I WAS BORN IN 1954, on Chanute Air Force Base in Champaign, Illinois. My parents, Genevieve Wendell and Andrew T. Golabek, might not have been expecting a child. The marriage, I have been told, was not well received by my maternal grandparents, and the relationship ended before I was even born and shortly prior to my biological father’s shipping out to the Korean War. The only hints I have about him do not cast him in a positive light.
Despite having been born on an Air Force Base, joining the armed forces was the furthest thing from my mind when I was growing up. With a strong aptitude for science and the desire to be of service to others, I always knew I wanted to help people.
My parents formally divorced soon after my birth, something practically unheard of in the 1950s. Five years later, my mother remarried a Korean War Army veteran one year older than her. John Scaro, the man I would always consider to be my father, started out in my life as a driver of the school van that took me to and from nursery school. As this was prior to the days of safety restraints and child seats, I would stand behind the driver’s seat and look out the window, my nose continually dripping on the back of the shirt of this dark-haired Italian college student.
One day, John teasingly complained to my mother that I was ruining his dress shirts before he could go to his classes. She apologized, and took his shirt to the dry cleaners. He left that morning in just his undershirt, and returned at the end of the day to retrieve his clean, pressed shirt and deliver a bouquet of flowers to my mom. From that day forward, he carried a white cotton handkerchief in his back pocket.
Theirs was to be a lifelong and fruitful relationship. My mother would say, “when a Catholic Italian man hung his trousers on the pant-stand next to the bed, another bambino was sure to follow.”
I soon found myself the eldest of eight in the tight quarters of a three-bedroom, one bathroom apartment in Chicago. My mother and stepfather had one bedroom, the boys: John, Frank, Mike, and Bob, shared a bedroom, and my three sisters: Linda, Mary, and Geniece, shared the third bedroom. For privacy, I slept on the unheated back porch. The baby of the family cried nonstop and was relegated to the walk-in pantry off the kitchen. As the eldest, I was a deft hand at handwashing all of the laundry, cooking, and cleaning. I could bandage up simple cuts and scrapes before the tears started to roll.
If you lined up all of my siblings, von Trapp style, you would notice a dichotomy of genetics. Five of the seven children, those from my mother’s second marriage, inherited my stepfather’s olive complexion, average build, and dark brown hair. My brother Mike and sister Geniece were the outliers, with their blond locks and pale complexions. They were all gifted with my mother’s artistic talents, and our home was a haven for arts and crafts.
My stepfather, John, formally adopted me, yet I always felt like a bit of an outsider to his large Italian Catholic family. John served along with my godfather in the 866th Transportation Company, Port of Incheon, Korea. My uncle Butch, my mother’s only brother, was also in the Army, but served a decade later in Germany.
Military service, however, wasn’t regularly discussed at the dinner table. My male relatives had done their tour or two of duty during the war, and then hung up their uniforms and came back to Chicago to work the nine-to-five routine as civilians. My stepfather and godfather were in coffee sales and my uncle Butch worked for the City of Chicago as a union painter and neighborhood committeeman. They were all hardworking individuals who put family first. My mother decided that being a homemaker was vital, especially with eight children living under one roof!
I attended a Catholic grammar school seven out of my first eight years, as did my brothers and sisters, as a Catholic education was important to my stepfather. In school, religion was given the same import as math, reading, and history. Our teachers, all Catholic nuns, used intimidation and physical reprimands to mold our young minds. We were taught to memorize facts and soak up information rather than to think for ourselves. I suppose their abuse could be compared to the harassment that a drill sergeant might hand out during Basic Training. We were taught about the wonder of serving a higher power as a nun, or the moral compass that might guide the boys in my class into the priesthood. Certainly, the nuns did not mention serving in the armed forces.
We were supportive of our nation, don’t get me wrong. At least, we said the Pledge of Allegiance regularly, but aside from weekly bomb-raid drills that had us hiding under our desks, service to our country and civic duty were foreign concepts.
Speaking of foreign, as this was before 1964, those were the days of Latin Mass, so while I did understand that a world with cultures and languages other than my American English existed, it took me another dozen or so years to put two and two together and realize that Ave Maria was actually the Hail Mary in song.
As an eighth grader, the career path I saw for myself had a religious slant. The sisters of Notre Dame de Namur had the honorable task of leading and training young minds in our parish in Chicago, and they inspired me. Educators both inside and outside of the classroom, they ensured that we had a solid foundation in the Catholic Church and the basics of education to succeed in the high schools of our choosing. A career for the female members of Catholic-Italian families was pretty simple: young women were groomed to be good housewives and mothers or to join the sisters in teaching or nursing. So unsurprisingly, I thought I would be a mother or a nun. By this time, I had four brothers: the youngest, Bob (Robert), a few weeks old, was named after my Uncle Butch. He would be the last Scaro, and would round out our numbers, making it four girls and four boys.
I guess I could have considered camp counseling, as it seemed my life revolved around creating crafts or other activities to keep my siblings occupied. Women were not even allowed to join the Army at that time. If a woman wanted to support the military she would have to join the Women’s Army Corps or Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC).
The paths I followed until I did join were not what I expected or desired. They were difficult, unsatisfactory, and cruel, and yet I survived. In many ways, I have always been at war. I am battle scarred from life.