In loving memory . . .
Margie Aline Birdsall1913 - 1999
(Click photos to enlarge)
Birth and childhood.
Margie was born on May 21, 1913, in Jacksonville, Illinois. Her mother was Jewell (McKinney) Souza, and her father George W. Souza. When she was a young child, her family (including her grandmother McKinney and her mother's aunt Fannie) moved to Los Angeles, where her father built not only a house for his family, but two adjacent houses for Margie's great-aunt and grandmother. The family home was located at 1126 West 106th Street, between Budlong and Vermont. Although the exact year the family moved to Los Angeles is unknown, Margie had clear memories of Los Angeles under quarantine during the great influenza epidemic of 1918, the greatest outbreak of infectious disease since the Black Plague ravaged medieval Europe.
Margie had one sister, Elinora Mae, and two brothers, Donald and Franklin, all of whom are now deceased.
Although there is scant information on Margie's school years, I have seen, as a child, numerous awards for her skills in both typing and penmanship. She also played the violin in her high school orchestra.
Margie fell in love with cars at an early age. Lovingly known by her siblings as "Barney Oldfield" (after the great race car driver of that time), she spent every possible moment behind the wheel of a car. By the time she was old enough to acquire a license, she was skilled not only at driving but at the spins and turns of stunt driving, which she and her friends practiced on the nearby dirt roads.
Shortly after Margie's graduation from high school, a young man from the neighborhood began inventing excuses to spend time with her family. He especially professed his love of playing the card game pinochle—a game that, by an odd coincidence, was Margie's father's favorite pastime. Thus it was that young Dick (nickname for Richard), who would one day become my father, entered Margie's life. Their growing friendship soon became love, and they began to plan a life together.
A family of her own.
At the age of 19, on March 25th, 1933, Margie married Richard Irwin Birdsall, son of Carl Edwin Birdsall and Alice (Baker) Birdsall. According to the newspaper account, they were married "at the home of the bride's parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Souza. The bride wore pale blue satin trimmed in silver and carried sweet peas. Miss Marie McKinney was brides maid and wore pale yellow. Leo Birdsall was best man." The young couple made their home in a small, rented cottage on 109th Place, just a few blocks from their respective families.
In January, 1935, Margie became pregnant, and on October 26, 1935, I was born.
In 1939, the young couple purchased their first home in a new housing tract in Burbank. In lieu of a down payment, Dick agreed to lay linoleum in the kitchen and service porch of every house in the tract.
The war years.
Even though I was only six years old, I can clearly remember the resounding words of President Roosevelt booming from our family radio as he announced the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into the Second World War. I also recall the sudden change it wrought in my parents' faces: a tightening of the muscles, a solemn resolve, an acquiescence to the inevitable. I instinctively felt very proud of them.
The mobilization of armed forces caused a sudden labor shortage, so Margie went to work—as did thousands of other patriotic women—building airplanes. She worked for Vega Aircraft, a predecessor of Lockheed, where she initially trained as a riveter. In those days, the installation of rivets required a person on each side of the surface being riveted. Therefore, when it came to riveting the aluminum surfaces onto the wings, Margie's diminutive stature (five feet one inch) always guaranteed that she would be the one to crawl inside.
Dick had been working a variety of jobs, including sound technician, truck driver, carpet layer, and linoleum layer. All the while, however, he had also been studying electrical power engineering at night school, thus it was that in May, 1943, he became employed as a power switchboard operator for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Less than a year later his draft notice arrived, and in May, 1944, he was inducted into the U.S. Navy.
Following Dick's boot camp training, he was granted a brief furlough during which our little family prepared for the uncertainties ahead. Soon thereafter, Margie left her defense job, deposited me with grandparents, and followed Dick as the Navy first relocated him to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, then to San Diego, then San Francisco, and finally to Seattle, where he was to meet his ship. Now a Radarman Third-class, he was soon dispatched on the destroyer U.S.S. Stormes on its maiden voyage to the war in the Pacific. Many months after her sojourn had begun, Margie returned home. I remained with grandparents until the end of the current school semester, and then mother and son were reunited, now a family of two.
We lived happily together, my mother and I, blissfully unaware of the torment in the Pacific. Little did we know, as we celebrated her birthday on May 23rd, 1945, that the U.S.S. Stormes had arrived in Okinawa that very day. Nor did we know that it would spend the next seventy-two hours warding off fierce Japanese air attacks. Nor were we aware that, on May 25th, a lone Kamikaze plunged into the ship, its 500 pound bomb penetrating the after superstructure and deck, then exploding within the munitions storage magazine. It would be months before we would hear of the horror of that day.
Every few weeks Margie would receive a letter from Dick, assuring her that he was well. The letters were usually at least a month old and were often full of rectangular holes in the paper, where the wartime censors had removed anything that they deemed a security risk. As she opened each letter she would usually say, "I'm just glad to know that he's still alive." I knew full well what she meant, for it already seemed as though most of the houses in the neighborhood had at least one gold star in a front window to commemorate a husband or son that had died in the war. The gold stars were embroidered in the center of a white silk banner with gold tassels—most banners had a single star, and some two, but I recall one house with five gold stars on a single banner. The banners with blue or red stars that were traditionally displayed for husbands or sons in the war were, in our neighborhood, easily outnumbered by the banners with gold stars. They were a constant reminder of the grim reality in which we lived. And there were so many of them . . .
One day the dreaded telegram arrived from the War Department: "We regret to inform you. . . ."
Dick had been lost at sea in a violent storm, and was assumed dead. He was gone. But everyone was getting those telegrams, it seemed; it was the way things were. Margie's reaction was typical of the new war-widow: She cried briefly and then said, "Well, at least it's over. Get cleaned up, Ronnie . . . we have to go get our gold star for the window." That evening the star was installed, and the neighborhood count increased again. For a few weeks life was routine, until . . .
"Mom, what's wrong?" I remember asking anxiously. I had just walked into our living room and saw her clutching the telephone, her face ashen and colorless. For a few minutes she could not speak; then, between gasps for air, she managed to say, "He's . . . he's . . . he's alive! He just came into San Diego in a small boat!" Suddenly she leapt up, tore down the banner with the gold star, and triumphantly announced that we were leaving for San Diego within the hour.
The naval authorities wouldn't let us see him for a day or two, for he was injured and severely dehydrated. But we eventually had our reunion, and after the tears had stopped flowing, he told us his story: Following temporary repairs at Okinawa, his ship had been dispatched, via Saipan, Eniwetok Island, and Pearl Harbor, for the naval drydocks at San Francisco. Soon after leaving Eniwetok, they were notified of the surrender of Japan and the end of the war. Upon reaching Pearl Harbor, the command staff of the Stormes, eager to return home and clearly thinking of no one but themselves, committed a most unfortunate act: They put ashore the sailors who were scheduled to be discharged in order to make room for the officer's wives living at Pearl Harbor and 50,000 pounds of mail. Dick and several dozen other stranded sailors were offered two alternatives: they could receive their military discharges in Pearl Harbor and thereafter fend for themselves, or they could wait an indefinite period of at least several months for the next available military transportation to the mainland. But they weren't going home with their ship.
Feeling some measure of compassion for the unmercifully abandoned and war-torn sailors, the Navy officials at Pearl Harbor then offered the only transportation to the mainland that could be spared: a quantity of launches (partially enclosed motorboats) about thirty feet in length. Eager to get home, the sailors decided to make the dangerous crossing. They loaded each launch with sufficient fuel drums to make the trip and then packed what little space remained with field rations, drinking water, and sailors. I can no longer recall the exact number of launches that set out, but I believe it was six or seven. Because of his relatively greater age and small boat experience, Dick was placed in command of one of the launches.
Half way across, a thousand miles from land, they encountered a fierce storm. Dick tied his sailors to the boat, tied himself to the wheel, throttled back to minimal maneuvering speed, and kept the bow of the boat into the huge seas for several days and nights. Eventually, the storm blew itself out, having carried their little boat well south of their course. Desperately low on fuel, they decided to proceed at the most fuel-efficient speed for the boat—about three to four knots. They traveled only when the sea was calm, and laid to a makeshift sea anchor when the waves or a headwind came up. In this manner they literally inched their way to the mainland, arriving at San Diego several weeks later with barely drops of fuel aboard. Sadly, theirs was the only boat to survive. The other boats had capsized in the storm, with all hands lost. Their wreckage had been spotted by a patrol plane, which reported that there was nothing left of the small flotilla but broken hulls, broken lives, and telegrams to be sent.
Once Again, a Family
Finally the war was over, and we were a family again. To help erase the trauma of the war years, Margie enrolled in the John Powers School of Modeling, in Hollywood. Dick returned to work with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who had graciously held the jobs in abeyance of all employees who were inducted for wartime service. Soon I was in high school, and Margie returned to work at Lockheed to help pay for my impending college education. I found college uninspiring, however, and decided to instead obtain a technical education from the U.S. Army, eventually serving on the staff of the Guided Missile School at Fort Bliss, Texas.
During my tour of duty with the Army, Carol and I met and were married. Margie suddenly found her family expanding again, first with a new daughter-in-law and then, a year later, with a new granddaughter, Rebecca. Six years later, Stephanie and Tracey had made their appearance, and Margie had become the proud grandmother of three.
Margie and Dick moved to San Fernando during those years, and thence to Sylmar, where they endured the full, unabated force of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. During this quake, a ground surface rupture 12 miles long and up to six feet high suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The gigantic temblor flattened buildings and demolished freeway overpasses, striking as Margie was driving through the mountains on her way to work at Lockheed Palmdale. She later described the scene with great emotion: "Huge boulders were being ejected upwards, flying all over the place, landing all over the freeway! I had to keep moving and dodging to avoid being hit by them!" Barney Oldfield, it seems, had finally come into her own.
As their retirement years approached, Margie and Dick bought a house trailer and began spending many happy hours on the road and in trailer parks. They also acquired a second home in San Clemente, to which they planned to move upon retirement. On July 1, 1972, they said goodbye to the workaday world, moved to their San Clemente home, and entered the carefree life of the retired. Many wonderful trips then ensued as they straddled the nation with their house trailer, making friends, seeing the sights, and really enjoying themselves for the first time in many years. It was an extremely fulfilling time for them both.
On October 19, 1973, while working on the San Clemente house with Dick, Margie suffered a stroke. Although she was rushed to the San Clemente Hospital, irreversible cerebral damage had occurred by the time her condition was stabilized. Released from the hospital on October 27, she would never again be in full control of her body or her life. Because of the additional responsibilities of her condition, Dick soon felt the need to be closer to family, so he sold the San Clemente house in 1976 and moved their household to a beachfront condominium in Port Hueneme. They found the condominium untenable, however, and moved a year later to a house in Oxnard, just a few blocks from our home. In November, 1978, they bought a new Vogue motorhome, taking delivery in Nevada and spending the next several months happily traversing the western United States. The following November, Dick fell ill. Diagnosed with lung cancer, he died at home on November 7, 1980. On November 10, his ashes were scattered at sea.
Margie moved into a mobile home park near the beach in Oxnard. Four or five years later, as her health continued to falter, she joined our household, which we had since relocated to Ventura. For a time she called Tracey's old room home; then, in 1987, we all moved to Utah, and Margie began accumulating Mormon friends. In 1994, our adventure in Utah completed, we returned to California.
During those years with our family, and with the kind people in Utah, Margie gradually underwent a beautiful metamorphosis of personality. Always witty and eager to engage in repartee, she added a new dimension to her nature: that of uncompromising kindness. As it became necessary for her to spend an increasing amount of time in convalescent facilities, she literally made of herself an emissary of this virtue, preaching and demonstrating the value of kindness to aides, nurses, and others with whom she came in daily contact. She touched many lives during her final years; then, her work on earth done, she returned to the place from which all life originates. Sometime between 1 A.M. and 4 A.M., on the morning of September 21, 1999, Margie peacefully died in her sleep. On September 23, her body was laid to rest at Ivy Lawn Memorial Park, in Ventura.
Goodbye, Mom. It's been wonderful.
George W. Souza
The New House
After Boot Camp
At Great Lakes Naval
On a Visit With Dad
Waiting . . .
The Day of my
After Basic Training
At our Wedding
On the Road
Richard Irwin Birdsall
1912 - 1980
With great-granddaughter Nicole. Circa 1986