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November 07, 2019

Recreating History with Joanie Thornburg

November 7, 2018

     Joan Marjorie Gordon, better known as Joanie to all the members of the Woman’s Club of Holtville, was born at the Methodist Hospital, then located near 20th and Harney Streets, in Omaha, Neb., on Nov. 5, 1939. It so happens her father was also born there in 1913, as well as her sister, Barbara, who was born in 1937 18 months before Joanie.


     So it can safely be said by the time Joanie arrived, it was pretty much an established family tradition where a Gordon baby was going to be born. The hospital, founded in 1891, has since expanded and promotes its 120 years of service on its website. It’s nice to see somethings don’t change.


     The city of Omaha itself is also distinctive in its own way. There must be something in the water, as the clichéd saying goes, to inspire creativity, leadership and business acumen. Omaha is the birthplace of Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Nick Nolte, Warren Buffet, and Malcolm X. At the time Joanie was born, Omaha was a bustling city famous for its stockyards, meatpacking plants and being the home of Convair, the famous aircraft manufacturing company.


     Joanie’s father, Frank Albert Gordon Jr., of Scottish, Irish, and German descent, was a very intelligent man. When he graduated from high school, he possessed the highest I.Q. of his class, and aspired to go to college. He knew, however, this would never happen. It was the time of the Great Depression, and men all over the country were walking the streets looking for a job just so they could feed their families. A college education was a pipe dream for the average Joe. Instead, he got a job transporting creamery and milk products from the farms in the area.


     It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Through his work, he met his future wife, Esther Annola Ostrus, an enterprising and very good-looking young lady of Norwegian descent. She was the daughter of one of the creamery farm owners in the small farming community of Norway Center, Iowa, approximately one hour from Omaha.


     They were married on the family farm in 1937. Little did they know at the time that they would be starting another family tradition. At her wedding, Esther wore the wedding dress of grandmother Helga Rice. When Joanie’s sister Barbara was married, she also had the privilege of wearing it. The last person to wear it, so far, has been Joanie’s daughter, Jo Allen. There have been a few alterations and modifications along the way as it is handed down from one generation to the next, but the dress is still clearly distinctively recognizable.


     In 1941, when Joanie was two, and shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, her father accepted a position at Convair, located on Lindberg Field in San Diego. The company was originally founded by Ruben H. Fleet in 1923 and underwent several name changes and consolidations throughout its history. By the time Joanie’s father arrived, it was the largest aircraft manufacturing plant in the United States.


     Her father worked in the engineering department as a trouble-shooter. To her father’s credit, at Convair he managed to climb to the tenth position from the top, an unheard of occurrence for a man without a college education.


     Her mother and the girls made the move about a year later. Of course, at two years old, Joanie remembers nothing of this, but relies heavily on family stories to recreate her history. But by the time she was four years old, clear memories start to develop. She remembers they were living in Linda Vista, a neighborhood in San Diego between Mission Valley and Clairemont Mesa.


     They occupied one of the many homes built for aircraft workers. These homes were built by the government, as a wartime project. According to a June 6, 2009, article on the historic role of Linda Vista, printed in the San Diego Union Tribune, “Three thousand homes were built in just 159 days.” Construction projects flourished in an effort to accommodate all the new people coming in. Which brings to mind Plato’s observation: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” It is worth mentioning, as a historical point, that six years hence, the University of San Diego began construction in nearby Alcala Park.


     Joanie remembers some of the hardships of the war. Aluminum foil was saved and reused. The fat off of meat was saved. Gas was rationed. She has an image of standing in line with her mother at Linda Vista Mart #1 waiting to purchase nylons — with a ration coupon.


     Then, one of Joanie’s legs was shorter than the other. She needed a special shoe for the short leg in order to build it up. This was also purchased with ration coupons.


     For younger people unfamiliar with the notion of a ration coupon, a good explanation can be found on the National WWII Museum website: “Every American was issued a series of ration books during the war. The ration books contained removable stamps for certain rationed items, like sugar, meat, cooking oil, and canned goods. A person could not buy a rationed item without also giving the grocer the right stamp.”


     It was certainly a restrictive policy, but the war effort and national security took precedence.


     But the hardships of the war weren’t the only adversities the Gordon family was to bear. When Joanie was in fourth grade, she was diagnosed with rheumatic fever, which eventually led to complications. Antibiotics were unheard of. Prolonged bed rest was prescribed. For a child who couldn’t stay still, this was like death itself.


     Part II of Joanie Thornburg’s story will be published in next week’s Holtville Tribune.


     Marcia Jennings is a member of the Holtville Woman’s Club.

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