Sunday, August 28, 2011

Claude Harrison Abbott (1915-1978)

I don't remember meeting my husband's Uncle Claude (although I suspect that he was at our wedding), but when I look at family photos from my husband's family, I sometimes catch my breath for a moment - in some poses, he looks exactly like an earlier copy of Greg. Several months ago, as keeper of the family history memorabilia, I received a box of bits and pieces from his life....

Oldest brother of my husband's father, when Claude was born, the family still used horses for labor on the farm. Women still wore floor length dresses. This picture, taken when he was almost 4 1/2 years old, feels like it's definitely out of another time and place.

Since Claude was over a decade older than my father-in-law, there aren't many stories of his childhood floating around any more. By the time Bill was old enough to really get to know him at all, Claude had left home to join the military.

Only one small story, of an incident in his high school years, has survived. As I related in "Tough Times Helped Shape Tough People in Depression-Era Oklahoma," Claude had gone to a meeting one night in a near-by town, driving the family's only car. When he returned, he forgot to drain the radiator. The water froze in the radiator, the car engine was ruined, and the car remained unused and unusable in the barn for the rest of the Depression. I can barely imagine how upset his parents were....

That story almost seems like an anomaly, since most of the other things I know about Claude point to a highly responsible person - but, then, it was from his high school years!

The photo below is Claude's senior picture from Shamrock High School. He was the vice president of his graduating class...of 19 students.

In 1935, about a year after he graduated from Shamrock High School, Claude joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, where he served in the 1st Balloon Squadron for 3 years as a truck driver and mechanic. During this time he met, and became best friends with, a young sailor named Tom Graham.

As his obligated time began to wind up, Claude fell in love with and married Virginia Ruth Jones. The marriage occurred in May, 1938...but Claude and Virginia kept the marriage a secret from his superiors in the military. He wasn't planning to re-enlist.

Plans changed, though, and when Claude did try to re-enlist 6 weeks later, he tried to do so as a married man, which required written permission. His commanding officer, Maj. Ira R. Koenig, of 1st Balloon Squadron, supported his application, listing 20 points related to why Claude should be allowed to re-enlist. Among the points made were Claude's "excellent" service, "excellent" character, his "excellent" probable future value to the service, his "exceptionally good" ability to handle his own finances, the "excellent" standing in the community of the applicant's wife, and his "apparently far above the average" sense of responsibility (as it would apply to a family). Claude's military pay was listed as $30/month. Virginia Ruth was said to be making $90/month as a public school teacher and she had no dependents.

A brief reason was given for the clandestine marriage, "Private Abbott did not contemplate re-enlisting and made this fact known to the undersigned [Maj. Koenig]. He was expecting connections with the Cameron College Athletic organization which did not materialize." (Cameron University is in Lawton, Oklahoma. Presumably this is an athletic organization of the precursor to that school.)

Major Koenig sent the request up the chain of command. The commander of the School Troops Division, Lt. Col. D. B. Howard, approved the petition and passed it on again.

However, the Commandant of the Flight Artillery School did not agree. Based on the fact that Claude's monthly pay was less than $50/month and that he had married without permission, his request was denied. "The fact that the wife is working and receiving compensation should be considered, but experience has shown that such compensation can not be counted on as continuous and permanent." It was expected that Virginia Ruth would be getting pregnant and would not be able to continue working as a school teacher, since in those days teachers were not allowed to continue working once their pregnancy began to "show."

After being unable to re-enlist, Claude worked for several years in the Lawton, Oklahoma, area at the Stephens brothers' Texaco filling station and at Ozmun Wholesale grocery. Lawton, Oklahoma, was the area where he and Virginia Ruth had met and married, and her parents lived very nearby in Cache.

There's another brief story I like about Claude and his young wife from this time in their lives. Vergie, Claude's mother, had been very deaf since she was relatively young [18 or 19 years old? or in the Flu Epidemic of 1918? There is debate on the subject.]. At any rate, Vergie caught the flu and the resulting infection caused her eardrums to perforate and her hearing to become quite poor. For Mother's Day in 1941, Claude and Virginia Ruth gave Vergie a hearing aid and, for the first time in over 20 years, she could hear reasonably well again. This hearing aid had a huge battery pack that Vergie had to strap to her leg, while the receiver was on her chest. For most of the rest of her life, it was common to see Vergie answer the phone "upside down," with the mouthpiece at her mouth and the speaker aimed downwards at her chest. Although she eventually tried to transition to more modern types of hearing aids, she always came back to the type with the chest receiver, as these seemed to work best for her.

On October 14, 1942, with the U.S. fully committed in WW II, Claude re-enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Shortly thereafter, he became an aircraft mechanic after completing training at the Enid Army Flying School.

A sign of VERY different times: On March 16, 1943, Claude received written permission to spend one night (5 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following morning) in a local hotel with his wife of almost 5 years, Virginia Ruth. I'm not sure I would have believed it if I hadn't seen the paperwork to prove it!

According to a small newspaper clipping from the Lawton Constitution, dated October 28, 1945, Claude received his wings and the rank of flight officer after completing 6 months of training as a B-29 engineer at Hondo, Texas. The photo below is from this general time frame.

To the left, the snapshot shows Claude and Virginia Ruth in Sacramento, California, in 1947. I don't know why they were there, but presumably it had something to do with Claude's career, as he is in uniform. It's one of the few photos that I have of the two of them together.

Eventually Claude completed a career with the Air Force, retiring in 1962 as a Master Sergeant. During his years with the Army Air Corps/Air Force, he served in Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and West Germany. Virginia Ruth worked as a school teacher, but they were unable to ever have children of their own.

Virginia Ruth wrote poems to "her Claude" occasionally. One was in his wallet when he died. I have few photos of the 2 of them together, though. I suspect that Virginia Ruth kept most of those after Claude died. She lived many more years and our family was not notified right away when she passed on, so I have no idea where those photos have gone. I do really wish that I had one.

After his retirement, Claude joined Graham, Inc., a pest control company owned by his old best friend, Tom Graham, in Oklahoma City. He served as a corporate officer, being assistant vice-president when he died of esophageal cancer in 1978.

Since Claude H. and Virginia Ruth (Jones) Abbott left no children of their own, I wanted to share what I know of their story with others. Their names bring a smile to the faces of those who knew them - and I can't think of a much warmer legacy than that.