Willow Run

by Dorothy Stephens

When the “greatest generation” came home from World War II, many of the men returned to college on the GI Bill, a saga that has been the subject of numerous books and movies. But the story of their wives, also part of that greatest generation, has seldom been told.

Kate McIntosh, the young mother of a toddler and a newborn, struggles with the challenges of being isolated in barracks-like World War II housing in Willow Run Village, with no car, little money, and a mostly absent husband., Mark, her husband, attends classes at the university during the day and works on the assembly line at the nearby auto plant at night. He is rarely home. When she and Mark meet with other graduate students, Kate feels awkward and excluded, with nothing to talk about but diapers and pureed carrots.

Kate is determined to find ways to reach beyond the confines of her life. She befriends her rural Tennessee neighbors, teaching the illiterate mother and son to read; gets involved in the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign; creates a garden in the weedy field behind their building; and finds new strength and talents she didn’t know she had. At the same time, she attempts to quell her rising anxiety about what might be going on between Mark and a fellow graduate student, Amanda. Things come to a head when Mark is seriously injured in an accident and Kate has new challenges to face.


Chapter One

Willow Run Village

Fall 1951


Kate stared out the window over the kitchen sink, absently rinsing suds off the dishes and stacking them on the wooden drain board beside her. Piles of dirty slush from an early snow clogged the gutters along the street outside and clung to the tops of the wooden coal boxes that loomed in front of each unit. Low-roofed, one-story buildings, each housing a half-dozen small apartments, lined the street in both directions. If she turned and looked across the cramped kitchen and through the living room window, she could see a field of scrubby weeds separating her from rows of identical buildings on the next street. Down at the corner was the bus stop, where her husband, Mark, had caught the early bus to the university that morning.

The thought of Mark conjured up an image Kate tried to shake away, but it hung there, filling her with a wave of anxiety. Amanda. Tall, blond, perfect Amanda, probably right now sitting there in class with Mark. Kate had met her at a graduate student reception at the beginning of the fall semester. Elegant in a stylish black cocktail dress, blond hair swept up in a sleek hairdo, diamond studs flashing in her ears, and an air of supreme confidence. The only woman in the Business Administration program. The hand she extended had revealed perfectly polished nails and no wedding ring. Kate tried to hide her own chipped nails and the dishpan hands that she hadn’t had time or energy—or money—to do anything about.

“So are you a graduate student here?” Amanda had greeted her. “What’s your field?”

Kate explained that she wasn’t enrolled at the university but was there with her husband. Amanda smiled coolly, her eyes sliding away to survey the rest of the crowd. At that moment Mark appeared, carrying two glasses of punch.

“This is my husband, Mark,” said Kate.

Mark! I had no idea you were married. You’ve been keeping it a secret, how naughty.” She smiled again, but this time it was directed solely at Mark, and Kate felt ignored, invisible, and subtly threatened.

“No secret,” Mark responded. “Just didn’t come up.” He abruptly set his and Kate’s empty punch glasses on a nearby table and took Kate’s arm. “See you tomorrow, Amanda.”

A few weeks after their first meeting, Kate had seen Amanda again at a graduate student buffet. She and Mark were helping themselves from an assortment of sandwiches, chips, and platters of limp tomatoes and lettuce when she noticed Amanda ahead of her, frowning as she poked a fork into a jar of pickles. At the same moment, Amanda glanced up and caught Kate’s eye. And again, she was politely condescending.

“Oh… How are you? Kate, is it?” Without waiting for an answer she turned her intense smile on Mark. They bantered back and forth, sharing insider business school jokes, while Kate stood awkwardly by, shut out from the conversation.

Now, remembering, Kate shivered. She didn’t like what she’d seen of Amanda, and she didn’t trust her. Mark had seemed different lately, too. Withdrawn, maybe. Or distant? Not the old open-hearted Mark with whom she could talk about anything and everything. Now, when she mentioned Amanda he’d look away and change the subject. She tried to think positively, find excuses. Maybe he was just tired, going to school all day and working every night at the auto plant. Maybe he thought she was nagging. Or maybe he was feeling guilty. She sighed and reached for a towel to dry her hands.

A cold wind swept across the fields, worming its way through the cracks and thin siding of the apartment. Chilly drafts of air swirled across the bare plywood floor and around Kate’s ankles. Pulling her sweater more closely around her, she went to check on her daughter, trying not to see the ugly government-issue chairs and couch in the sparsely furnished living room.

In a bassinet next to the monstrous coal stove that occupied one corner of the living room, four-week-old Nora whimpered in her sleep. Kate rotated the bassinet toward the stove to warm the baby’s tiny toes under the layer of blankets, then stepped into the adjacent bedroom to look in on her son Robin. He’d been running a high temperature all night, and Kate had been checking on him every fifteen minutes while Mark, oblivious, had breathed heavily on the other side of their bed.

As she bent over the crib, a scream rose in her throat. Robin lay there, seemingly lifeless, his eyes rolled back in his head and his skin turning blue. She was sure he was dead. “No!” she cried out. “No, no, no!”

As she picked him up, she felt his small body beginning to stiffen, and she ran toward the front door with the vague idea of somehow finding help. For once, alone there without Mark, she was thankful that the walls were so thin. Earl, a big tough-talking construction worker from next door, had heard her screams. He burst into the kitchen and took one look at Robin. “Fill the sink with cold water,” he barked. “Quick, God damn it! He’s having a convulsion. We gotta bring the fever down.”

Kate hurried to do as he said, her heart pounding. Earl plunged the little boy into the sink, and slowly the color began to return to his face. His eyes opened and he drew in a shuddering breath.

“Oh, thank God,” Kate breathed. The wave of relief almost overwhelmed her.

“You ain’t never seen a convulsion before? Our girl Lily used to have ’em when she was young.”

He lifted Robin from the water and wrapped him in the towel Kate handed him. She shook her head but wasn’t really listening. She was just grateful that Earl had been home and that he’d come through the door, like an angel in work boots and flannel shirt, and saved her son. Even though at first sight of him she’d had a moment of uncertainty. She’d often heard Earl shouting next door, sometimes accompanied by his angry pounding on the wall. Once there had been the sound of breaking glass as a windowpane shattered, and Kate could see the shards falling into the yard next door.

Still, Earl was here, and he was the only help she had.

She snapped back to attention when he said, “You gotta call the ambulance and get the kid to the hospital. He could go into another convulsion any minute. He’s still way too hot.”

In a daze, Kate ran to the telephone. Ambulance? How do you call an ambulance? She leafed frantically through the phone book for the emergency number. When she put the phone down, Earl was sitting on a kitchen chair, still holding Robin and watching for signs of another convulsion.

“Thank God you knew what to do. How can I ever thank you?” Kate’s knees wobbled, and she dropped into the nearest chair, then reached for Robin. He leaned against her, his face pale and eyes drooping.

“It’s nothin’ I ain’t done with Lily,” he said. “Glad I was around. I don’t have much to do these days. Got laid off.” He shrugged. “Just gettin’ my truck paid for, too.”

He passed a hand over his hair. “Your husband is lucky to have a job on the assembly line.”

It was the longest conversation Kate had ever had with Earl. Distracted by worry, she’d been only half-listening.

“I’m sorry,” she said now. “I didn’t know you’d lost your job.”

“Nothin’ anybody can do about it,” he said. His shoulders slumped and he looked down at the floor.

He must be really worried, Kate thought. No wonder he sometimes loses it and starts to bang on walls.

Earl and his wife Jerilyn were from Tennessee, part of the workforce that had been brought to Michigan early in the war from all over the South to manufacture B-24 bombers at the nearby Willow Run plant. Most, including Earl, had stayed on when the plant was converted after the war to making Kaiser Fraser automobiles. Usually Kate’s exchanges with both Jerilyn and Earl were limited to a ‘hello’ or ‘how are you’?

But occasionally Robin and the couple’s son Danny played together outside, running their toy cars up and down the sidewalk. Kate and Jerilyn would sit on their shared front steps while the children played and try to figure out how to talk to each other.

Jerilyn, with her frizzy red hair and freckles, her wary brown eyes, and a kind of scared rabbit look that sometimes crossed her face. And Kate, small and dark-haired, trying to be friendly. Mark always said Kate’s pointed face made her look like a cute little pixie, but that’s because it wasn’t his face. And besides, who ever said being small was a good thing? She got tired of reaching on tiptoe for boxes of cereal at the grocery store, or for sweaters on the closet shelf.

But it wasn’t just appearances that separated Jerilyn and Kate. Two lives couldn’t have been more different. It was like conversing with someone from another planet. Kate had grown up in a peaceful suburb in Connecticut, had enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she had met Mark. Jerilyn was what some of the university students in the housing project disparagingly referred to as a hillbilly. She had never been out of her rural home in the Tennessee mountains until Earl had brought the family to Michigan early in the war.

Now, as Earl and Kate waited for the ambulance, strains of recorded music came blasting through the wall from the next apartment.

“God damn,” exploded Earl. “Lily’s got that confounded song playing again. I’m sick to death of it. Oughtta throw the damn record in the garbage.” He got up and pounded on the wall.

“Lily,” he shouted. “Shut that thing off! How many times I got to tell you?”

Though she’d cringed a little when he banged on the wall, Kate nevertheless agreed. Thanks to 12-year-old Lily, “Side By Side” accompanied their meals and most of their waking hours, drowning out the Beethoven and Brahms that she and Mark enjoyed.

The lines of the song ran through her head constantly, against her best efforts to dislodge them. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, their bedroom shared the wall of the next door bedroom on the other side of their apartment, and she had learned more about the love life of their other neighbors, Annie and John, than she had ever wanted to know. And probably vice versa.

When a siren sounded in the distance, Kate, her knees still shaking, stood up. “I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here,” she said.

Earl looked embarrassed. He glanced over at the bassinet. “What you gonna do with the baby?”

“I guess I’ll have to take her along, if they’ll let me ride with Robin. They’d better. I’m not sending him off alone. He’d be terrified.”

“Tell you what. Jerry can come over here and stay with the baby, and I’ll follow the ambulance to the hospital and drive y’all home.”

“I can’t let you do that! Or Jerry either. I’ll just call a cab when Robin is released.”

But Earl was already yelling, “Jerry! C’mon over here.”

Jerry hurried in just as the ambulance pulled up. She hadn’t had time to take off her apron, and she had thrown one of Earl’s heavy jackets over her shoulders. Kate hurriedly explained about diapers and the supplementary bottles in the ice box, then with an anxious backward glance, she followed the EMTs as they carried Robin out on a stretcher. His eyes were dazed, his little body limp.

“It’s all right, baby,” Kate crooned. “Mommy’s right here. We’re going for a little ride together.” His eyes focused on her face, and he tried to smile.


"Willow Run"


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