Noe Valley Voice July-August 2004

Florence's Family Album:
After the Wedding, the War Begins

by Florence Holub

Florence Holub wrote this column for the July/August 1990 issue of the Voice, a few weeks after Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, paid a visit to San Francisco.

Last month, when the Gorbachevs visited our city, Raisa departed from her scheduled tour to visit a small mom and pop grocery store, the New Terrace Market, at the corner of 17th Street and Uranus, in the Upper Market area. This visit prompted a flood of memories, for my husband Leo and I had often shopped at that store after our marriage on July 3, 1941.

We lived, with our big yellow cat Manfred, just around the corner in a small "fixer-upper" cottage to the rear of a large, peak-roofed house on Mars Street. We paid $17 a month rent, and when a neighbor heard this, he informed us we "were robbed," because the last tenants had paid only $15. But it was a charming, ivy-covered hideaway, with many sun-flooded windows that provided a pleasant view of the green and flowering rear gardens on both sides.

This idyllic spot, however, did have one distressing feature. To get to our house, we had to walk up a narrow corridor between the big house in front of us and the wall of the neighboring building. This was easy enough until we reached the window of our landlady's kitchen, at which point all hell broke loose. Our landlady's two dogs, who had been lying quietly on the floor until they detected our footsteps, would leap at the window, barking ferociously, frothing and snapping and displaying jaws full of sharp white teeth as they scratched the pane of glass that separated us from them--their claws only inches from our faces.

Our landlady would lightly tap them with a folded newspaper, probably just to placate us, not to discipline them, for she was an elderly widow who lived alone, and these were her protective guardians. Nevertheless, the experience was always completely unnerving and would set our hearts pounding.

The landlady also had a number of cats, one of whom was a frequent uninvited guest in our home. We never knew when we might encounter her, crouched in a corner of the house, appraising us with distrust and possible malice. One night, I awakened to see a long stealthy feline form, barely visible in the dark, slowly creeping toward the face of my sleeping husband. Instinctively, I swung my arm in an arc that sent the animal flying off the bed into the blackness.

On went the lights, Leo jumped up, and we scurried around searching for the prowler, who was nowhere to be found. Finally, we looked under the bed and discovered our own cat, Manfred, wide-eyed and shaking, but fortunately unharmed by the blow. He didn't hold a grudge, thank goodness, and was soon bringing us an assortment of mice and salamanders as peace offerings.

In the fall, long before Thanksgiving, we began to shop for a Christmas present for Leo's best friend, Bob Hanson, who was an Air Force fighter pilot stationed in the Philippines. After days of scanning gift items on display, we chose a soft beige virgin wool sweater, and mailed it early enough for him to receive it by Christmas.

Before we could get to the rest of our holiday shopping, however, something happened that neither of us will ever forget. On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, we awakened late, as was our custom, got dressed, and leisurely strolled around the corner to buy the Sunday newspaper at the Terrace Market. There we found the grocer and his wife tearfully telling the customers the shocking news: Pearl Harbor had been bombed in a devastating attack by Japanese bombers. At home on the radio, President Franklin D. Roosevelt angrily and eloquently spoke to the nation. We were at war.

Every block in the city began to learn to live with the possibility of an air attack, under the guidance of a "block warden," who visited each home giving directions and information. During one visit to our house, the warden encouraged us to try to solve the "blackout" problem posed by our many windows. As he departed, he divulged that he had been holding us up as an example to the rest of the wards, saying, "That young couple [us] already has a bucket of sand on their back porch to put out any fires that might be started by incendiary bombs dropped by enemy planes."

We accepted the praise in modest silence, but we were actually feeling guilty: the real reason we had that sand (in a pre-kitty litter era) was to change Manfred's sandbox. As for the blackout problem--we decided to just turn out the lights and go to bed whenever the air raid sirens sounded.

In World War II, all of the fine young men went off to war or into the defense industries. My younger brother Warde was somewhere out in the South Pacific, a gunner's mate aboard the destroyer USS Cassin. My older brother Mike sailed to and from the war zone as a sergeant major aboard the troop transport SS Sea Star.

One day, while unloading troops at Saipan, Mike spotted the Cassin, also in port. He pulled a few strings and was given a lift in the port director's gig (a ship's small boat), and sped over to see Warde. The commander of the Cassin, thinking an admiral was approaching, had him "piped" (a formal military salute), only to find that the "brass" they had welcomed was just a G.I. Joe. But my two brothers got to hug one another and clasp hands, just before the Cassin went out to sea again.

Leo's brother Richard, an Air Corps test pilot, was sent to England, where he distinguished himself and was decorated by General Carl Spatz, commander of the Allied air forces. Leo worked at the Hunters Point Naval Dry Dock, where, as a shiprigger, he moved heavy equipment--pulling propellers and shafts, and installing gun mounts.

Many months after we sent it, the package containing the beige sweater was returned, and we learned that Leo would never see his friend again. Bob had been killed on the seventh day of the war, and for his heroism he was decorated posthumously. But many young men did come home, to a grateful nation gearing down for peace.

Since the end of the war, the years have passed so rapidly that it is hard to fathom the incredible shift that has taken place in world affairs. Now in 1990, presidents Gorbachev and Bush are conferring about economic exchanges and reductions in nuclear weapons, and East and West Germany are embarking upon reunification. Even more remarkable to me is the fact that, as this issue of the Voice is being distributed, Leo and I will be celebrating our 49th wedding anniversary!

I can tell you now how our anniversary celebration will go. Leo will take me to one of Noe Valley's finest restaurants, and as the evening draws to a close, he'll say these words: "Want to try for another year?"

I will hesitate a bit, lest he think me easy, then casually reply, "Okay." If all goes well, in exactly one year, we will be celebrating our 50th anniversary.

Things did go very well, and 13 years later, Florence and Leo Holub will celebrate their 63rd anniversary this July 3 at Bacco Restaurant on Diamond Street. Let's all cross our fingers that Leo pops the question and Florence signs up for another year. Happy anniversary!