My mother-in-law will celebrate her 95th birthday tomorrow. Alma Geraldine (“Gerry”) White was born on November 18, 1919 in Logan, New Mexico. Gerry’s mother Lela was born in the Native American territory of Oklahoma in 1896 and as a five-year-old child traveled by covered wagon to New Mexico along with their cattle and horses. Lela may have been the only redhead in the entire territory and was a novelty to the Native Americans.
Gerry herself also traveled by wagon train to northern New Mexico when she was three months old, and her father got a job with the railroad hauling ore. New Mexico was a rough and tumble place in the early twentieth century.
One of Gerry’s favorite stories was about the time when her older sister Helen wanted a puppy. Helen was so fixated on getting a puppy that when a group of gypsies passed through with horses and wagons, Helen traded her younger sister for their puppy! When Gerry’s father Guy arrived home, he said, “Where’s Alma?” Helen said, “I traded her to the gypsies for a puppy.” Guy rode off, gun in hand, to rescue Alma (Gerry) from the gypsies. He got Alma, but they didn’t get their puppy back.
Since Lela was a staunch Baptist, Gerry, too, grew up as a Baptist. Because there were no schools in Chama, sister Helen was sent to the Loreto Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Santa Fe known for its miraculous staircase. Because of the harsh treatment that Helen received at the hands of the nuns, little Gerry was sent to help Helen. The first time Gerry saw Helen being punished by the nuns, she lit into the nuns like a banshee. Her discipline? Gerry had to sleep with the nuns at night. Gerry was never afraid to call it like it was.
Gerry’s parents eventually moved to Santa Fe where she graduated from public high school in 1936 at age sixteen. There was no thought of higher education because there were no colleges in the Santa Fe area. Besides, Gerry was too young to be accepted into college, and her parents didn’t have enough money for college.
Gerry was always very good at math, so she got a job keeping books at a department store. Then she moved on to the accounting department of a wholesale grocer. Every time Gerry had an opportunity she took the civil service examination and eventually landed a job at the state capitol of Albuquerque in the accounting department.
One time an insurance man came in to speak to her boss and said, “You can’t imagine the number of girls who are quitting jobs and going into the Army.” Gerry thought that was a ridiculous idea, but the next thing she knew, she was down at the recruiting office herself! Gerry passed the IQ test with flying colors, but the physical part was a different story. Gerry had asthma and was always rather sickly as child. Nevertheless, Gerry was recommended for Officer Candidate School.
Somewhere around this time Gerry married. She was still a teenager, and her husband was sent off with the entire New Mexico National Guard to Bataan in the Philippines. These were all boys that she knew from high school. Every single soldier but one died, including her husband. Gerry said that the one young man who did survive was never right in his mind.
Gerry was more determined than ever to enlist, for she believed that our country was fighting for its life. There was a reason she was saved from the gypsies. Gerry went to Officer Candidate School in Des Moines, Iowa and was one of the first five thousand women in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). The WAAC was first established in 1942 and was converted to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943.
The WACs were the first women to serve in the ranks of the U.S. Army outside of nurses. They were not universally accepted at first, but it soon became clear that fighting a war on two fronts would demand resources in industry and the military beyond those that only men could bring.
Although basic training was difficult for Gerry because of her health issues, she did very well in the mental tests. Gerry was chosen as one of one hundred and fifty young women sent to Washington D.C. for what turned out to be a three month secret mission in the winter of 1943. Gerry said, “We were picked for our mechanical and analytical ability. The plans were that the Army would train women to take over the anti-aircraft artillery in Washington D.C. and eventually the entire east coast.
“So this was an experiment. We were assigned to an old CCC camp at the Arboretum in Washington, and those old barracks were terrible. They were just boards and cold as the dickens. It was January. We actually lived and worked in underground bunkers, kind of like caves, where they had three bunks and an old coal stove to keep us warm. We built fires in the coal stove, and the person in the middle bunk was nice and warm. However, the person on the top burned and the person on the bottom froze. It was miserable living, believe me.
“We had to hide our tracks leading up to the bunkers. Also, all of the women had to use APO addresses and they were not allowed to call home for the entire time they were there. The mission was to protect Washington D.C. against any enemy that might make it over the Atlantic Ocean. We used huge search lights at night to follow planes. Women were not supposed to have the use of guns, but we had huge 90 mm guns. We knew how to take apart and put together these giant search lights. We were the first cadre to take over antiaircraft artillery for all of Washington and the entire eastern seaboard.
“After we learned all this stuff, President Roosevelt decided that none of our enemies had planes that could bomb our east coast, so they disbanded us. Well, we were absolutely sick because we were so full of anticipation. We really wanted to do it.” Gerry was then one of ten young women from the group to be sent to the Air Service Command in Spokane, Washington. This is where she met her future husband, Paul Haller, who was in the Air Force. From there she was moved to officer Candidate School at Boeing Field in Seattle where she set up a budget and fiscal office and watched B-29’s being made.
After getting married, Gerry and Paul were both assigned to Dayton Ohio, which was unusual because couples did not often get to stay together. They were both discharged in 1946, each having served four years. They eventually settled in Michigan, where Paul’s parents lived.
Gerry and Paul had three children, and Gerry went on to become a successful CPA. Not wanting to lose a piece of her heritage, she and Paul raised horses on two hundred acres of land outside Hastings. Gerry also became a very active United Methodist, moving beyond her Baptist heritage to adopt her husband’s religion of the warmed heart and free will. In the mid 1970’s they moved to Florida where Gerry switched careers and became a real estate broker and agent.
I first met Gerry in 1978 and marveled at her determination, drive and grit. I always wondered what Gerry could have done and who she would have become if she had lived fifty years later than she did. Even so, she held down a full-time job, raised three children, and managed a gentleman’s farm. Saved from the gypsies, Gerry blessed all who knew her.
No one ever imagined that Gerry would outlast her three sisters, two of whom were younger. After a difficult childhood with asthma and a time when she spent months in bed, Gerry persisted and became accomplished in a world that wasn’t quite ready for successful women. It was probably that feisty New Mexico spirit.
Just this past winter, Gary and I took Gerry to see a movie, August: Osage County.
After the movie was over, Gerry leaned over to me, and said, “This was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen since King Kong.” (King Kong was released in 1933!) “What the heck was this movie all about?”
“Maybe you didn’t get it because you had a margarita for dinner.”
“Well, I recognized Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.”
Then, on the way back to her assisted living room, Gary said, “I like your hair, Mom.” He knew she had gotten her hair done that day. “You mean my wig?” she said. Gerry was referring to Meryl Streep, who wore a black wig in the movie when she was in public.
“How do you like my wig? I’m wearing one, too,” I said. My hair looked somewhat like Streep’s wig.
Gerry did a double take and smiled. Then she led us with her walker back to her room.
I dreamed that night of a young Gerry Haller, saved from the gypsies to …
Give the nuns fits;
Push her frail body to its limits in basic training;
Woman-handle those huge searchlights;
Keep Army financial records in tip-top shape;
Ride horses, free as a bird;
Move from faithful Baptist to faithful United Methodist;
Talk proudly of two grandsons in the Army and Navy;
Serve as one of the very first WACS in the U.S. Army;
Do our income taxes online until age 93.
Happy birthday Gerry! Thank you for your service. I want to be like you. I love you.