California Council for the Humanities
California Stories Initiative
Years of Valor, Years of Hope
Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946
Tulare County Library
The Friends of the Tulare County Library
And the Tulare County Historical Society
Interviews in 2003-2004
PLACES WHERE INTERVIEWEE LIVED DURING 1941-1946
OUTSTANDING POINTS IN THE INTERVIEW:
Segregation in the Army (Black American)
Relocation camp, Tulare County Fairgrounds
Life as a kid in the 1940’s in Tulare
CD: I am with Claude Meitzenheimer and this is the "Years of Valor, Years of Hope" interview. Could you spell your name? State it and spell it.
CM: M-E-I-T-Z-E-N-H-E-I-M-E-R. Claude. C-L-A-U-D-E.
CD: Okay. Why don’t we start out with where your parents are from and how they and you ended up here? A little bit of a background.
CM: First of all, my parents, Ernest and Hattie (Freeman) Meitzenheimer are both originally from Texas. I was born and raised in Brawley, California in the year March 15, 1927. So as I’m speaking, I’m a man 77 years of age. My father worked for a cattle rancher in the Imperial Valley. He got ill. Of all the places in the world to be when he had sunstroke, moving from the Imperial Valley to the San Joaquin Valley wasn’t much difference. At the time, my mother’s family was here so they decided to move to Tulare, California where they felt the weather would be a little different and maybe my father could do something else other than a cattle ranch. So the family migrated to Tulare. That family was Charlie and Frances Freeman.
CD: Where did you live?
CM: In the city of Tulare.
CD: Yes, but addresses.
CM: The address at that time, I believe it would be about the 400 block of South "O" Street. At that time, it was pretty close to the fairgrounds. Of course, we had a nice car but we were able to walk to school and do all the things we wanted to do because of the closeness within the city of Tulare itself. Probably the most undertaking that I can remember is that coming from Imperial Valley to Tulare, California and changing schools. And of course, I started at Lincoln School in Tulare, which at that time was only about four blocks from home, so it wasn’t really that far. But getting used to new kids and all those things was quite a challenge for me during those years.
CD: What do you mean a challenge?
CM: Because I was so used to a small influx of people. When we got here, Tulare was bigger than where I had been. Imperial was a very small community. I think I was in a classroom with 25 or 30 kids and they were all in one class. All the grades from Kindergarten through eighth were the whole school in Brawley, California, which was rural school at that time.
CD: So Tulare was a big city.
CM: So Tulare was actually a big city and as far as I can remember, it took a little bit of getting used to. Lots of groups and even when I entered Lincoln School in 1933, or ’34 I should say, it was only three classrooms. So, you can imagine the changes over the years.
CD: So about how many kids?
CM: I would say probably, at that time, if I can remember right, I’d say no more than 40 or 50.
CD: And it was K through eight?
CM: No, no, here in Tulare I think it was first grade through fourth grade and then they went to Wilson School, then Central, then they kept moving you around, because each school would only accommodate so many in sizes in each grade level. First through third at Lincoln, and then fourth and fifth to Wilson, and then sixth, seventh, and eighth you’d go to Central Grammar. And so I can remember that fluently. I think, naturally, we went into Tulare Union High School at that time, after that, I should say, after my middle school years. Tulare Union High School to me in those days probably would not be like it is today with 2400-2500 students, but probably more like 900,1000.
CD: That’s still big though.
CM: A pretty good size school.
CD: That’s how big Exeter is.
CM: So after settling down into a community that was so much larger than we had recently come from, of course my dad got involved in farming and a few other things, so life had changed where we lived in town and then finally we moved to the country. My dad farmed, probably cotton and alfalfa and so forth, for 8-10 years and then he had other ventures in mind, small businesses. You name it and he tried to do it.
CD: What was your father’s name?
CM: Ernest Meitzenheimer. Of course, Dad is long gone. My mom, right today, is still alive, 98 years of age. A lot of times, if I need information regarding things that went on in those years within Tulare, my mom is the one that I would go to and get all the information that I would need.
CM: Still today, her memory even at 98 is still pretty sharp. I often have been telling her that "people would like to interview you," but I think she would be very reluctant to talk to anyone. I don’t know how she would come across in an interview.
CD: I know what you mean.
CM: I am very reluctant as to not to interfere with her information that she is able to give me that I can relate to other people as far as the importance of whatever information is that they might need.
CD: What did you guys consider the country? You said you moved out to the country. Where was that?
CM: The country, which I considered at that time, would be only out to Mooney Blvd., which would only be two miles.
CD: Right (chuckle), and that’s where your family remained?
CM: That’s where my family remained until, of course the war started.
CD: How old were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
CM: Pearl Harbor, let’s see, I went into service in 1945, so I would had to be probably 14.
CD: And where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed?
CM: Probably in my first year of high school.
CD: What was the reaction? Was it a big deal?
CM: You know at that time, not having the accessibility of the media, newspaper, I can only recall us having a radio, and I don’t recall us having media delivered out to where we lived. I’m not saying the service wasn’t available, but we just didn’t, my folks didn’t subscribe to any, I know they didn’t. We could all read. And so it just wasn’t available.
CD: How much did they listen to the radio? Was that a common thing?
CM: That was probably. The days of Jack Armstrong, I would say from 6-7 hours a day.
CD: That’s a lot.
CM: It’s a lot, but of course, my mom stayed at home even in those years. She was the baker, cook, you name it, housekeeper.
CD: How many brothers and sisters were there?
CM: Total there was six of us. Three brothers, Alvin, Elfred, and me, and then three sisters, Dorothy, Edna, and Maggie. Mom had her hands full with that size of family. But as I indicated, Dad was a go-getter, but when the war started, he felt the pasture was greener up north in the Bay Area and so he worked in shipyards until he came back and then he worked until health wouldn’t allow him to work for a house mover in Tulare at that time until he retired. Dad was one of those who, I called him, a jack-of-all-trades, and master of none. But at least he would pursue. There was nothing he would back down on. I feel that dad and my mother both were a driving force in our family our entire life as far as developing ourselves, respect for other people, learning to appreciate everything you had. It was just one of those families that even at my age today, which I fore-mentioned at 77; I usually try to see my mother every day.
CD: That’s nice.
CM: So if something comes up and I don’t show up for a day or two, she’ll call my wife to find out what happened. The togetherness that people had in those days and some families still instill in them, so we continue to see those who are alive almost on a daily basis.
CD: What was life like when you got to school the next day? From all these interviews, I know it happened on a Sunday, Pearl Harbor, and the next day was school. What was the buzz like at school?
CM: You know I don’t recall what the buzz was like. I don’t think that it really dawned on people. It wasn’t really in the forefront through the media and all these other things that something had really happened.
CD: So it took a while for it to sink in?
CM: It took a while for people to sink in, but all we do know was our men at that time were all being drafted and taken away from their families. I don’t think it really dawned on people that anything was happening until they were drafted into the armed forces.
CD: So when did it dawn on you?
CM: Well it dawned on me that my time was soon going to arrive. So I would say within the time that I was just about to graduate from high school, I was drafted. I happened to be one of those whose 18th birthday was in March and I was to graduate that year, but I was drafted anyway.
CD: Did you get to graduate?
CM: I had to come back after I finished.
CD: You mean they took you before you finished high school?
CM: That’s right, they sure did. They did at that time. I think it was one of those things that I can never figure out how it actually happened.
CD: Because other high schools would graduate the boys early, did you every hear stories like that?
CM: They didn’t here. When my draft number came up, a lottery or whatever it was in Tulare, boy, you went.
CD: You must be the oldest.
CM: Well I am the oldest of my boys, of my brothers.
CD: So you were the first to go.
CM: Yes, I was the first to go. Of course, leaving a community like Tulare to go into the Armed Forces was quite different because being a black man and leaving a community of people that thought really positive, on the positive side of life, I had to go into a segregated situation.
CD: So you went from an integrated situation to a segregated situation.
CM: It was totally, not really knowing that until I got in there.
CD: Did you not know that segregation existed in other areas of the country?
CM: No, not really, because our parents didn’t really discuss those types of situations. I think my first experience being segregated was in the service.
CD: That’s amazing. But your parents must have . . .
CM: If they did, they didn’t discuss it with us.
CD: Maybe not in Texas.
CM: Even here in California, they never discussed it. Of course, we did everything together. They didn’t leave us with a babysitter. If they went to town, everybody went.
CD: How cute. You all piled in the car and . . .
CM: Whatever the situation, we all went. It’s one of those things.
CD: Pretty nice family.
CM: But segregation . . . .
CD: So you’d go into the service, what branch was it?
CM: I went into the United States Army at the time, in 1945, but after my initial training at Fort Lewis, Washington, again being segregated in an all black unit, there was a lot of resentment among black men at that time because of the segregation.
CD: Oh, so a lot of them didn’t want to be segregated.
CM: A lot of them didn’t respond to discipline or the orders that they had to follow, but myself, I took the negative part that most of them took to something more positive for myself and it took the leadership to help develop some of those people with the negative attitude. Even though I was a young man, I could see that a lot of them were heading the wrong way.
CD: So what would you do? Like advice?
CM: I would take advantage of every situation that I could learn.
CD: Like what?
CM: To be a platoon sergeant, platoon leader, Take
advantage of every situation. You name it; I was putting my hands up
first. I didn’t want to bring up the
rear. I wanted to be out in front. It was just that most of them at that time .
. . after I got through basic training and was sent to
CD: You were there after the "A" bomb?
CM: Ours was the first occupation platoon into
CD: So when you heard that we dropped the "A"
CM: No, not necessarily. At that time, the depth of the war was more on maneuvers.
CD: They weren’t training you to invade?
CM: No, no, no, no, not at that time. You might say that was towards the end of the war and not knowing what the time frame was; we weren’t really taught the hostilities and the combat type things. Even though we had basic training and so forth, I just don’t recall anything that was so detrimental to me that would say, "Oh, I going to turn around and go back, I don’t want to be part of this." So, I don’t ever recall any such incidence as that happening. Then again, at such a young age, to myself, war or service was something; it wasn’t necessarily a country thing in mind. It was more an individual effort. You were forced into situations that some accepted and some did not.
CD: How soon after did they de-segregate?
CM: I can’t remember.
CD: It was pretty soon after, wasn’t it?
CM: I think it was during the Korean War because my brother happened to be in that situation.
CD: Oh, was he drafted?
CM: I know he was. He was a year or two younger than I was, but I think the war was over at that time, but he went from Tulare to Alabama, so it was entirely different. He had a real hard time with himself because he had a different attitude about handling things. He had so many friends that he was positive with when he left; he thought he was going to be with them full time. That didn’t happen.
CD: Right, Alabama is a different state from California.
CM: All different from where I was when I was in there. We had white families and whatever the situations were, sons and people knew each other in this community. They all left together and this type of thing, but when they got down the road, one went this way and one went the other.
CD: So he was in a segregated situation. The whole time?
CM: I can’t recall whether . . . it might have been at that time. I do know that he had a real problem. He had a real problem dealing with the situation in Alabama at that time, but it hardened him instead of softening. It hardened him to the point where he just felt that somebody owes him something. So he took a little different approach. He was very boisterous. He was just a different animal. Where he would often tell me, "Well you are a little different than I am, I just can’t take this." He would fight back, where I wouldn’t fight back.
CD: About Tulare,how big was the African American community in Tulare at that time?
CM: I would say at that time probably, I would be willing to say, probably three or four thousand. Larger than it is now.
CD: Oh it is. Where did everybody go?
CM: They all left and went north or to Los Angeles, everything else. We lost probably two thirds of the young people to larger cities and I’m talking about kids that went to school here, people that maybe started out as schoolteachers.
CD: And they moved.
CM: They moved because the pay was so much better somewhere else.
CD: Oh, it is.
CM: It just killed what few that did stay. Diehards as we would call ourselves. To me, I never did want to go anywhere else.
CD: You wanted just to stay here.
CM: But my brothers . . .
CD: Did they all leave?
CM: My younger brother, Elfred, moved away, never came back, was in the United States Navy. Of course, he didn’t experience the segregated part, but . . .
CD: Oh, he didn’t.
CM: He enjoyed every minute of it. He left and went to Los Angeles and stayed there until he passed away. So, a primary example of all the black students that went through Tulare Union High School the years I was there, they ended up with positions that warranted they only stay here a few minutes and moved on. They never came back.
CD: Let me ask too, Visalia has a very small . . .
CD: Why, why is this?
CM: I don’t know, and yet my sons, I have two sons and a daughter and they all live in Visalia. Right today.
CD: That nice that your family stayed here.
CM: Because of their jobs. My son, Claude Bruce happens to be a Drug and Alcohol Director at the state prison in Corcoran. My daughter, Randolyn, has retired but lives in Visalia, and my second son, Brian, lives in Visalia, lives and works in Visalia, but all my kids moved away.
CD: But just to Visalia.
CM: They all work in Visalia.
CD: At least they stayed in the valley.
CM: A very few.
CD: Very few in Visalia. I grew up in Visalia.
CM: Yet there’s a lot of positive things
happening in Visalia, black
or white or whatever because the opportunities are a lot greater there. Our kids just move away to find better things. I have one daughter who still lives in Tulare but she
works in Visalia. She works at Community Bank even though she
has worked in the bank system. Started
with Bank of
CD: While you were growing up in the south, there were the Jim Crow laws. Were people in Tulare County not aware of that? Was there nothing like that going on here?
CM: I can’t ever remember any such thing as that. But my folks could remember. Sure, they would know. As I mentioned to you earlier, we did everything together, and if they went to town and they were going to have a good time, we sat out in the car and wait while they had a cocktail or whatever they were going to have and then they’d come to get us and we’d all go home together. We would never take my mother into a bar. I wouldn’t. The years that we were coming along, it was entirely different. Things just changed completely. They never took us into those kinds of places. It was just so far-fetched. I used to tell my dad a lot of times, I remember one time he had a pool hall, you know, a beer garden and sandwiches. My mother would say you guys are going in there. Regardless, if we wanted a candy bar, we were allowed to go in there. So things just completely reversed then versus what they are today.
CD: You brought something up about high school. What do you think about this whole controversy? Tulare Union was the Chiefs . . .
CM: No, no, the Redskins.
CD: Were they Redskins when you were there. Now, you know they might be forced to change the name.
CM: Yes, this bothers me to the point where change is sometimes . . . who thinks up these things. Why, if it was good 50 years ago, is it all of a sudden something wrong? It’s minor to this person and important to the next. It really bothers me. I think about the added cost that it could cost people to change things over. Things are tough enough as it is trying to keep schools going and then to have to change logos and change this and that. Its just situations that I believe shouldn’t happen. I think as long as it’s on a positive side regardless of what it is; as long as it’s not demeaning, why change it. We change it because our lawmakers or someone gets up and says the name should not be used, it’s derogatory. There’s a lot of things I don’t feel should be changed, but then again, I’m only one in millions that think it should be changed.
CD: Do you vote?
CM: When you start changing things, you really upset people. You get people involved that maybe don’t have all the answers, but they want to make choices too. You get too many people together trying to make a decision and then you do have a mess. I think that’s what’s happening at Tulare Union, you’ve got people involved, kids of 14 or 15 years old, don’t really necessarily have enough input as that older person would have who’s been there and has a history of the existence of the school and then all of a sudden I think their input is more valid. Young people, I think, need to listen. If the changes are necessary then you have to abide by it. The reasons, you have to think it out. Two rights don’t make a wrong.
CD: Let’s get back to the 40’s. So the war starts and you are home. How did the rationing affect you?
CM: No, we never did feel the rationing per se. Our needs weren’t as great in those days as they are now. I think we got satisfied with whatever we had.
CD: You didn’t run out of butter or shoes, stuff like that, car parts . . .
CM: Those things didn’t happen because mom and dad always had a cow or they had this and they had that. We weren’t that far away from things that we couldn’t walk. Even though we lived two miles out, we could walk into town if we felt it was necessary, to playgrounds or whatever. It really didn’t, as I indicated, I think that people’s needs during the time of rationing, if you had plenty it was a different situation. But if you stuck to basics, whatever those things, if it was biscuits and gravy ten times a day, that’s what you ate. And you didn’t ask if there was anything else. So you lived with that. I remember my mother, she was such a wonderful baker and such. I remember she would bake bread and make preserves sandwiches for us to take with our lunch. My brother and I would get some where as soon as we left home, we would throw them away because we didn’t want the kids to see.
CD: Really? What did the other kids bring for lunch?
CM: The other kids had tortillas, but they were embarrassed eating a tortilla, eating it down in a sack, where today you can make enough burritos for anybody. So this is how things have changed. Whatever your staples were that’s what you ate. Rations really didn’t mean . . .
CD: That you were doing without.
CM: It didn’t mean that much to us coming along. It’s just an entirely different situation. I look at my pantry at home and I think as my kids would say when they come over sometimes, "Well, Dad, we’re going to pick and save today." So they go to the pantry and get whatever they want. Soups and things. We never had that growing up.
CD: Right. Pantries are pretty full now.
CM: The changes and you don’t even think about it. It never dawned on me that there was a shortage or something was short. We sat down and ate whatever was there.
CD: Do you remember the stamps and how to use them?
CM: Sure, I remember the stamps. Just overall, what you didn’t have, you didn’t miss.
CD: So what did the kids do for fun back then? Did Tulare have a cinema, a movie theater?
CM: Yes, they had two or three at one time.
CD: What about during the 40’s?
CM: Yes, and that was no problem. The only problem you had was getting in, getting from wherever you lived in to the show. Of course, at that time it was only a dime or seven cents or whatever it was. My mother and dad would bring us to town and I know 25 cents was like $5.00. The difference is so much. You could buy three bars of candy for a dime and go see a movie. So you had 25 cents. Now it takes $10-$15 to do the same. As far as fun places for young people, you know, I think that’s probably the only time, because high school and things weren’t segregated. We’d go to the Palm and do this, but I do believe most of our entertainment, people had facilities that provided dancing for young people, I mean black people . . .
CD: Besides the high school?
CM: Besides the high school. And they would put on dances because you would spend that nickel or dime in their jukeboxes and things to dance.
CD: Where was that? Visalia had their Sierra Ballroom. Did Tulare have something like that?
CM: Tulare had the same thing, TDS Hall.
CD: What is the TDS Hall?
CM: TDS Hall is the Portuguese Hall here in town that people would rent and have dances. I saw more big-time artists when I was coming along.
CD: They’d come to Tulare?
CM: No, to Visalia. Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstein to Bakersfield, Fresno. We would travel in between that circle.
CM: To me, we had a better chance at big name bands and things than our kids do today.
CD: Yeah, they don’t come . . . well, some come to Fresno.
CM: Very little though. And it’s so expensive. If you don’t have the revenue to go, then you stay at home.
CD: How much was it then?
CM: Oh, I just can’t recall.
CD: Was it affordable?
CM: Every time there was something on, we would put our good clothes on and dress up like we had good sense and go right to it like it was nothing. Of course, at that time we were doing odds and ends working and that type of thing. One of the things I might add too, I think one of the most important things when we were coming along was everybody did something.
CD: What do you mean?
CM: Some type of work. Your folks, if they were picking cotton, if they were cutting grapes, you were part of it and you would go out and do that and you’d help do it. So that was your source of revenue. A dollar a week or whatever it was. My mom and dad would keep what little that you did earn to carry us through during the winter months that were bad. So it’s an entirely different situation. Of course, now we let our kids have everything that they earn.
CD: And that they don’t earn.
CM: And you’re right. But things were so different. I think that’s one reason the respect, the love, the togetherness was so much greater than it is now. We find ourselves dividing ourselves from economic standards and so forth. "My friends make more than you do," and so on.
CD: It’s a big deal.
CM: It’s an entirely different situation. When I was coming along we didn’t have any such thing, we didn’t know everybody’s status.
CD: What were the big churches in the 40’s? Like what church did you go to or what churches were big?
CM: At the time we were coming along it was the Baptist Church. We only lived two blocks from the Baptist Church. My mother, of course my dad wasn’t much of a churchgoer but mom was at the time was a Baptist, so we had all fallen into the same. But we got involved. We were in the choir and singing groups. There was always something for you to do, if you wanted to be a part of it. I always wanted to be the person who was a part of it. I stressed this all the time with the kids and things that I worked with. I had the Youth and Service, when I worked for the Youth Service Bureau, I had the youth employment service for 13 years with the City of Tulare. I think that last 13 years of my working life just taught me a real lesson regarding life itself and what young people can do for themselves if they are a part of. I don’t care if you’re in the band or sports or whatever you do, but you’ve got to be a part. Not a clique, but part of society itself. If you start avoiding that then you are heading the other way. My children were all a part of everything, band, football, you name it, and we were there for them. The difference is that when we were coming along, our folks did not support our endeavors in school, so they didn’t go to a football game even though we were a part of it.
CD: What did you guys get involved in? So you were part of the football team.
CM: We played football, and those types of things, basketball, but our folks were never part of it.
CD: They didn’t come watch you? Isn’t that strange.
CM: We’re talking about a span of 50-60 years and how people come together. In one respect, people respected each other more. The involvement family wise was more. Then as we get older, then comes the separation and division. Everybody goes their way. I don’t find this with my family because my wife, Barbara (Phillips) keeps them in hand. She wants to know, "Where are you going and what are you going to do?"
CD: Did she grow up here in Tulare too?
CM: Yes. In fact, she taught school here for 25 years.
CD: How was the football team when you were playing on it? Was Visalia your big rivalry?
CM: It was the same thing. I can’t remember some of the scores that we had, but we were a part of whatever went on. We didn’t draw a crowd like they do now,four, five, or six thousand people to ball games. It was a little bit crude. It just wasn’t, say 50-60 years ago, like it is now.
CD: How many people would come to a football game?
CM: If I could remember 500 or 600, I would be lucky.
CD: And was it a lighted field or did you have to play during the day?
CM: When we were coming along everything had to be done in the day because of the war.
CD: Oh, because they didn’t want to use extra electricity.
CM: No, no lights.
CD: Did you have enough boys to be on a team?
CM: Oh, yes, to be honest with you, how great we really were when you only had so much competition to compete against.
CD: A lot of guys were drafted, right?
CM: Right. Of course, the only sport where a person can really be an individual is in track.
CD: Did you do that?
CM: Yes, I did some and I did very well.
CD: Did you know Bob Mathias?
CM: Sure, I knew Bob very well.
CM: I sure did.
CD: Did you beat him at anything?
CM: No, I was older than Bob. My sister was in high school the same time he was. It was quite interesting. Not only Bob, Sam Iness, we had a lot of black positive athletes that were hurdlers and were just outstanding. There was just so much more individuals doing things. Our kids nowadays, it’s just too much work.
CD: In school, you mean academic stuff? Homework?
CM: The workouts, the weight lifting, the stuff that’s involved. Our kids are quitters. A lot of them. They have natural ability; it’s just not important enough to put that much effort into it. And anything that’s good and you’re going to succeed requires effort.
CD: I’ve said that a couple of times to my kids.
CM: But its just that I feel in a lot of cases people are their own worse enemies. They just refuse to accept those challenges that are out there unless somebody gives them something when you actually have not done some of the things and it’s handed down or handed to you. People earn that respect that they got because they earned it in a way that you can appreciate them earning it. When you’re handed something you don’t know the importance of whatever it is. You could sit here and talk for three days and think about all the things you wish you could change, but it is humanly impossible. You can’t change people’s thinking.
CD: Do you remember during the 40’s, when the war started, the buying of war bonds or victory gardens? Did your family participate much in the war effort?
CM: No, and let me tell you the reason why. The victory garden things were there.
CM: In their own yards, and those that had acreage and stuff, I know my dad and mom, as I indicated, always had a garden of some sort. The average family when I was growing up always had enough ground on any portion of the property that they had for a garden.
CM: It was just an automatic thing. My mom today, even though she is not able to do so, still has that plot of ground that she saves for a garden.
CD: Does she live at home?
CM: Right today. She is not able to do it because she has had a couple of strokes in the last year or two, but if we go there to try and help her do something and we don’t do it right, you know, you don’t plant something deep enough and it falls down. I went there last year and tried to help her build a little garden, but I didn’t do it right.
CD: Did she tell you?
CM: Yes, she did in a very nice way, so this year I refrained from doing so. I said, "Mom, there’s the garden out there with nothing in it." She said she didn’t feel like messing with it. But those, as far as I can remember, families who had worked together, whose income didn’t allow them to do a lot of things always had that little something extra they could depend on. Whether it was a cow, whatever it might be, to supply that little something extra that the dollar couldn’t buy.
CM: That they still do today. I noticed especially during the wintertime there are a lot of families that would grow winter greens and things that would just keep themselves and neighbors supplied, whoever wanted. They don’t raise it to sell per se, but they raise it so other people can enjoy it. There was a difference. I often think that you’re speaking about . . . not changing the subject entirely, but you’re talking about the war bonds. People whose means were very meager never thought about buying a bond.
CD: They didn’t feel the pressure?
CM: The only time that I can recall that happening, was where it was automatically deducted from payroll. My dad happened to go through some of that. I don’t know the extent.
CD: Oh, right, because he was up north.
CM: Up north working in the shipyards.
CD: So he would have it deducted.
CM: A portion would be deducted so that he would have it later on.
CD: So he had war bonds.
CM: So he had war bonds and things, but not to the point where he didn’t wait for it to mature, for example. They used it as time was needed after the war was over.
CM: Not to say that people did not purchase them. It was something that because of their income you didn’t hear much talking about it.
CD: Right, because there was a huge marketing. I mean at the movies. Do you remember at the movies?
CM: Oh God yes. But if you should mention that to my dad and mom at the time when we were all trying to do the best we could to make sure the family survived, I think that was probably the furthest thing from their mind. Do we have an extra $10 for this, or do we have . . .
CD: How much were they?
CM: I can’t recall now. I do know that the first piece of property that my dad bought, the payment was $10 a month. Ten dollars a month in those days would be like $300-$400 is today.
CM: But mom would make sure that $10 every month was taken to Anderson’s Mortgage Company in Tulare and paid so that they’d know that Meitzenheimer’s were making every effort to pay that $10 every month. People in those days were a lot more responsible. Boy, their word was their bond.
CD: They didn’t file for bankruptcy. Amazing how many there are now.
CM: People nowadays, our young people, including some of mine, if they have incurred too much debt they just throw up their hands and file something. I never had to do that. My wife and I both worked all our lives and we just felt how important it was to take care of your obligations.
CD: Right, right.
CM: It’s a whole gamut of things that changed the philosophy of life. It’s just so much different than what is now versus what it was when I was coming along. You wouldn’t dare not pay somebody.
CD: Yeah, I know now they don’t even think twice about it.
CM: I remember the first person that I worked for.
CD: Who was that?
CM: This was Sturgeon and Beck in Tulare, probably one of the oldest car dealers in Tulare County.
CD: Is it still there?
CM: It’s still there. Run by the family. The old man was the type of person that he made himself available to us twenty four hours a day. I started to work for them when I first got out of the service. He enabled me to finish high school, work full time, and I will never forget that.
CD: When did he do that?
CM: It was just that you came in early and do your work. You could leave whenever . . .
CD: To go to school?
CM: The most wonderful person I’d ever met in my life because he felt that the people that worked for him were important to him. They made themselves available to us in any circumstances, twenty four hours a day. That’s something I will never forget. I stayed with those people twenty five years before I got involved politically and then worked for Tulare County Housing Authority as an Area Manager and I still respect that family today. What I learned I was able to apply somewhere else. Even though I worked twenty five years, I worked an additional thirty five years for someone else. That alone made you feel like you were somebody, not just a number.
CM: That’s one of the things that bothers me about when I went into governmental, like the Housing Authority, people were numbers, they weren’t people and I had a hard time dealing with that. I only stayed six years.
CD: Did you ever run for office?
CM: I never wanted to. I have a lot of nice things named after me in our community because there was something about the respect that you gain away from running versus somebody bringing up some dirt on you. Something,it might have been an illegitimate child or it might have been something,I was always afraid of that in the back of my mind. I never did want to be part, sitting on something that just could happen to me. It wasn’t that I feel that I couldn’t have done the job, but I gained enough respect without that. My kids have always wondered how I could do something so long for so many people.
CD: What did you do for so long?
CM: People are important to me. I don’t care what I did, I could work eight hours a day and still spend ten to twelve years with baseball with little kids. Making sure the community ran well. Chairman of the Easter Egg Hunt, I’ve been chairman of the Easter Egg Hunt for the longest running in the City of Tulare,fifty years!
CD: You’ve been there for 50 years?
CM: Fifty years. Just doing those things I feel are so necessary. Not without help.
CD: But being there.
CM: I just felt that when you develop something, you like to stay with it as long as you can. I think there’s a lot of times that some young people resent older people for dominating things. I think it’s just because of the inconsistency that you’re afraid that you will let somebody down. I know if I’m there, it’s going to be so-so. I’ve seen it happen socially; I’ve seen it happen in service clubs. Young people not being given that chance because the old heads are dominating.
CD: What was it like to come back to high school when you were, what were you, 22?
CM: No, at that time about 21. I went to the adult school.
CD: Oh, you went to the adult school. And were there a lot of other veterans coming back?
CM: There were a lot of veterans that were taking part. There was just a lot of positive things happening for veterans. Anything that was available that you maybe didn’t complete, you could go back to do so. So many things opened up. Trade schools, just a number of programs formed to help veterans to get going and get started with life again.
CD: Wasn’t there something to help buy a house?
CM: There was every situation you could think of. The same things are available now, but it just seems like when we were there, there weren’t as many choices that you had like today. There was either manual labor or, but now there is so much expertise and technology . . .
CD: That it’s overwhelming. It is. I think some of the youth get overwhelmed.
CM: It’s overwhelming. I have a granddaughter, Tanesha, who is that way right today. She’s an avid student at Tulare Western. They get overwhelmed by the possibilities. At this point, I think we are getting off the subject, here she is a graduating senior that doesn’t know what she wants to do and is an avid student, which is your better student that wants to excel, but she has no idea what she wants to do next year.
CD: So how long did it take you to get through the adult school? You only had a couple of months.
CM: No, no, no. It didn’t take that long, I don’t remember now, the timeframe, but it didn’t take long. They had the graduation just like they would . . .
CD: Oh, what was the graduation like, was it small?
CM: Of course, at that time the groups were small. You know you could graduate in September, August, October . . .
CD: Whenever you got done.
CM: Whenever you got done. That was a little bit different. Probably one of the things I work on the hardest today is the kids that I’ve worked with over the last twenty five years that stay in school. Some kids have a hard time. There are so many things out there for them to do, whether it’s pro or con, good or indifference. They have to try the other side for a while. Then they look up and they don’t have anything.
CD: Getting back to school, when Pearl Harbor invaded, how big was the Japanese community at your school? What school were you going to?
CM: Tulare Union.
CD: During the war, you were a freshman, during that time.
CM: There were Japanese families attending the school at the time, but because their groups were so small we didn’t have the so-called incidents. I think the only thing that I recall is the concentration camps. Most Japanese families were garnered up and placed in the Tulare County Fairgrounds.
CD: Do you remember that? What do you remember of it?
CM: Even as a young man, I was working part time for a fellow that had kind of a clean-up detail.
CD: What’s that?
CM: They would pick up the trash and stuff in trash cans and so forth. And have them to look, go into that facility and look into the faces of those people. It was something I don’t think I will ever forget.
CD: So you went in there?
CM: Yes. Of course, I was with adults. I just happened to be with the working crew and the timeframe was probably an hour or two a week. Just to go in and see those people incarcerated like that; I thought it was the worst thing I had ever seen in my life because they were very shy. They didn’t speak. I don’t think they’d ever run up to you as if to say I welcome you, or how are you. I’m sure a lot of them were very intelligent when they were incarcerated. We also had German prisoners in Tulare at Tagus Ranch at the time who were incarcerated.
CD: Right, the prisoner of war camp at Tagus Ranch.
CM: And the concentration camp at the fairgrounds.
CD: And did you ever go into that one?
CM: No. I never went into that one. Naturally, it was posted with armed guards and this sort of thing.
CD: Did you ever see it?
CM: Yes, you could see it, but it didn’t really dawn on you at that time in your life like this thing here, the Japanese concentration camps.
CD: Because they had lived here.
CM: So many of those people, that maybe I didn’t know, but other people knew those families. For them to be taken away from everything and incarcerated like that is just an insult to humanity.
CD: How many Japanese families were going to Tulare High School? Was there a big group?
CM: No, no, no, no. I knew the Ichinagas. That was a family that had a restaurant downtown. I went to school with two or three of their boys. In fact, an aunt of mine, Bertha Tell, lived right next door to them.
CD: Whatever happened to them?
CM: They finally split and went everywhere else.
CD: They didn’t come back?
CM: Oh, no, no, no. I think the older folks stayed, but the younger kids that went to school with us left shortly after. Where they went, God knows. You just lost contact. But the Uchida’s, a lot of people still hang around and are very successful farmers today right here in the area. Of course, it’s all grandsons and children now, but they’re very well accepted. And for those people to be, I hate to use the word, corralled was exactly what happened to them. I think it was a devastating . . . I think of all the things I ever saw in my life, even Japan as thickly populated as it was, didn’t bother me nearly as much as this out here. And I think it’s because it took away their privacy.
CD: What did it look like?
CM: The facilities were tent structures. Very unsanitary for women. You could see things when I was coming along that I didn’t have any idea what they were. Sanitary napkins and things that were absolutely hideous. That stayed with me for a long time, for being so young and have to look at that. Other people just thought it was just their job, but I had a hard time dealing with some of those situations. But you know, I didn’t let it really distract to where I couldn’t function, but it’s something that is in my mind today.
CD: It stayed with you.
CM: Especially if I see a war picture or something. That really brings back the memories. Every once in a while something comes up in the media about the concentration and what somebody owes these people. I think when they did what they did, they took away their dignity and respect and everything else. It was just one of those things that for me was hard to accept. That you would corral, just like you would any other ethnic group.
CD: And how long did it stay?
CM: I can’t remember the length of time. I don’t know if it was two years or three years, or shorter than that. I just can’t recall that. The overall picture of seeing those people in that concentration camp was devastating, because we only lived a block and half from them.
CD: When you were living out in the country?
CM: No, this was when we were here.
CD: Oh, because they were at the fairgrounds. That’s right.
CM: And we’d come back in.
CD: Wow, you lived close.
CM: And it was just devastating. It was one of those things that you never forget.
CD: You know whenever they report in the papers they always call it internment camps.
CM: Yes, internment camps, but I call them concentration camps.
CD: Other people do too.
CM: It was absolutely horrible.
CM: It reminded you of an animal in the zoo.
CD: Do you ever remember the German prisoners being used for labor?
CM: No, not necessarily.
CD: Did you ever see them?
CM: You’re talking about five or six miles, whatever the distance was there. In those days five or six miles is like fifty to sixty miles today. How were you going to get there? Walk or on a bicycle?
CD: They were working somewhere. They’d take them out.
CM: I’m sure they did.
CD: They didn’t do it around Tulare?
CM: Not as I recall. They may have. I do know that I had friends that I had worked with whose dads were guards out there. Once their length of time was up, some guards, such as Ray Morales, stayed in Tulare and married families and had their own . . .
CD: Homes of their own. And decided to stay.
CM: So there was a positive side as well as a negative side, because there were people that took up and made their families, right here. Even though they’re dead and gone now.
CD: Why do you think some of the Japanese kids didn’t come back? Do you think it was the atmosphere? After the war, was there still a lot of bias?
CM: I guess I don’t know, because not being able to talk to some of them after, to hear their feelings and things. Japanese people are not as open as Hispanics. Hispanics are very open, expressive. Blacks are very open. But a lot of ethnic groups keep it within themselves. They won’t let you know their true feelings. That’s been my nature of working with and dealing with them.
CD: So what the atmosphere? You came home from the war. What was the atmosphere like? Was it downtrodden? Was it jubilant? Was there work in Tulare?
CM: I would say there was plenty of work.
CD: More work than before?
CM: I wouldn’t say more, but if people wanted to work it was there. They could find it. Pay wasn’t the greatest, but that’s one of the things I felt that the people in those days, there weren’t as many welfare lines. People accepted whatever work there was available.
CD: What about housing? Was there enough housing?
CM: Some of it very poor, but people survived. They may not have had all the luxuries in the world, but . . .
CD: Where did you live when you came home?
CM: When I came home, my mother and dad had owned a home over on South P Street and they lived there.
CD: Oh, so they moved back into town?
CM: Yes, they moved back into town. They were one of the lucky few that had been in a home that was probably 50 years old when they moved into it and of course, redevelopment came into that area and took their home. I say took it.
CD: Did they buy it?
CM: Purchased it and gave them a new home, so mom and my family have lived . . . I’ve been in my house 45 years and she’s been in hers for 20, a new home, new than mine.
CD: But right after the war when you came home, did you live with your parents?
CM: Yes we sure did. All of us lived at home until we got married in 1947, right after I got home.
CD: Oh, where did you meet your wife?
CM: I met her here in town. In fact, the same nice lady that was a school teacher. I came back home and took up with her. When I left, she was just a little bitty girl, but when I came back home she was all grown up.
CD: That was an eye opener.
CM: That’s another story. But anyway, housing wasn’t the best of housing but at least you’d have a roof over your head.
CD: There wasn’t a lot of building going on.
CM: It was crude. I remember my folks cooking on a wood stove.
CD: Oh, they did. Out on the ranch they cooked on a wood stove?
CM: Even here in town, I think they used oil or something, very different. That’s why people of that era were just satisfied with what they had. If they could get the basics, everything else would take care of itself. You and I are talking about our loaded pantries and they were lucky to have a can of lard.
CM: You just can’t imagine.
CD: My mother had to move. My parents had a loaded pantry.
CM: It is just so crude. Our kids would never realize that those things because we had everything for them.
CD: My kids get mad when its not full. Where’s our dessert?
CM: Well, you don’t share with me. Boy, when we came along, automatically they took what we earned versus - we allowed our kids to keep what they earned, and bought them cars and did this and every other thing. But anyway, what did you want to ask me?
CD: Basically, how would you say the war affected Tulare County? Do you think it was better off, worse off?
CM: I would say people-wise, it was worse off.
CD: Worse off after the war?
CM: Because people moved away for better opportunities. The only people that stayed were people that had stability.
CD: Already had something here?
CM: They already had something, but most other people that were looking for something moved away from the area. I just think that . . .
CD: Do you think that the start of the decline of Tulare? Tulare seems a little unpopulated right now. It seems there were more people back in the . . .
CM: I wouldn’t say there were more people, but just for an example, if there was 10 people together today, eight would leave and two would stay. This is the dynamic of how it was.
CM: Most people never returned. Yet they come in here, come back, and they’re buying their homes, second homes, whatever, in the area. A few of them are coming back but after they have retired.
CD: Overall, how would you say the war affected Tulare?
CM: I would probably say population wise, speaking for blacks, it devastated it.
CD: It sounds like it.
CM: It absolutely caused a big division. Say for example, when I was coming along, there was enough young men to form their own baseball team playing against other teams. It got to the point where there wasn’t enough left that could play with a total ethnic group. One or two or three out of say 25-30 men. They all left. Everybody that was anybody went somewhere else.
CD: And they were all attracted to the big cities? Do you think it was better for them in the big cities?
CM: Well, they all survived and did very well. I’m talking about people who have skills,carpenters, where today I don’t think, if there are one or two black men that are carpenters, I’ll eat your hat. We lost 15 to 20 carpenters when I was coming along, who left here and never came back.
CD: You were talking about the baseball team. Was it an all black team?
CM: Yes. At that time, it was just a group that formed and basically didn’t feel any differently about it than if it was a Hispanic group playing, a bunch of Portuguese or whatever it might be. But they had formed their groups, and business supported their efforts.
CD: And so after the war there weren’t even enough black men to make a team?
CM: Nothing of that nature even exists today. Everything is either a community thing . . .
CD: I don’t think it would be allowed, do you think? Everybody gets hot under the collar.
CM: I don’t know. Our Mexican League still perform, but they invite everybody to be a part of it. They don’t just keep it to themselves. Even though it’s a Mexican League, participants can be any ethnic makeup. I just feel that the war ruined a lot of smaller communities,the everyday guy.
CD: Lindsay went downhill too.
CM: Not knowing Lindsay, but I’ve been in this town since 1933, so I could see the goings and comings, and the incomes that when you talk to someone coming from San Leandro or the Bay Area. My niece was here. She’s the Vice President or President of some college in the Bay Area and the kind of money that she makes would make your head swim.
CD: Yes. It’s so expensive.
CM: She left here to be a school teacher and then got into administration, got her master’s degree, whatever it was. Absolutely living on top of the world, but they had to get away from here. Good families. Mother and Father both died here. Stayed, but the kids got away. And we’re talking about kids that would be 40-50 and 60 years old.
CD: And would have been an asset to the community.
CM: Dream asset. Kids would come in here for an example. I would call them kids. Graduates would come in from SC and start school here. Teaching at that time wasn’t really open to the black person like it is now.
CD: What do you mean? Teaching positions?
CM: Opportunities were not there for some reason. I don’t know what it was, but I never saw a black teacher, maybe one or two in the whole time I was in high school and middle school.
CD: No black teachers except for one or two?
CM: One or two. And when my wife started twenty five years later . . . of course my wife has been retired for fourteen years . . . but say thirty years or twenty years after that, there was just an influx of blacks coming in and teaching.
CD: And there was no problem getting jobs?
CM: No problem getting jobs and they were principals and everything else, but they all moved on to Mountain View and other places that were looking for administrators.
CM: So we lost all these people. As I say, and I hate to use the word again, but the old diehards were the only ones that would stay.
CD: Overall, how do you feel the war affected you? Your brothers and sister and your family.
CM: In so many ways it helped me, because I was able to accept whatever the challenges were. It just helped me to put me in the right frame of mind to be stable. I may not have earned the greatest pay, but if I stick in there long enough things will happen. And that’s happened. I think the sacrifices that I made were a plus for me. The folks and their sacrifices had some influence on myself because I knew how tough it was for them to try to survive and do all the small things, where maybe my younger sister or brothers didn’t take the importance of staying together and doing those things. I just never thought about leaving and the same was with my brothers. But my family has never been real, even though my kids are all younger. I think the youngest is fifty years old. They went to school and got the necessary training to advance their situations. Mom and I, she did, but I didn’t, I didn’t go any further than two years at junior college, but it wasn’t enough to really . . . my popularity and things, my leadership got me into a lot of places I couldn’t have gotten into.
CD: You kind of learn that at school too.
CM: In fact, I tell people, I had the most lucrative job I had in my life and all I had to do was be a good citizen. Understanding and working with people, I was able to put me on . . .
CD: Before the tape runs out I wanted to ask you about your name. It sounds German.
CM: Very much so.
CD: Did anybody ever say you were German?
CM: Let me tell you, my daughter that lives in Visalia today had worked for Motown Productions in Southern California and she had a degree in theatrical art from UCLA. She asked Mr. Gordy, who at the time was President of Motown Productions, if she could research that Meitzenheimer name. Before she really had a chance to get into it, my dad got very ill and so she wasn’t able to get all the information she really needed to get. And then of course he passed away 15 or 20 years ago now and she could never get that completed. The name itself is a name that everybody in the world questions.
CD: Didn’t your dad ever tell you where it came from?
CM: No, because we never asked him.
CD: Oh, too bad.
CM: And I wish I had.
CD: And your mom doesn’t know? She never asked him?
CM: And my dad was a very Indian looking, fair-skinned man. It’s just the most amazing thing to hear that name and I often would think to myself, when I got into the service, and found out it was segregated, maybe they would send me to the wrong group.
CD: Oh, because of your name.
CM: But it’s right on there, the ethnicity. Black. Negro at that time.
CD: Oh, is that what the term was?
CM: They didn’t use Black. My daughter, right today I tell her, even though she’s retired, she was forced to retire. She had a back problem. Anyway, I say, "Honey, you don’t know how many people ask me about that name, and I don’t have an answer for them."
CD: Especially during the war.
CM: The other thing was because of my brother’s children, a lot of them are working on it. They say that when you start looking up Meitzenheimer, there’s one or two names in Hanford, but in Wisconsin and some of those areas, the name comes up periodically.
CD: It shouldn’t be that hard, the genealogy.
CM: I have a niece that is in Wisconsin and when the young people get together at family reunions, they all are working on it but no one comes up with anything concrete. So I’m sorry to say I just don’t know, I really can’t tell you the general makeup of how that handle seemed to fall on Claude Meitzenheimer.
CD: To sum up, do you have anything you would like to add.
CM: No, really. I just think people in general need to understand that it’s a big world and we all have to live in it together. Some can give and some can take. Others can take, but they can’t give. But I just happen to be one that can handle them both. I appreciate the interview.
CD: That’s a good way to end. Thank you.
Catherine Doe/Transcriber:J. Chubbuck, 4/29/04/ Editor: JW 10/25/04
Editor’s note: Words in italics were clarifications made during a phone interview with Claude Meitzenheimer on October 28, 2004.