a recognition of an opportunity which would make my life a happy and fulfilling one.
Anita used to have her hair done regularly by a hairdresser named Mario in Jackson Heights. While I was overseas they talked about me on and off. On one such occasion Mario asked what I planned to do after I left the Army. Anita said that we had no idea yet. He suggested that I should try hairdressing and she passed that on to me. I said: "No way. Why should I go into hairdressing? I don't know anything about that." (In those days it was unusual for a man to be a hairdresser.) She insisted that I should at least talk to him. And so I did. I went to see him on a quiet day so he would have time to talk to me. Well, he was pretty busy anyway and had to interrupt our conversation many times. But he was able to impress me. He explained to me how this kind of work gave one the freedom to live where one chose and to work almost like one's own boss; one could move to a different location and yet continue one's career. You could almost set your own hours and make a good living. He himself had a family with children whom he supported handsomely. Then he said something that convinced me. He pointed out how pleasant the work surroundings were and how much fun it was to talk to the clientele. I had noticed how everybody was talking and laughing.
All this appealed to me especially since some of the ladies encouraged me and said that I would make a fine hairdresser. Mario explained to me that I could go to a Cosmetology school under the G.I. Bill and that I would know within one month if I would like it. If not, in those days I could be released from my contract with the school. I could graduate after six months and start making a living. He also said that I could call on him for advice any time I wanted. It sounded very good to me and Anita was very encouraging.
The following day I went to the Bartell Academy of Cosmetology, which was recommended by Mario. As I stepped into the large room where students were practicing I heard a lot of laughter. Everybody seemed to have such a great time and the atmosphere was warm and inviting. The interview went well and the following week I started my schooling. I liked it immediately. Anita and I were so excited about my new career. Of course, not everything went so easily. The G.I. Bill did not pay enough to support a family of three, so I looked for a job to get some additional income. I found work at Segal's furniture store in Harlem, which meant that after a full day at the academy I had to take a subway to Harlem where I had a job as bookkeeper for four hours per day (from six pm until ten pm) at one dollar per hour. I felt so lucky! I was still used to the salary in Holland of one hundred and twenty five gulden per month, then at my uncle's twenty five dollars per week and then in the Army ninety five dollars, and later one hundred and fifteen dollars per month. Now we received one hundred and sixty dollars from the G.I. Bill per month plus the cost of the academy plus eighty four dollars per month from my job and in addition seventeen dollars, the ten percent disability pay I received because of my hospitalization with my leg and back problem. Besides that, every year the amount of benefits I received under the G.I. Bill was deducted from our real estate taxes so that, the more benefit I received the less real estate tax we had to pay. And I had free medical care at the VA clinic. The payments on our one bedroom Coop apartment was one hundred and five dollars per month. I thought I was in good financial shape but we still had to make many sacrifices to make ends meet.
Anita was wonderful. She never complained about our simple life style and we always seemed to enjoy our lives and our little luxuries. Our entertainment consisted of walks to the small local parks where Mark played in a shallow pool and on the swings. Once in a while we took a bus to Kissena Park in Flushing, a half hour ride through Queens, and we would go for long walks through that lovely park. But that was a special treat which we could not afford too often. Occasionally Ettie and Pappa baby sat and Anita and I walked to the neighborhood ice cream parlor and had an ice cream sundae. But that we could not effort very often either. A highlight for us was our frequent Sunday walk to La Guardia airport where Mark, from his baby carriage, enjoyed watching the airplanes leaving and arriving. On one of these walks we rested on a bench when the Good Humor ice cream man passed and we shared one scoop of vanilla ice cream in a cup. I noticed some black specks in the ice cream and complained about it to the vender. He laughed and explained that it was from the vanilla bean, real vanilla. We got a big kick out of that and later we often reminded ourselves of this. We did not have much money but those were happy and carefree days.
I did very well in school and I enjoyed it immensely. Anita was my guinea pig. I wanted to tint Anita's hair and asked one of the instructors for a good formula. I used the one she gave me with small variations for the rest of her life. It made her a beautiful redhead. Anita was a real sport; she was always willing to let me experiment on her hair. Believe me, I gave her some horrible haircuts that half year. But she had gorgeous thick and wavy hair, so it never looked too bad. She was always gracious about it and never made me feel bad. Once I took a series of pictures of my "artwork." When we looked at them later we could not help but laugh. It was a horrible haircut but Anita posed like a movie star!
During the last couple of months we worked on customers and I felt like a great hairstylist. I wanted to show my talent to Mario so he invited me to do Anita's hair in his shop. I thought I made her gorgeous but when I was finished he said: "Look at her in the mirror. You made her head look like a pear!". When I looked I saw that he was right. From his criticism I learned to look at a customer's face from different angles before I would let her get out of the chair. All my life I learned from criticism and I was always shocked how people reacted as if I meant to hurt them when I criticized them. I could never understand that.
Often I volunteered to go to a department store salon where they looked for future hair stylists. But for now we were only allowed to shampoo their customers' hair. Here again I learned a lot while still in school. The first time I washed a lady's hair I got her all wet and she was sent back because her hair was still full of shampoo. I was afraid to rinse her any more but the hairdresser showed me how to cup my hand under her neck so I could rinse it well without getting the customer all wet. This, too, gave me a heads tart when I finally started my first job.
In order to graduate from the academy we had to do a difficult written test and make a perfect finger wave on a customer, which was in high fashion in those days. I never was good at doing finger waves but I was lucky: Ettie had a perfect natural wave in her hair. All I had to do was to wet her hair, push it forward and, voila, there was a perfect finger wave! It was the best in the graduating class and it was shown as an example to the failing students!
Next -> CHAPTER 11: THE START OF A NEW CAREER
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