Mary Jane Turner, (Janie), is happily anticipating her next birthday. She will be 97. As she ponders years past, good times and bad, the two constants remain love for family and exciting times.
By RIMSIE McCONIGA
Mary Jane Turner, (Janie), is happily anticipating her next birthday. She will be 97.
As she ponders years past, good times and bad, the two constants remain love for family and exciting times.
“Everyone as they get older thinks back to when they were younger,” says Janie. “Some had a good home life, some not so good. I was very fortunate and was raised with grandparents, a great-grandmother, great-aunt and siblings. I was never alone.”
But times were hard when Janie was young during the Depression and World War II.
“We went through dust bowls,” says Janie. “My mother had to nail up wet sheets to help keep the dust out, there were grasshoppers everywhere eating all the flowers and shrubs. During the Depression so many people lost their jobs and businesses closed down. There were always relatives or friends every Sunday at our home. No one had air-conditioning and it was so much cooler in the country. Our home was across the street from a pasture and a big red barn. I used to go crawdad hunting. Now it’s the home of the KC Chiefs and Royals. My grandmother’s brother built our home, which was large, and my family bonded together. We had a grape orchard, fruit trees and raised food on an acre of land. My grandfather raised 95 rabbits, my grandma raised chickens so we did very nicely. My mother canned grape juice, fruit and vegetables. She worked all summer. In the summer after church my dad would either have a big watermelon or make ice cream. Times were hard but people stuck together. There was not the hate we have today.”
Although she never lacked for friends who would come over and play baseball and croquet, Janie always missed her sister who died when she was 10 years old. Janie says she had been a fragile child, weighing only 1.5 pounds when she was born.
When World War II began, Janie became engaged to a Marine. When he was stationed in Asia, she spent every weekend at his sister’s home and grew to love his family. She had gone to high school with his nephew and wife and they were very close friends.
When her fiancé was killed at Iwo Jima, her world was torn apart.
“I still love him to this day,” says Janie.
She then married a man who she admits she shouldn’t have.
After the war ended, her husband, who was in the Army Corps of Engineers, was sent to Okinawa and a year later she joined him. She sailed on the USS Pope, a troop ship, for 30 days.
“We slept like the soldiers, 10 women and children to a room, the bunks were three high and I had the bad luck of having to sleep on top,” says Janie.
She was awed by the first stop on the trip, Hawaii.
“It was so beautiful, still untouched, beautiful flowers, the air was full of the scent,” says Janie. “A Hawaiian woman came on board and they said she was Dorothy Lamour and she looked like her. Out of all the 99 women, she came to me and placed a beautiful lei around my neck and said after the ship sailed to throw the lei overboard. If it came back to shore I would return, and it did float back to shore and I did return – five times. I called my father and said ‘Dad, send me a down payment, you can buy a very large beach area on Waikiki Beach for $25,000.’ He told me to forget it and laughed. He said, ‘no one will travel that far, forget it.’ He really regretted that.”
After sailing past the war ruins of Bataan and Corregidor, they made a stop in Guam. Measles had broken out and the ship was quarantined. Janie got acquainted with a colonel’s wife on the ship and she was friends of the captain, so they got permission to go ashore. There were no buildings and they could not go in the water because it was full of stingrays.
When she arrived in Japan, she and her husband lived in a Quonset hut (a lightweight, prefabricated structure of corrugated, galvanized steel having a semicircular cross-section), directly over a cave.
“There were Japanese soldiers still in the cave,” says Janie. “We had to line the windows with razor blades. They would sneak out at night and were breaking in and raping women, murdering people and pillaging the area. I saw them many times. One night when I was alone, they were going to break in. They would throw rocks at the screens to see if there was any response. I hid with my dog behind the door with a .45 and would have shot it. Everyone had maids and every night when they would leave they had a knapsack with some of our clothes, one tried to shoot me and missed thank goodness.”
Janie and her husband next faced a typhoon. They put large steel cables across the roof of the hut, which saved it from the 185 mph winds. They housed 50 displaced people for three days. There was one small bathroom and Mary Jane nailed towels to the walls so they wouldn’t blow away when the windows blasted out.
Massive earthquakes followed the typhoon.
“It was terrible. One day my dog was taken so I took the .45 and went to the village and pointed at the people,” says Janie. “I said I would shoot, they needed to give my dog back. They understood. My dog and I marched home.”
Janie soon found out she was pregnant with, as she describes, a very large baby boy for such a small woman. After Mike was born, she would later give birth to a daughter, Suzette, and another boy, Lance.
Janie had returned home for a visit, but upon heading back to Japan, yet another potentially catastrophic adventure awaited her. She and the kids flew Pan Am. About halfway across the Pacific Ocean, three engines caught fire.
“We were at a point of no return,” says Janie. “All I could hear was ‘Mayday, Mayday.’ They threw baggage and extra gasoline overboard. Somehow they made it to Midway Island where the engines were fixed so we could continue. I was never so scared, as I had my three little children with me and I could not have saved them or myself.”
But when she arrived in Japan, there was a new challenge awaiting her.
“My husband told me he wanted me to leave so he could continue his life with other women,” she said. “I just could not believe it. The colonel called me to his office and they knew what was going on for a long time and begged me to stay. They were having trouble with lots of officers. I stuck it out for five months and it was terrible. I didn’t know what I was going to do but the military was good to me. So I came back home with no money and my dear parents had us back with them. My children really loved them. Next thing I knew, the Army released him and he was in Reno filing for divorce. I realized how stupid I had been to stay married to him. The biggest challenge was getting a divorce with three babies. Back then divorce was a sin.”
A friend who was like a second brother to Janie and who owned a motel came to see her and asked her to come work for him. “He said ‘you never leave the house or your children.’ I said I could not, and he said ‘after you feed your children and bathe and read to them, then you come to work, you will have to work late.’ So my mother and brother insisted I do that. I worked 16 years there and married my second husband during that time. We stayed married 54 years.”
Her second marriage included travels to France, Belgium, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, Alaska and Tasmania. And along with her second marriage, her greatest joys have been her children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Her second husband was very ill for many years.
“I took good care of him because that is what you do with loved ones,” says Janie. “You don’t abandon them to nursing homes.”
Janie says her challenges, in addition to earthquakes, typhoons, dust bowls and airplane engines on fire, included learning to cook on a wood stove when she was young and a battle with a bobcat that somehow got into her basement.
“I never had seen one before and I said ‘wow, what a big cat.’ If I had not had a broom in my hand I would have been a goner.”
Her lifelong joy is her family and her fondest memories are of family gatherings.
“We had great family sit-down dinners when I was young and gathered around Mother’s piano and sang many songs,” says Janie. “I can still hear dad with his lovely tenor voice. My grandfather with his baritone singing ‘Ol’ Man River.’ We played games and listened to the radio, to Red Skelton, Milton Berle and ball games. That was our life and it was good. It was not full of computers, cell phones.”
She still lives alone, drives and does her own shopping and when asked for her secret for a long, happy life, Janie says, “You have to stay active even if your health gets bad, be determined. If you don’t, you cannot enjoy the times God gives you.”
She also encourages people to exercise, get therapy and walk if possible.
“I love baseball, football and hockey,” she said. “I love painting. I’m no longer able to do square dancing, ballroom dancing and tennis. I no longer can have pets, but when my children grew up we had a German shepherd who loved neighbor children and watched over our children. He would go to the bus stop with them and meet them on the bus when they came home from school. My son, Lance gave me a little black poodle named JR and I adored him. He was so much company for me and my husband and lived to be 17.”
Janie’s life adventures have included a lot of close calls, but she has proven that she is up to whatever comes her way.
Janie’s most important advice for seniors who are approaching the big 100 is “Do not give up.”