John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Memoirs and personal remembrances

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Naval Years
Safely Afraid, Graduation to Enlistment 1940 ~ 1941

Safely Afraid
Graduation to Enlistment
1940 ~ 1941

My mother once told me that her family -- that is her father's family, the Whichards -- were of Scotch-Irish descent.

I never knew where she came by this information, for in my considerable research into the family origins, I have found no specific evidence of such lineage.

I'm not really certain she ever knew exactly who the Scotch-Irish were as this seems to be poorly understood by most who use this label.

As I best understand it, Queen Elizabeth I rewarded many of the knights and courtiers who had captured Ireland with landholdings there, albeit the native Celts have never agreed that the land was hers to distribute.

Hibernia was at that time a place of fragmented politics, scattered small farms and an agrarian culture and economy.  The English lords moved in artisans from both England and Scotland aiming at bringing Ireland into the industrialized world.

To any who read headlines today unrest still prevails there several centuries since -- between the English and the Irish and between the Catholics and the Protestants on the "auld sod."

Anyway, it was these folk who were transferred into Ireland and their descendants who are known as the Scotch-Irish, though these individuals could be more British than either.

In the eras since, particularly when America was being colonized, and the English throne passed from Protestant to Catholic influence and vice versa, the Scotch-Irish no longer in favor in Ireland found it advisable to move along, and thus began their waves of immigration to here.

Inadvertently, my mother was partially right.  It's doubtful that there are many families who have been in North Carolina since colonial days that have not had the Scotch-Irish added to their ethnic mixture.

All this came to mind recently as I thought of Helen McGinnis.

I know not whether her roots were Scotch, Irish or Scotch-Irish. 

Mc and Mac as surname prefaces denote "the son of," the former Scottish and the later Irish.

"Ginnis" certainly seems a highland name, so the chances are that McGinnis is a Scot name, though considering the origin of the Scotch-Irish, the family could as easily have come from Erin as Caledonia.

Anyway, we Anglo-Saxons of the Carolina coastal plain little thought of either the Irish or the Scot's as being people apart as we did of others. This is all recounted here not because it's necessary for our discussion but because it simply seemed worth telling.

Helen was a comely lass, with a sweet Celtic fairness upon her countenance.

She was several years my senior, but we had been students together at East Carolina Teachers College -- she having graduated a year or so before I became a senior.

I always admired her good looks and gentle demeanor, and though we were good friends, we were in no sense intimate -- as a matter of fact, we were in that stage of life when two or three years formed a gap between those moving through and out of adolescence.

Another coincidence which drew me to her was that she had more-or-less promised herself to Herbert Hadley, a young man from a prominent Greenville family who was then in medical school, this being a burning ambition of mine.

Anyway, she had a profound influence on my future, though I didn't realize it at the time, and I doubt she ever has.

She was working in the Registrar's office -- that worthy being her father. 

The College Placement Bureau was a pot into which the names of all seniors were automatically added.  Her job was to recommend upcoming graduates to school systems across the state that were seeking new teachers.

All were graduated from E.C.T.C. in that earlier time with a certificate in either primary or secondary education, and those who cared to teach in high school had double content majors, mine being mathematics and science.

E.C.T.C. had been coeducational since its inception, though with the preponderance of teachers being female, it was thought of as a "girls' school" -- the two hundred or so male students of my day thoroughly outnumbered by the twelve hundred ladies there.

It was also operated socially as a female institution with the faculty and administration much concerned with making things wholesome and safe for the young daughters who had been entrusted to their care.

In those days, there was little recreation for students in the evening on the campus or in Greenville within the purview of this protection.  This allayed the hormonal tide of incipient adulthood in which all mammals tread the rising waters.

Still, someone had the insight to equip Wright Auditorium with a slot-less jukebox and to let the students dance an hour or so after dinner each weekday.  Due to the gender position, dancing was a "girl-break" affair with the boys dancing constantly the whole time.

Considering that "jitter bugging" was the craze of the time, a full hour so spent could largely take the edge off  the boys' stomachs, libido and energy.

It was at one of these nightly sessions that Helen McGinnis "broke" on me.  As we danced she set the stage for changing my life.

She advised that I come by the Placement Office and discuss some of the teaching offers coming my way, particularly as I had previously told her I didn't want to teach but wished to work toward medical training.

This goal would require additional pre-medical courses, which were not offered at E.C.T.C.

To my best recollection I never went to the Placement Office, but instead called in and had my name removed from the employment roster.

As we were wallowed in the swells of the passing depression, I feared my father might feel I should take a job teaching, despite my objections, until something better came along.

However, other things were in the air, the most threatening of which were the clouds of war.  Some of our fellows were in the National Guard having already been called away from college and into active service.  A statute had been passed for the drafting of able-bodied males, as I recall, between 21 and 32 years of age.

Being just shy of this age group, I had not yet had to register but, as the forces of Hitler's Third Reich swept across Europe, it seemed more-and-more inevitable that the United States would be drawn into the conflict.

So, at this tenuous juncture, it seemed increasingly obvious that I would little be able to move along toward the study of medicine before being called into the service.  The family fortunes as well further reinforced this improbability.

It was in this mindset that I read an advertisement that was appearing in various magazines:


I sent off for the offered information on the Naval Aviation Cadet Training Program.

O. Max Gardner, North Carolina's depression-era governor, had rescued the bankrupt public school systems of the state by placing them under the financial aegis of the commonwealth rather than having to depend on the ad value taxes of local communities.

Thus, a beginning teacher was universally guaranteed a monthly salary of $96.50.  From this salary one was expected to house, clothe and feed one's self as well as suffer your pension withholdings and pay taxes.

These were meager pickings but, considering the horde of the unemployed, it didn't seem hopeless.

That fall I worked in a tobacco factory -- these businesses being the major employer in our community and my first job outside of the family newspaper.  I earned $25.00 per week, which was considered a handsome sum compared to the $15.00 per week at which most young fellows started in the tobacco industry.

When I heard from the Navy, I learned I could make $105.00 per month as an Aviation Cadet with board, lodging and clothing furnished.

In a year, if successful in flight training, I would be commissioned an Ensign in the Naval Reserve with a $250.00 per month stipend, again with lodging provided and an allowance for food, and with a half-again bonus of flight pay.

Further, for foregoing four formative years typically spent on temporary employment, the reserve aviator would receive $1000.00 per year bonus at discharge.

To a son of the depression, these seemed princely arrangements and the flight bonus would provide a nest egg if I needed more college before medical school.

The tobacco market, being seasonal, closed in the fall.  While I waited hopefully to hear of my acceptance into Navy flight training, I worked as a clerk in Johnny Askew's grocery store and market.  I found I even enjoyed it.

While all these things were transpiring, I was still living at home with Daddy feeding me and Mother looking after my other needs.

We ate well.  My wardrobe from college was still adequate.  We had a warm and cozy home and I was living well as things went in those days even though we were far from being well off. 

Our extended family circle remained in tact with my grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins living together in our one-block neighborhood.

My parents, my sister Libba -- then in high school -- and I ate together pretty much three times a day, but it was mostly at supper that the affairs of the day got discussed.

My pending departure for the Navy was a nightly topic.  One night my father offered that he was worried at the thought of my flying airplanes, and particularly the likelihood of such flying being from aircraft carriers. 

We Greenville folk knew more than most of Navy flying on account of one of our native sons, Charlie King.

Charlie was a member of another large and old Pitt County family, and he had gone into Naval flight training several years before.

At the time I was in college he was flying scout-bombers in a squadron on the U.S.S. RANGER, the first America ship built as a carrier from the keel up, and then stationed a hundred or so miles away in Norfolk.

Every so often he would, either alone or in formation with several of his shipmates, fly over Greenville and favor us with a little air show.

This comprised a featured element in the gossip of the town, and rumor had it that Charlie King was "the second-best pilot in the Navy."

How he received this rating was unclear and, after I became part of that brotherhood, I never found out who was the best pilot in the fleet -- it certainly wasn't Charlie, or me.

Anyway, for this reason, the community felt a proprietary interest in Naval aviation and thus my plans didn't seem so foreign to my family.  

In our nightly family discussions my father had earlier said -- before I had decided on a particular course of action -- that if I had to go into the service he thought it was time that one of our family served as a commissioned officer rather than in the enlisted ranks.

He had been a corporal in World War I and had served in Europe.  His father before him had been a private in the Army of the Confederate States of America and was captured at the fall of Fort Fisher at Wilmington and spent most of the War Between the States as a prisoner-of-war at Elmira, New York.

Having voiced his ambition for my serving as an officer, I was somewhat taken aback by his reservations about my plans to fly, for here was my certain path to commissioned status.

I said as much to him and he replied, "Does the idea of flying scare you any?"

"Well, I suppose so," I answered, "but what does that have to do with it?"

"Well," he said, "when I put in a gas water heater a few years back in place of the old coal heater we had in the kitchen, I went and talked to Mr. Martin Schwartz."  Mr. Schwartz being an electrical engineer who managed Greenville's power plant and electrical system.

"I told Mr. Schwartz what I wanted to do, but told him I was afraid of piping natural gas into the house."

Daddy said that Mr. Schwartz replied, "So, long as you're afraid of gas you needn't worry about it." 

Then Daddy said to me, "So long as I know you're a little afraid of flying I won't worry so much!" 

In the late fall I took the bus to Charlotte and passed the physical examination with which I had thought I would have trouble.

Another fellow from Greenville went with me -- a large, burly fellow who had been a stellar athlete in high school and at E.C.T.C., which certainly I had not.

But he was turned down and I was accepted and the Chief Petty Officer told me, "We aren't after supermen, just average fellows who can see and hear well."

In February 1941, my father and mother drove me to Raleigh.  I signed up in the Navy Recruiting Center and was off to Miami.

Things happen in sequence, usually happenstance, but I wonder if these events -- and many notable ones that followed -- would have happened if Helen McGinnis hadn't broken in on me that night long ago when we were dancing in Wright Auditorium.

Before finishing this little piece I called my sister, Lib, to see what had happened to Helen McGinnis.  I knew she and Herbert Hadley married, and that Herbert was a family practitioner in Greenville until he died several years ago.

Lib told me that Helen was still pretty, that she and Herbert had a couple of children, and that she still lives in the house they shared during their years together.

I wonder if she ever dances these days?


Written circa 1997
Edited May, 2002


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