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Clyde Beal: Busy life carves original path for local woman

Dec. 08, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

There's an old country music classic that Johnny Cash used to sing called, "I've been everywhere." The song was a whirlwind list of towns and landmarks given honorable mention as Cash ripped them off one by one. That song must have been made for the likes of Jeanne Gardner, because it parallels her lifestyle that traversed across America in a similar nonstop fashion.

Gardner was born in Huntington along 6th Avenue during the spring of 1923 (she can't recall the exact location). She grew up with a brother and two sisters who are now deceased. She remembers the worn down broom she used for sweeping throughout the house because they couldn't afford a vacuum cleaner. Her mother worked as a seamstress making alterations and custom fit dresses for the wealthy. Her father did little to provide for the family because he was either lazy or ill; she never knew which.

"Everybody's heard that old joke about moving when the rent came due," said Gardner. "In our case it was the truth, because that's pretty much what we did. When my father ran out of excuses for not paying the rent - we skedaddled. I attended so many grade schools in town that I never really had much time to make many friends. I also discovered early on that if I was going to have spending money, I was going to have to earn it. So I found me a part-time job at downtown Kresge's five and dime selling hot dogs."

Gardner continued to work a series of part time jobs while in school. After graduation her first fulltime employment was working for Zenith Optical Company at 220 8th Ave., a position she kept until 1943 when she decided it was time to join the United States Navy.

"I joined the Navy for two reasons," said Gardner. "My life just wasn't going anywhere, and I liked those Navy uniforms."

After taking her oath of enlistment, Gardner was bussed to Charleston overnight for a physical with several other women from around the state. Next it was back to Huntington where she boarded a train heading for Long Island, New York.

"I was at Long Island for several weeks," said Gardner. "There was no liberty, plenty of marching and little time to do anything but eat and sleep. And they didn't allow much time for that. We were given a book called the 'Blue Jacket Manual' and we were instructed to memorize it. We were told that everything we needed to know was in that manual. That book contained everything from naval history, military terminology, marching commands, disciplinary action and a whole lot more. It was often referred to as the enlisted man's Bible. It's still being issued to new enlistees today."

Six days into basic training, Gardner missed the morning roll call; no one noticed her still in her bunk doubled up in the fetal position full of pain. Once discovered she was rushed to Brooklyn Naval Hospital where she was eventually diagnosed with appendicitis. Ten days after surgery she was given a light duty desk job admitting naval personnel into the chow hall.

"After being released from the hospital I was sent to Washington D.C.," said Gardner. "I arrived in Union Station and took a cab to the Naval Communication Annex on Nebraska Avenue. My job was to retype messages that had been encrypted from Japanese communications involving the South Pacific forces. I worked for this gentleman who gave me lots of work that was related to his personal life. When I spoke up about his unauthorized work load, I was soon transferred to Virginia."

When Gardner arrived at the Naval Station in Norfolk, Va., she was told that her transfer must have been a mistake because there were no vacancies for office workers. However, just a few hundred feet away at the Naval Air Station, they were in desperate need for aircraft sheet metal workers on the F-6 Grumman.

"I never in my entire life operated any type of handheld drill motor," said Gardner. "It took a lot of practice to adjust the pressure on those air powered drills. I was put under the supervision of the most wonderful lady who taught me how to properly fit sections of sheet metal to the aircraft frame, use the drill properly, and drive rivets to hold everything together. After a few weeks I considered myself a spitting image of Rosie the Riveter. I felt like I was really part of the war effort getting these aircraft ready to fly. I worked right alongside the men on those aircraft."

After her discharge Gardner returned to Huntington and attended the Huntington School of Business on the G I Bill. After graduation she didn't experience the lucrative job market in Huntington she had anticipated. After a few unsuccessful job interviews she returned to Washington D.C. where she found employment with the National Weather Bureau. In search of a better position, Gardner later took a job with the C&P Telephone Company in Washington as a long distance switchboard operator. But all that changed when her boyfriend in the Navy was reassigned to Hawaii.

Gardner left the security of the long distance switchboard and headed for the lure of Hawaii and the promise of matrimony. After a few weeks of broken promises and misconceptions about the groom to be, she boarded the luxury liner SS Lurline and sailed for the coast of California.

"I still wasn't ready to head home," said Gardner. "So when I arrived in San Francisco I interviewed for a job with the Bank of America and was hired. I soon grew restless again after a few months, so I came back to West Virginia for a brief visit before heading back to Washington D.C. and a position with the Corp of Engineers doing office work. I tried married life which lasted a few months before we divorced."

Gardner thought she had finally found "Mr. Right" and they began a marriage that she expected to last a lifetime. They bought a summer home in Bradenton, Fla., and became the typical "snowbirds" who headed south each winter. The marriage ended abruptly after 13 years with the death of her husband. Alone again, she sold the home in Florida and once more returned to West Virginia.

Gardner's days have now slowed a bit; she says that 91 years will slow anyone down. She has become a health food guru and pretty much shuns red meat. She says caffeine gives her an excessive amount of nervous energy, so she mainly drinks water and herbal tea.

Days of late will find Gardner reading her Bible and studying Spanish because she thinks it's a beautiful language. She loves cooking for herself and has several of her own recipes. And when she feels like going out to eat, she backs her van out of the driveway and goes where she pleases.

Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. If you have an unusual hobby or collection, he'd like to hear from you. Email archie350@ frontier.com.

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