Freda Fox – March 11th, 2009

GEDC0128I drove up to Freda Fox’s home on Ornbaun Rd in Boonville last Wednesday morning and was greeted by Freda who immediately said, “I have to tell you I don’t want to do this – who wants to hear about me?”…After assuring her that several people had asked me to interview her, and that I knew she had a tale to tell, we sat down and began to chat…
Freda was born Frieda Theil on March 26th, 1918 in Youngstown, Ohio, the seventh daughter of John Theil and Maria Brantsch, a couple who unknowingly had grown up just five miles apart in the Saxon region of Transylvania – now Romania. They had arrived in the United States in 1900 and 1899 respectively and were proud of their Saxon heritage – they would never refer to themselves as German, although their names certainly have that connotation. Furthermore, when Freda went to school in the years following World War 1, with anti-German feeling high, the teacher felt she should drop the German spelling of her first name and so the ‘i’ disappeared.
“I was the last daughter because after me came the son my parents wanted so much. It was very important to my father. I think they probably wanted to throw me away when I became the seventh girl! When John was born he was ‘ the greatest’ and I was somewhat forgotten in the mix. My sister Elsie took me under her wing and became like a mother to me…. I remember a neighbor had just one child and wanted to adopt me – I thought it was a great idea!”
In the mid-twenties, the family moved to a rural part of Ohio near to the Pennsylvania border, to a town called Lowellville, a small town about the size of Boonville. The depression soon followed but, unlike many, Freda’s father kept his job as a railway supervisor and whilst not well off they did not suffer as so many did. She attended High School in Lowellville where she was a good student who particularly liked math and science. She liked to read – discovering and learning much from ‘Gone with the Wind’ when it was published in 1936 – and was good at sport. She graduated in 1936 but could not afford to go to college. “I knew I wanted to leave this small town and so my father agreed to put me through nurses school costing $125 for three years. I moved back to Youngstown and began my vocation; specializing in anatomy and physiology…It was very strict for us nurses there. We lived like nuns! We were in nurse’s quarters and lights out was at 10pm. We had a very strict Director of Nursing, Dorothy Winley, but she was fair and saw to it that we all progressed through our studies. I graduated from there in 1939 and went to work in the local hospital for $60 a month with room and board.”
For the first time in her life Freda had some freedom and some money to spend. “I loved clothes and had bought hardly any for three years so I went out and bought lots. We also would go out on the town sometimes and I had met an Ohio State graduate, Karl, and we dated for a time. He wanted to get married but I was not going to. I was twenty-one and had made a conscious decision to wait until I was twenty-five at least. I wanted to live first, to be independent. One night I almost agreed to his proposal when we were dancing under the stars but I said ‘no’ in the end.”
With war raging in Europe, patriotism was very strong in this country and Freda’s father encouraged his children to do what they could – “he hated the Germans and Russians.” Freda joined the Army Reserve Nurse’s Corps in the fall of 1941 – “I’ve done some dumb things in my life” she jokes. She was stationed in Ft. Knox, Kentucky and worked in the Army Hospital. “If you joined the Reserve it was just for one year, whereas the Army was for three years. I didn’t want to do that. I also had ticked the box that said ‘No’ to going overseas. However, in the eventuality of war you were classed as Army – you’d stay there until the war was over, plus six months if necessary…We nurses were extremely popular amongst all the army officers and there was a good social life to enjoy. We had a ‘formal’ (dance) every week, which I loved because dancing and wearing nice clothes were two of my favorite things to do. I played tennis, I drank, I smoked. I had a wonderful time. Then one day as I came off the tennis court to go for a drink at the Officers Club where we would hang out, I heard a news bulletin on the radio – it was December 7th, 1941, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war. I knew things were going to change very quickly – and they did. Looking back I suppose I thought I was so sophisticated then – I wasn’t – and now I was about to experience a whole other world and existence.”
Thirty-nine nurses we initially called up to go across to Europe with the first wave of U.S soldiers. They were recruited from Ft. Knox, and Freda was one of them. “We were told to send all of our clothes home and keep just one outfit. I sent most of mine to my sister Ruthie but just couldn’t send them all – I kept a formal, a bathing suit, and some fancy shoes. I don’t know what I was thinking. We shipped out from New York in January 1942 and arrived in Londonderry, Ireland a few days later. Before we left, Karl had again asked me to marry him – I would not have to go if I was married. Again I turned him down. He was not the only love of my life.”
“We were the first Americans to get over there and were wined and dined and I met many very nice pilots. We were stationed in stone barracks. It was cold, freezing – thank God for Scotch! And it was always raining – I could fully understand why it was so green!…The local people were very good to us – I was taught how to make a cup of tea correctly. By the winter of 1943 I was moved to Belfast Hospital and the casualties were increasing. We worked very hard and saw a lot of tragic things. However we nurses did have lots of fun together and became very close. I was promoted a couple of times and ended up as a 2nd Lieutenant, and eventually becoming a Captain at the War’s end.”
“We went to many dances and parties with officers – the enlisted men were not allowed to mix with the nurses even though we worked with many of them on a daily basis. We would even get to London on leave sometimes and stay at the Savoy Hotel. My girlfriend, Bernie Wheatley, was dating a General’s Aide, Captain Derby – they made a film about him – and I was accompanied by the adjutant… Towards the end of 1943 we moved to the Manchester Hospital, in England. It was a real hospital – not tents with dirty floors etc. There I saw up close my first real experience of racism. There were quite a lot of black soldiers and the Doctors who were from the Southern States had a real problem with them socializing with the local English girls in the pubs etc. There were also many black nurses at this hospital. We got on fine. We’d be trying to curl our hair and they’d be trying to straighten theirs! Then, because black nurses would have to be welcomed too, they made the decision to close the club. That was an awful reason to do such a thing. I had never been confronted with these sort of issues before.”
1944 saw the Battle of the Bulge take place and as a result a huge numbers of casualties were arriving for treatment. “It was really bad but we were all promised leave to go home. I was really looking forward to Christmas 1944 at home but leave was cancelled because of all the casualties. However, for reasons never explained, all of the nurses eventually did get their leave – except two, and I was one of those. I ended up staying in Europe for over three and a half years without returning home to the States once – when I finally came back I even I had something of an English accent.”
“When the war ended in Europe – V.E. Day, May 8th, 1945 – we went out and celebrated. We had a wonderful time that night, playing bridge, dancing, drinking champagne. That night was a night to remember forever. We were so happy and I drank a lot – that’s fine, but don’t drink when you’re not happy; if you’re depressed and unhappy, drink is not your answer…”
Freda was sent to Birmingham, England to await her trip back to the States. “We were there for a few months, sitting around doing very little. It’s a bit of a blur – perhaps I drank too much – but when the war against Japan ended with V.J. Day (August 15th, 1945), we were put on a ship, the ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and sailed across the Atlantic to New York.”
“As we entered New York harbor the emotions were overwhelming. It was incredible. I cannot explain it. I was so happy to be home and yet so sad – I knew a very important part of my life was over. I had made so many special friends. You get very close to people you work with, particularly in the line of work we had been doing – we were a family and that family was breaking up. I had never felt like that, so emotional. It still makes me cry occasionally.”…And here in 2009, well over sixty years later, Freda shed some tears once more.
Freda explained that this was most unusual and of course I understood. She made us each a cup of coffee and I suggested that we move forward quickly through the next twenty years. “Sounds good to me – I thought we were done already,” she quickly responded with a smile.
Upon her return to the States, Freda soon enrolled at the Case Western College in Cleveland and studied Biological Sciences for three years until graduating in1948. She then returned to Lowellville and briefly taught at the local hospital. She was discontented and felt her life needed something more. So she bought a ‘lemon’ of a Dodge and, together with her sister Ruthie, set off to drive across the country to see her friends from the war years. “I had only got my driver’s license the day before we left so Ruthie did the driving. We saw many of my friends but when we were in Berkeley the car broke down. We were low on money and decided to each get a job. I went to the Veterans’ Administration in Oakland and got a nursing supervisor’s job that same day and Ruthie got one too – in the office.”
“For years people had been trying to get me married off – always suggesting possible candidates, but I had not wanted to. I liked men and had dated my fair share but I felt I did not need to get married, nor want to. Then one day at work I met Joe. We fell in love and he asked me to marry him. I told him I wanted two kids and if he didn’t like that idea then he could forget it. He agreed and we were married on April 29th, 1951 – we went to Acapulco in Mexico for our honeymoon.”
Three children followed over the next five years or so – Jeff, John, and Terry and Freda became a stay-at-home Mom. ‘I didn’t like not working. I had always had my own money. Now I felt it wasn’t mine and I desperately wanted to get back to work at some point but had committed to being at home with each of my children until they were five years old. So when Terry turned five in 1962 I went to work at Highland Hospital in Oakland.”
Joe had always wanted to fly and had obtained his flying license in 1958. They flew together a lot and Freda also learnt. Joe had a dream of flying to his home somewhere in the countryside and taxi-ing right up to the front door. A realtor friend, Stu Skyler, suggested they check out the small airport and surrounding properties in a place called Anderson Valley so they flew up this way in the summer of 1964. They liked what they saw and bought property on Airport Drive; Freda, the three kids, and the dog moving up soon afterwards with Joe not moving full-time until a few years later. “We lived in that house until 1985 when we moved here. We still have that house – Terry lives there – and we bought a further forty acres alongside and Joe and my son Jeff built the hangers down there. They worked together and got a lot done but boy did they argue – that nearly put me in therapy. They each thought they were right – in fact they were both wrong!”
“I didn’t want to move here. It was the middle of nowhere remember – it has changed a lot since the early sixties…But, I learned to love it and the people here certainly helped in that – everyone has always been so friendly to me here although my friends from those days have all passed away except Carolyn Short. My life has gone full-circle I suppose. I grew up in a small town, did many things out on my own in the world, and have now come back to a small town.”
During her time in the Valley Freda was, from 1972-83, the school district nurse, finally retiring for good at the age of sixty-six. For many years she would visit her family back East but now she is the last one and does not go back. She has kept herself in good health by doing aerobics for twenty years with Linda Boudoures and more recently she has been involved in Linda’s exercise class. She and Linda are very close and in the recent Valley Variety Show Freda appeared on stage with the rest of the class performing a dance routine. “I was at the back – hopefully people didn’t notice me…. The group helped me a lot following Joe’s death in 2001 and I think that the physical exercise has helped me mentally. I believe that if you expect your brain to work you had better stay active and not sit around.”
I now turned to asking Freda about a few of the topics that frequently concern Valley folks…The wineries? – “Well I’m for them, I guess. I am a social drinker certainly and like a glass of wine. I have always liked good Scotch and still like the occasional Scotch and water.”…The local radio station? – “I am not a listener – the reception is poor and I prefer to listen to 740 AM out of the Bay Area – they repeat things so much I eventually remember them! I watch the news on television and old movies on A.M.C. (American Movie Channel).”…The High School? – I think we have some very good teachers. I believe that the kids are given an opportunity to learn and then it’s up to them. My kids had a good education at this school.”…And whom would you vote for Mayor if there were such a position here in the Valley? – “I used to be teased for being the Mayor of Boonville but to be honest we don’t need a Mayor here. Why? And besides, nobody could be Mayor of this Valley and make everyone happy.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Freda from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Look on the bright side.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “I do not like to hear people say, ‘I’m no good at that’. I also don’t like the use of incorrect grammar when people speak.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Talking to people and maybe helping them in some way if I can – something I’ve always tried to do.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Being around people who look on the dark side of life.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “I like big band music – swing music. I used to love dancing to those sounds.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Very loud noises of any kind…Also sounds of pain – I’ve heard my share of those.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I don’t want to say. I am trying hard not to answer even though you want one…It’s such a stupid word…I don’t like to swear…O.K. then, it’s…’Shit’…Are you going to write that down? Actually it’s not a swear word.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “These days it would be walking and exercise, reading too. It used to be playing Bridge.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “A Doctor. I took all my pre-med exams and courses. In my day, it was very hard for women to become doctors though.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A housecleaner…or may be a full-time cook or chef.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – ”Oh, dear, there have been so many…But there are really three very special ones – the births of my children.”

What was the saddest? – “This would probably be the day I talked about earlier – when I returned to this country after the war. It could also be included as one of the happiest too though. Leaving people I loved so much was so upsetting. I was very depressed after that – I threw myself into work and studies so I did not have to think about the loss.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually – your choice? – “I suppose my strength of character; my self-belief. I am a strong person with strong opinions – sometimes that gets me into trouble. However, I have a little card hanging in the kitchen and I do try to follow its advice – ‘accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and possess the wisdom to know the difference.’ I read that often to keep myself in check.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Thank you for helping so many people and for always trying to be honest and good.”

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Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 11:41 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. This is an interview with my Great Aunt Freda!! She was my Grandma Sophie’s little sis. I’m only 29 but so much like her. Thanks for interviewing her and bringing these stories to light. I always heard the truncated versions but this is amazing. My Great Aunt Ruthie was a total kick in the pants too—extremely unique, strong and vibrant women of their time.

  2. This phenomenal lady is also my Great Aunt Freda! Her older sister Minnie was my grandma. I too have heard only bits and pieces of her life stories, and am thrilled to have this wonderful narrative to fill in the gaps. Not only does it enlighten me about her life, but in some ways, provides me a better understanding of who I am as well. And hearing her own words, and her distinct strength of character, will help me during the difficult times that I and my family are currently enduring. Thank you Great Aunt Freda…once again you are helping someone!


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