Bennie

Uncategorized July 22, 2013

I met Bennie at the library within the first week of my residency at the Jones Library.  “Bennie”, short for Bernarda.  “My father wanted a boy,” she imparted with a matter-of-fact shrug and smile.  She is what one would call “spry” -as in, spry for 92 years old.  Her white pixie haircut frames a radiating smile that rises on both sides of her mouth to exaggerated cheekbones.  From my own childhood it conjures up the wooden puppet from the early days of children’s television: Howdy Doody.  But Bennie’s smile is backed with anything but wood.    Her twinkling blue eyes together with that smile manufacture a sense of humor plumbed from the depths of her schooling and life.  Bennie graduated from nearby  Mt. Holyoke College, an all-women’s college, class of 1943 and immediately entered the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service/ US Navy) as part of the war effort.

Bennie now volunteers at the library every few weeks from her home, a retirement community less than five miles south of Amherst center.  It is where another WW II veteran, I’ve talked about, Connie Wogrin, resides.   “Good morning,” she will greet me as she slowly makes her way to my easel, aided by a cane.  And then she will ask me about myself, sincerely interested, particularly if I have any stories to tell her about the exhibit.

Last week after catching up on things, she asked me where the exhibit is going when it leaves Amherst.  I mentioned Colorado as the next major stop.

“Oh you must visit Boulder,” she said. “That’s where they did training (WW II) for Japanese interpretation.”  She continued.  “I wanted to go there but I was sent to Smith College  instead (the other all-women’s college in the area).  “There,” she began using cupped hands near her neck.”We focused on the length of our hair.”  Her blue eyes twinkled.  “And then, ooh yes,” she began with excitement. “I became a courier.  I spent each day saluting officers with: ‘Yes, Captain.’ , ‘Good morning Lieutenant’.”   Bennie’s facial expression remained neutral as she started slowly walking away, her story complete.

“Geeze Bennie,” I said knowing she would get my humor. “You sound so bitter.”

“Oh yes,” she said, breaking out in laughter.  “Oh yes I am”

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For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

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