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Chuck Hinman: IJMA. I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen

Chuck Hinman: I Left My Heart At The Stage Door Canteen. Chuck recounts his experiences at the USO canteens during his 1942 stay in Los Angeles for Air Force training and his later disappointment when revisiting the city.
Next earlier Chuck Hinman column - Tools / The planter that Chuck built

By Chuck Hinman

I Left My Heart At The Stage Door Canteen

After finishing basic training in the Air Force in 1942 at Sheppard Field, Wichita Falls, Texas, I was assigned to an eight weeks training school in Los Angeles, California. We were billeted at the Grand Hotel at Ninth and Grand in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
For a Nebraska farm boy who had never been farther away from home than Wichita, Kansas (200 miles), I felt I had died and gone to heaven! Please don't wake me if I am dreaming, I thought!

In the prime of life

I was in the prime of life, had two years of college under my belt, and had just finished two months of rigid physical basic training which left me 'mean and green.' I was the epitome of the sayings 'bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,' 'foot-loose and fancy-free,' ready for a good time wherever it was! Look out 'CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME' -- ready or not!

There were scads of military installations in and around Los Angeles. The streets of Los Angeles were alive with military personnel from all the branches of military service. It was a young person's world! Everywhere you looked there were young people. Older people, if there were any, seemed to be in hiding!

Schooling a breeze, roommate a fellow Nebraskan

The schooling was a breeze and it was like an 8 to 5 job. There was no homework. Other than making mess call three times a day at a nearby cafeteria, we were free to do whatever we liked with a 9 pm curfew on weekdays, midnight on weekends. What a life! And what a place to spend it in -- Los Angeles, California!

I was assigned to room with a fellow Nebraskan. His last name was Reiner. His first name escapes me now but he was a big German farm boy from O'Neill, Nebraska. We got along great for the duration of this school -- then were separated during the rest of the war but found each other afterwards when we were fellow students at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. We of course exchanged many pleasant reminiscences of our times together in L. A. with accompanying belly laughs at all the silly things we had done there.

USO canteens quickly found

'Soldier boys' in large cities such as Los Angeles quickly found the very popular USO canteens. I was no different. I 'lived' at the canteen in my free time and developed many heart-throbs! And of course, I became a noted (not) pool shark and skilled ping-pong player! I cut my teeth, so to speak, on the dance floor at the canteen but no one mistook me for Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. There was little resemblance!

The canteens were ALWAYS staffed with pretty, nice girls to the delight of us service-men. A very popular song of the day made popular by Sammy Kaye was" I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen" by Irving Berlin: This Stage Door Canteen was the subject of the very popular Broadway play of the same name.

Marlene Dietrich at the Hollywood Canteen

During my short two-months stay in Southern California, I discovered the Hollywood Canteen. On a visit there one Sunday afternoon, I had the pleasure of being served refreshments by the glamorous Marlene Dietrich! Of course, everyone crowded to have their picture taken with the famous German movie star! I also heard the famous singer Peggy Lee do her rendition of the song "Fever" for which she became noted. Movie stars and starlets were a dime a dozen on this Sunday afternoon! After all, I was treated to being a guest in their backyard, so to speak.

As you can understand, I am rapidly beginning to be spoiled by this 'new life'!

Overwhelmed by outings

And that's not to mention being invited to a super-glamorous home in Hollywood on Thanksgiving Day along with my roommate and a couple of buddies who had signed up at the Los Angeles USO canteen for such an outing. What opulence and down right genuine hospitality! Our country has a wonderful history of its citizens pouring it on for its soldier boys!

In addition to spending every minute possible in the USO canteens of Los Angeles and Hollywood, my Auntie Grace lived nearby in Glendale, California, entertained me royally when I had time to hop a bus and go out to visit her. She showed me all the things for which Southern California is famous, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the Griffith Observatory, the homes of the rich and famous in Hollywood, and on and on. I don't see how she could have packed so much into such a short time. My eyes and mind were about to explode! From a cultural SHOCK?? Probably! But I loved every minute of it!

Sold on Los Angeles

Of course, as you might expect, the time flew because I was having the time of my life!

Frankly, I was SOLD. I had every intention in the world to return to Los Angeles after the war to make my permanent home. I was so taken by its charm during the eight weeks of my residence there. I could hardly wait for the war to be over so I could make the big move and resume where I had left off in early 1943.

Revisiting Los Angeles several years later

Several years later I had an opportunity to revisit Los Angeles on a layover during a transfer from Fresno, California, to my new assignment at Kelly Field, San Antonio, Texas. It goes without saying, I had eagerly looked forward to such an occasion and here it was!

I visited the Grand Hotel first, my home during the wonderful days in 1942. I was shocked -- it was still there but it just flat LOOKED DIFFERENT! It no longer housed troops as it did in 1942. The laughter and good-natured bawdiness and noise were gone!

Extreme disappointment at changes

To try to recover from my extreme disappointment, I rushed to the corner drug store in the Hotel Building where I drank so many fountain drinks back then. It was still there but I hardly recognized it!

What's going on here? Am I on Candid Camera or something? I batted my eyes trying to bring some sense to what I was feeling and seeing!

Good old days crumbled as though by earthquake

I don't know how many nickels I plugged in the nickelodeon back in the good old days and listened to the song "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." I about wore out the record! I didn't recognize any of the soda-jerks!

Panicking, I double-timed a few blocks north to make sure my one remaining landmark, the Los Angeles USO Canteen was still in place! Everything else had crumbled as though by a 6.4 earthquake! My heart was in my mouth for fear of what I was going to see and experience. I almost didn't want to know. My pace slowed as I approached the familiar door. Sure enough -- my disappointment was complete! I closed my eyes as though trying to shield myself from a crumbling dream world!

Dreams are elusive and fleeting

Even though I was as 'mean and green' as the day I had finished basic training in late 1942, I began to realize how foolish I had been. I learned an important lesson of life that afternoon as I stood there choking back waves of hurt. Dreams are elusive and fleeting and need a strong foundation. They are seldom built on good times. Good times are for memories.

I got a hold of myself, cleared my throat of a few lumps and tried to develop a learned military stride as I headed for the train station -- "I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen"... but ONLY in the form of memories of some good times -- nothing more....

Written by Chuck Hinman, ImPeruvians Writing Club, 12 March 2004. The writing assignment was "Any Town Other Than The One You Live In," 29 February 2004.

Editorial Note: "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen" by Irving Berlin - which Chuck quoted - may still be in copyright but you can find it by Googling the title.

This story was posted on 2013-08-04 00:28:58
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