Grandma was an air raid warden

Helen J. Rizzo

March 11, 1992|By Helen J. Rizzo

NO ONE has yet asked me what I did in the Great War, but with all of the 50-year anniversaries of this or that turning point, perhaps one or another of our curious grandkids will get around to it. Allowing their be-ribboned merchant marine grandfather a priority on his deeds of valor, I can reveal that Grandmother, too, was active in the worldwide struggle.

I'll show them the trappings of my fearless wartime calling -- badge, arm band, whistle, helmet and gas mask. I was an air raid warden.

The course of instruction familiarized me with the air raid signals, blackout regulations, various types of bombs and other exciting details. The required Red Cross first aid course left me with a thorough knowledge of what to do 'til the doctor comes. (I can still tie a square knot should one ever be required.)

The day I was formally appointed warden in Sector 4, Precinct F, Zone 1, was a memorable one. I paraded from the post wearing all my protective and identifying gear and proudly dragging a pump-type fire extinguisher. It was undoubtedly a patriotic sight, and at the time I fondly believed it shook a great deal of complacency out of my family and neighbors, many of whom optimistically believed air raids on the United States were impossible. My display of preparedness no doubt brought the war much closer to home.

With all the excitement of young cadets at their first dress parade, we mustered out for our first announced drill. I garbed myself hastily and threw a look of dignified reproach at my mother when she calmly cautioned me not to trip in the dark. Reminding myself to speak to her and impress upon her the serious civic responsibilities of her daughter, I ventured forth into the night.

Our section of the city was still quaintly lit with gas street lights, and each one had to be extinguished manually. The city authorities, to simplify this task for us, had attached a wire to the gadget which governed each light's on-ness and off-ness. Pull the wire, put out the light. Simple, right? But when the wire became entangled in the upper regions, it required shinnying up the pole to retrieve it, and lady wardens could forget grace and decorum.

A warden took great pride in the completeness of a blackout in his or her sector. "Douse those lights" became a familiar sound, automatically accompanying the raid signals. When the "all clear" sounded, we guardians of the populace glanced triumphantly at each other, feeling almost as if we had personally driven the enemy planes away. It seemed, however, that only a warden could appreciate a warden. My family remained singularly unimpressed.

My patriotism received its acid test during a surprise drill at 4 a.m. The calendar said early spring, about this time of year, but as far as my chilly toes and I were concerned, it was still the dead of winter. The groaning sirens translated into a nagging voice: "Get up! The street lights are burning! This may be the real thing!"

I bounded out of bed. In the dark I groped around for clothes and, as it happened, donned some soiled and faded gardening gear. My mother stumbled in, frankly voicing her opinion that this was carrying precautionary measures too far. I gave her a look of sleepy indignation and added authoritatively, "This, Mother, may be the real thing."

In girding myself for combat. I swathed my curler-covered head with a scarf and clamped my metal helmet over this. The light-extinguishing wires were particularly stubborn that morning. The neighbors were exceptionally thoughtless, lighting up their houses from top to bottom as they bounded about wondering what it was all about. My "Douse those lights" was at times embellished with a smattering of profanity. I alienated a few neighbors, some of whom treated me cooly for years.

It was a grueling experience. The indignity I endured when the sun started to creep into the sky, revealing my seedy, outlandish appearance to all, had to be close to heroic. When the "all clear" finally sounded, I crept home feeling I had earned a citation of some sort for bravery beyond the call of duty.

Helen J. Rizzo writes from Baltimore.

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