By John Chambless
In late May of 1944, the 29 members of the Unionville High School graduating class had a combined graduation and baccalaureate ceremony because gas was being rationed during the war and people didn't want to make two trips to the school.
On Sept. 25, 2013, five of the nine surviving members of that class gathered for lunch at the Farmhouse at the Loch Nairn Golf Club, and their smiles melted away the 69 years that have gone by.
"In those days, it was called the Unionville Joint Consolidated School," said Maude Beale Stowers. "They had combined all the one-room schools around there." Today, the building houses the Unionville Elementary School.
Most of their parents were farmers, working the rural land around Unionville. With World War II dragging on for yet another year, with no end in sight, classmates were being drafted as soon as they turned 18, whether or not they had graduated. Male teachers were also being called into the service. While nobody from the class of 1944 died in battle, both Phil Cloud and Ellis Raezer were called to serve their country. Sitting at the table in the Farmhouse, they were the only two surviving men from the class of '44.
"They canceled everything because of the war," Stowers recalled. "They had sports teams, but nobody went, because nobody had gas to go. Nobody had time, either. They had to go home and milk cows. The only thing we had was a tenth-grade Halloween party. They canceled everything else."
Stowers recalled her parents having blackout curtains on their windows, to be used in case of aerial bombardment. Sugar and shoes were among the many rationed items. "That's why I still like sugar," she said, "because I couldn't get any during the war."
Teens grew up fast in those years, with the shadow of war hanging over the nation. "We didn't have a lot of stuff," she said. "Your wings got clipped."
She grew up to be a teacher for 21 years. "In Pennsylvania, I earned $2,000 a year," she said, smiling. "Doesn't that sound awful?"
Beginning in 1990, the surviving classmates started getting together every other year, keeping their bond of friendship alive. For their 50th reunion, Stowers said, everyone toured the Unionville Elementary building to bring back some memories of long ago.
Alberta Bickings also recalled gas being rationed, curtailing most of the choices for entertainment among her teen friends. "We had to make our own fun," she said. "We played sports. I played field hockey. And I walked a lot. I walked to school -- that was two miles each way."
Her home had no electricity when she was young, she said. "My dad worked on the telephone lines when I was small. I remember him climbing up those poles with cleats on his shoes. We didn't have a phone. I think the owner of the farm had one."
Her two brothers were drafted at 18, she said, and both survived the war. "There was a lot of patriotism then," she said.
Sitting next to her at the head of the table was Pauline Barnes, who recalled loving school. "Oh, I cried the day we graduated," she said. "I hated to leave school."
Barnes admitted, however, that she couldn't do math very well, and got a D on her final exam.
"Oh, I loved math," Bickings told her.
"But I could do languages," Barnes said.
"Oh, I hated languages," Bickings replied, laughing.
Barnes graduated eighth in her class, married at 18 and had four children, and has served as the communications link for her surviving classmates. "I try to keep in touch with all of my classmates. I do Christmas and holiday cards," she said. "I try to be the person that lets everybody know things."
Barnes recalled having a strict music teacher, Mr. Motts, who once caught her messing around with a trombone in the music room, and how he scolded her. Bickings nodded in agreement. "Oh, he was mean," she said.
Asked if there were any high-school romances, Barnes laughed and blushed.
"Oh, you can't talk about that!" she whispered. "Phil and I were close during our junior and senior years, and I went to the proms with him," she said, nodding toward Cloud, who was sitting at the table with Barb, his wife of 61 years. "But he's here with his wife! I don't want to get in trouble!" she added, laughing.
Cloud said he grew up on a farm in Unionville, and remembered that there was a roller skating rink in Avondale where teens could go and have fun.
"We played a lot of baseball," he said. "We had a baseball field in a meadow. It was a better field than the one at the high school. A group of us would play around Unionville and we would walk over to Red Lion, and they had a baseball team there. We made up our own teams. And Longwood had a team that we'd play."
Cloud joined the Navy Air Corps, and his three brothers also served in the military. Cloud was trained as a pilot for a possible invasion of Japan, but was held in reserve. He got a year of college, and then the war ended the next year, and he was discharged.
Ellis Raezer, who sat next to Cloud, said his father was a tool maker at Lukens Steel. The family did live on a farm. "I was the fifth brother who was drafted," he said. "There were nine children. The oldest was 13 years older than me. I enjoyed math because we had a great teacher," he said. "It was my favorite subject."
For entertainment, he said, there were three movie theaters in West Chester, "but one of them was too expensive - you never went there." The usual admission fee, he said, was something like 17 cents, including the war tax.
He went on to serve in the Signal Corps. He was on a battleship, headed to invade a heavily fortified port in Korea, when word came through that the war was over. He returned home eventually and worked as a tool maker, like his father, for 38 years. He has 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He lives in Shippensburg, which made him the farthest-traveling classmate at the reunion. The others have all stayed even closer to Unionville.
The class of 1944 didn't have a yearbook due to war rationing, and there weren't any old photos shared at the reunion last week. But the easy joking and shared memories made the conversations fly around the table.
As the group posed for a photo, they laughed at being told they all looked like they were 17 again. And Cloud invited everyone to come back again next year.