Sunday, February 25, 2018

This Mother and Son Will Not Be Remembered Unless I Write This

Sometimes I wonder if people who have gone quietly about living good, decent lives will ever be remembered for having lived their good, decent lives. Here is a story of a devoted mother and her only child that was told to me by my mother.

In the first decade of the 1900s, Katharine and Johann Saar were members of the German Methodist Church on the corner of Broadway and West Elm, in the Munichburg neighborhood of Jefferson City. My grandparents, who lived next door to the church, were also members of that small congregation.

The Saars lived less than a block away in the smallest brick house I have ever seen. It measures not more than 12 x 24 feet. Remarkably, it is still standing in good shape with few modifications, like the addition of an indoor bathroom. It sits alone on its own very small piece of land behind the Schaefer House, 618 Broadway, with hardly any yard; parking and driveways surround the house.

Made of soft, porous brick, this little house was probably built in the 1890s. It had only two very small rooms, each about 10 x 10 feet with separate flues, and a microscopic attic above. Today it still serves as a residence. Sadly, the inconspicuous house was overlooked when the grander neighboring buildings facing directly on Broadway and Dunklin were put on the National Register of Historic Places as the Munichburg Historic District. It should have been included.

In 1901 the Saars’ daughter, Marie, married Franz Pietsch, which is pronounced “peach,” just like the fruit. The Pietsches had a son, their only child, Paul, born soon after.

Franz Pietsch, reportedly a railroad worker, died shortly after little Paul’s birth. Marie Pietsch was left to raise her son by herself. Those were tough times for a widow. Marie moved with baby Paul into the tiny brick house to live with her also widowed mother. Somewhat later, Katharine Saar moved south to the Brazito community, leaving Marie Pietsch and young Paul alone in the tiny house.

In order to make a living, Marie Pietsch took the job of charwoman, or scrub woman, at the old U.S. Post Office on High Street, which was across the street from today’s Arris’ Pizza Palace. My mother described to me how Mrs. Pietsch not only wet-mopped the rooms of the building but also got down on her hands and knees and hand scrubbed all the steps—cleaning them of spat tobacco juice and whatever else. Those steps were used every day, winter and summer, by hundreds of people. Everyone using those steps literally looked down upon her as just a simple scrubwoman. There was no more menial job in public sight, but Marie had a child to raise.

Paul attended Jefferson City schools and turned out to be a stellar student. He graduated from the high school in 1919 no less than class valedictorian and champion debater. He received the coveted A. M. Hough Medal given annually to the student who ranked highest in scholarship. According to the yearbook, his fellow students voted him the “greatest athlete.” Within a few years out of high school he had a respectable Missouri state government position as an assistant chemist. Marie Pietsch must have taken great pride in her son, having risen from such humble circumstances, and he, in turn, must have thought the world of his devoted mother.

In 1930, Marie Pietsch was the only non-family person at my parents’ wedding one block away on Elm Street. Mrs. Pietsch assisted my grandmother with the wedding reception for her daughter. Grandma’s and Marie’s friendship was based on their earlier years in the German Methodist Church. My mother blushingly admitted to me that she had had a teenager’s crush on the neighborhood boy Paul—handsome, smart, athletic—who was just a couple years older. Paul did not attend her wedding.

World War II came in 1941. Paul, still single at age thirty-nine, entered U.S. military service. Then no one heard anything more about him. When asked, Mrs. Pietsch, now living alone in that tiny house, said he was doing “just fine” and had not been sent overseas.

Mrs. Pietsch died while the war was still raging. She died alone. All alone. According to my mother, the U.S. military would not allow Paul to come home from wherever he was for his own mother’s funeral and burial. Not a single family member was there to mourn Marie, the devoted mother who scrubbed the post office steps on her hands and knees.

You see, Paul had a supersecret job with military intelligence, and he was so indispensable to the war effort that, though he was still in this country, he was not allowed any time off, not even for his mother’s funeral. That bothered my mother very deeply. As a mother herself, she imagined how grieving Paul must have been not to be able to say goodbye to his dear mother.
I don’t know what happened to Paul Pietsch after the war, but he did not return to Jefferson City. So this story has to end here.

I think about him and his mother whenever I see that tiny brick house, and I wonder if the devoted mother Marie Pietsch and Paul, her high-achieving son, are ever remembered by anyone else.

Now that I have told you their story, you can remember them, too.

Copyright 2013 by Walter A. Schroeder.



Southside Sketches: Essays on Jefferson City’s Old Munichburg
200 pages, paperback
$12 (available at Downtown Book & Toy, the ECCO Lounge, J Street Vintage, and the Schaefer House, all in Jefferson City, Missouri)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Civilian Defense Corps and Air Raids in Jefferson City

The U.S. government responded to the early, spectacular successes of the Japanese and Nazi Germans at the beginning of World War II by creating the Office of Civilian Defense on May 20, 1941. This office was to protect Americans from the possibility of enemy bombing of our towns and cities. Clifford G. Scruggs, the lumber dealer, was the chairman of the Jefferson City Council of Civilian Defense and was in charge of administering the executive order locally.

My dad, age 38 when the war began, had been given a 3-A (exempt) classification for military service. My mom jokingly said it was because he had flat feet, but then she quickly added that he was the sole provider for five other persons, including his two young sons (my brother Richard and me) and Mom’s German-born parents who lived with us. With civilian status, Dad was expected to do his duty by civilian service. To do this, he became an air raid warden with the local Office of Civilian Defense.

Looking back seventy years ago, it seems incredible that we believed that Japanese and German Nazi planes could penetrate so deep into the heart of the continent to reach Jefferson City, Missouri, without being intercepted somewhere along the way. Nevertheless, at the time we took the possibility seriously . . . very seriously.

The kids on West Elm Street, six to eleven years old, learned how to identify enemy airplanes from silhouettes of them published in the newspaper and on the back sides of breakfast cereal boxes. (Airplane identification cards also came in packs of cigarettes, but no one in our family smoked.) With our binoculars we surveyed the skies, lying on the steep, grassy terraces or peering out of second- and third-story windows. We were sure we would spot a German Stuka or Messerschmidt or maybe a “Jap” Mitsubishi or Zero and save Jefferson City from air attack.

The Office of Civilian Defense distributed leaflets about preparation for air attacks: “Read and Save this Leaflet—it may Save Your Life Some Day!” The city held air raid drills to practice what to do. It was important to extinguish all lights inside houses, so that the enemy planes could not find anyplace to bomb. So we had to put out all lights in the house and pull all the window shades shut. We were not allowed to use any matches or flashlights outside. People were not even allowed to light a cigarette in the open. All streetlights were extinguished. If you were driving, you had to stop immediately, turn off the lights, and park close to the curb, but not at any intersection or fire hydrant. Police and firemen could use their headlights, but their headlights had to be mostly covered, leaving only a slit to allow a little light through. Detailed rules were in place for those caught in theaters and other meeting places at time of an air raid. We were also instructed, should an attack actually occur, to seek cover under a large table or under an overturned sofa. “Carelessness or negligence in observing these precautions may invite disaster.”


 Newspapers also printed information about what to do when an attack comes. Since gas was a dreaded weapon in World War I, there was fear it could be used again. In case of gas attack, we were to close doors tightly, stuff cracks, avoid the basement, and retreat into the attic. If we were caught outside, we were to cover our mouths and noses with damp handkerchiefs and “walk against the wind to get in the clear quicker. Above all, keep your head. Running around wildly results in much greater danger to yourself.”


 To be an air raid warden, Dad had to take a training course. It consisted of eight sessions, taught in evenings at the Junior College (now the Miller Performing Arts Center). He learned about chemical warfare, high explosives, incendiary bombs, and how to keep civilian morale up.


 Each session included first aid instruction, including how to care for casualties of gas bombs. “It is the responsibility of the Air Raid Warden to see that everything possible is done to protect and safeguard the homes and citizens within his area from the hazards created by attacks from the air.” On December 12, 1942, the class received certification of membership in the United States Citizens Defense Corps as air raid wardens. Dad was now an official air raid warden!
Jefferson City was divided into geographic areas for air warden patrol. Each area comprised about 500 persons. Dad was assigned to Lafayette Street between McCarty and Dunklin and connecting streets, the neighborhood known as “The Foot” of Lincoln University. It contained the black business district and many residences of both blacks and whites.

When an air raid drill was called in the evening, Dad put on his sleeve identification band, picked up his flashlight, and walked the eight blocks from our house on West Elm Street to Lafayette. He looked at all the windows of the businesses and houses to make sure no light was visible from the street. He told those walking on the sidewalk that they should go inside a building and those with cigarettes to put them out or go inside.

My brother and I waited up in our darkened house with all the window shades drawn until he returned to find out what was going on. He never reported anything unusual. He said that everyone was in full compliance with the regulations. We were actually kind of disappointed that no enemy planes had been spotted flying over Jefferson City. It had been just another drill.


 As 1942 turned into 1943 and then into 1944, the probability of enemy air attack on the 48 United States greatly lessened, although we kids still occasionally surveyed the skies looking for enemy planes. The Japanese temporarily occupied Attu in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and sent some incendiary balloons over Oregon, and German U-boats were sighted off the East Coast, but we in Jefferson City felt safe from air attack.

Dad, however, retained his air warden status and participated in more air raid drills. It was not until June 4, 1945, a month after Germany had surrendered on May 8, that the Office of Civilian Defense was terminated by executive order and Dad put his air raid warden sleeve band away. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945.

Copyright 2012 by Walter A. Schroeder.