|John and DeDe Knox, 1996|
On a good day I like to compare what I do to the work of the great oral historian Studs Terkel. On a bad day ... well ... I imagine maybe even Studs Terkel pushed the wrong button on the tape recorder once or twice.
I don't know what went wrong when I interviewed John and DeDe Knox at John Knox Village -- no relation to the Johh Knox I was interviewing -- in Pompano Beach, Fla., in February of 2010. I'd switched to using a digital tape recorder a few months earlier, but it had never failed me. When I transferred the file to my computer, I was unable to open it. I kept getting a "codec error."
A year and a half later, I decided to try again. This time I visited a sound editing forum and someone suggested I download a certain type of media player and voila! It opened the file.
John and DeDe Knox are in the opening scene of "Pride of the Nation," the great documentary by the Dzenowagis family about the Kassel Mission, and theirs is a love story reminiscent of Harold Russell (Homer) and Cathy O'Donnell (Wilma) in "The Best Years of Our Lives."
John Knox, the tail gunner on Jim Baynham's crew, passed away on July 22 of this year. He and DeDe were married 67 years. Here is the first part of my interview with John and DeDe, conducted in 2010:
Aaron Elson: John and DeDe Knox. The DeDe, is that for Denise?
DeDe Knox: Cecilia
Aaron Elson: How did Cecilia become DeDe?
DeDe Knox: I had a brother and sister who were very young, and I was operated on, I had an ear operation, and the doctor said I’m going to bring an anesthesiologist and a nurse and I’m going to do the operation right here at your home. And my brother and sister, they were downstairs at the gate, and I called down to them, and they called back up, “DeDe.” And that stuck.
John Knox: Cecilia is kind of a mouthful.
DeDe Knox: I went through grade school, high school and college as DeDe. Now there are only two people who used to call me Cecilia, and they’re both dead. I’m known as DeDe.
John Knox: And they call me Jack because we live in John Knox Village.
Aaron Elson: Where did you say you were born?
DeDe Knox: Columbus, Ohio.
Aaron Elson: And you’re from Ohio, too?
John Knox: We met in high school.
DeDe Knox: High school sweethearts.
John Knox: South High School in Columbus. Columbus is a big city. South High School. North High School. East High School.
DeDe Knox: And we’ve been married 63 years.
John Knox: Sixty five at the end of this year.
Aaron Elson: Was Columbus a good place to grow up?
John Knox: I think it was.
DeDe Knox: Average people.
John Knox: It was the capital of Ohio. Cincinnati and Cleveland are much larger, but it was a pretty good size city, probably 2 million counting the suburbs. It was a nice, laid back town.
Aaron Elson: And were your parents affected by the Depression?
DeDe Knox: Yes, slightly.
John Knox: Yours. Your dad had a job.
DeDe Knox: My dad had a job.
John Knox: My parents had nothing. We had nothing. We had to move in with my grandma and my two uncles. We lived with them about six years. My brother and I slept in an attic. We had nothing. As soon as I was old enough to get a paper route I got a paper route. But we were really strapped. I remember we didn’t have meat on the table. And my grandma was awful good at putting things together with no meat.
Aaron Elson: What sort of things would she make?
John Knox: German dishes. She did a lot of chicken, that must have been the cheapest thing. But she made a lot of mush, and noodles and things like that. When she made noodles she’d take the whites of the eggs and make angel food cake and the yolk and make noodles, and we had just basic meals. We always had something on the table. She didn’t have a refrigerator yet, they were just coming out, in the winter she had a box hanging out the window to keep everything cold. In the summer you had the ice man come, put the ice in the ice box.
My mother did have a car. My dad wouldn’t drive. My grandfather was a tool and die maker, and he worked through the Depression. But we rented. We never bought a house until 1941, until I was out of high school, and that was because my grandfather died and left my mother and father enough money to buy a home. But your father had a house, way back. It was a modest house, a house with what, six people?
DeDe Knox: We lived close to school, walking distance to the Catholic school.
John Knox: I remember the Depression. Walking to school in the snow and ice, nobody cared.
DeDe Knox: We met in French class in high school.
Aaron Elson: What did you do for fun during the Depression?
John Knox: We didn’t do much. We made our own kites out of newspaper and sticks. Somebody in the neighborhood had a Monopoly set, and we made a board out of cardboard and put in all the things, and made paper money, and made the cards out of cardboard, and copied this Monopoly set. We couldn’t afford to buy one. That’s how poor we were. When I was about ten years old I wanted a bicycle for Christmas. I got a used bicycle my uncles paid about five dollars for, and painted it up and fixed it up. I was disappointed. It wasn’t a very good bicycle. And then we got a paper route. My brother was a little older and we bought a couple of wood saws, a lathe, and a circular saw. We made all kinds of things out of wood, got to be real good at that. But we put a basket up on a telephone pole, shot baskets. A rim of a bushel basket, something like that. We improvised a lot of things. Oh, I remember once in a while saying “Mommy, I have nothing to do,” but I had a brother and sister older than me, and DeDe, you tell him what you did, you tap danced and things like that.
DeDe Knox: I took tap dancing lessons and I took mandolin lessons, and my sister played the banjo. They had a fair in the summer and we’d go and play, and dance. I went to a shelter house in the South End and taught the kids there to tap dance after school.
Aaron Elson: A shelter house?
DeDe Knox: It was for poor people, like a settlement. They asked me to go down and do that, and it was kind of fun. In high school my sister played bass fiddle and after she was ready to graduate, I was going to come in the very next year, so the orchestra leader came to our home and asked my parents, would they send me to take bass viol lessons at the university during the summer so I could play in the orchestra when I started the ninth grade. They said sure, so I learned to play the bass fiddle and I played in a concert orchestra and the symphony orchestra, and the jazz band. It was kind of fun. I played for four years then.
Aaron Elson: Were you in the same class, or how did you meet in school?
John Knox: In French class. I was a year older than her, so I learned English and math and all those subjects, but French was an elective. I think I finished two years of Latin, then I switched to French, and somehow that put me in her French class, that was my junior year. At that time I was setting pins in a bowling alley, and that’s how I made my money to take her out on a date. That was hard work. A lot of nights I’d set two hours together, and boy, as little as I was, I was real good at it. The boss liked me. I think I got three cents a line. At the end of the night I’d make a dollar, a dollar ten or something like that. But that would go a long ways. A downtown movie, a brand new movie like “Gone With the Wind” was a quarter I think. We had a good time. I’d even put a quarter’s worth of gas in the car.
Aaron Elson: What kind of car did your mother have?
John Knox: When I first met DeDe she had a ’35 Ford, and then about a year later, that would have been in 1940, she got a brand new ’41 Ford. And boy, then I’d take her out in that black Ford with the whitewall tires. We’d just come out of the Depression, and I was starting to live after being so damn poor. Boy I loved that.
(to be continued)