It's Half-full After All

The Texas Story Project.

In today's world, our visions are often clouded from the minor inconveniences of modern life. We complain about low battery percentages, scarce parking spots, and the number of likes that we get on our Instagram posts. We are living privileged lives that we often take for granted. I had the pleasure of interviewing Frances Ott Allen, a woman who found appreciation in a setting where others wouldn't. Frances lived formative years of her childhood in an internment camp located in Crystal City, Texas. Most of us might have dwelled on the barbed wire fence that penned her in, the overcrowding, or the cramped quarters. However, there is one thing about Frances that must be acknowledged before the story goes on any further: she was happy. After several years of not seeing her father, Frances got the opportunity to reunite with her family at the camp. For this reason, she was content.

On her ninth birthday, Frances and her parents arrived at the Crystal City for indefinite internment at the camp. It was during World War II and her father had been detained on Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, 1942, over a year before. At first Frances and her mother had been able to visit him, but then she got scarlet fever so she and her mother were quarantined. By the time she was well enough to go see him, he had been transferred to a camp in North Dakota. For over a year and a half, the young girl missed her father. But on October 21, 1943, they were reunited. Detained, yes, but together at last.

Frances described her daily life, including her mother's cooking. Her family ate more fish than customary in their household while at the camp due to the Japanese preference for seafood, although the camp separated the Italians, Germans, and Japanese. The children amongst the camp created friendships and played as any other child would. Frances recalls blowing bubbles with a close friend and explains how they would collect soap scraps and water, then use a handmade straw made of castor bean pods as a wand. They would play catch with paper balls, and Frances even learned how to embroider, thanks to her mom. She collected matchboxes to store seeds from the flowers her mother planted to make detention feel homier. Frances also learned the concept of money because her family would play monopoly at the camp.

Considering the amount of time that the Otts spent in confinement, many holidays passed as well. Frances recapped how Christmas played out in the camp. The internees were able to order from Sears like other families. They also decorated their Christmas tree however, they made do with red and white cellophane ribbon and topped their tree with a star made out of cardboard covered with the shiny tinfoil like you get off of chocolate. Frances remembers her father giving her a dollar to go to the annual Christmas sale located in their mess hall to buy her mother a gift. A lot of the toys sent to the camp were made by prisoners of war imprisoned at the camp in Huntsville, Texas. Frances remembered fondly her second Christmas at the camp when she received a beautifully-crafted dollhouse made by one of the prisoners. Only years later when they were free, did Frances discover the design that the prisoner had modeled her dollhouse after. When she went to visit her grandmother in Germany in 1952 for the first time, she noticed a strong sense of familiarity. The iron stove and the black sink of her grandmother's home had an uncanny resemblance to her childhood dollhouse. This is when Frances realized that the unknown soldier who crafted her dollhouse must have been recreating his home prior to war and imprisonment.

The camp influenced Frances in several ways. In fact, it led to her career. Before the camp, she did not speak German, but at the camp her classes were all taught in German. In fact, she couldn’t attend third grade because she didn’t know German, so she had to repeat second grade. Her school was taught by internees and the quality of instruction was so good that when she returned to public school in Chicago, she was at the top of her class in mathematics, which had been her least favorite subject.

Frances also become fluent in German in the Crystal City Camp. They gave her a primer from the Sons of Hermann. It had been stamped approved so that It could come into the camp. She didn’t learn German like in college. She learned it like a child who starts out easy and learns to talk. In 3rd and 4th grades, her teacher went through a piece in class. They would read each piece aloud and things would be pointed out in German. Then they would go home and would be expected to study it. They would learn how to pronounce the words. At home, they were also expected to learn how to spell every word and which ones were capitalized. The next morning in school, the teachers would dictate to them the new piece to make sure they’d learned it. Only German was spoken in her school. She remembers that in her 4th grade class, half the kids spoke Spanish as native language because they had been forced out of Latin American countries to internment in Crystal City, Texas.

In college, Frances majored in German, went on to get her graduate degree in library science, and was hired as an archivist for the German collection. Had it not have been for the Crystal City internment camp, Frances probably would have never gone onto major in German as an undergraduate and explore so deeply her cultural heritage. She also began to track down the historical record of her family’s detention. After retirement, Frances began to research what happened to her family, including traveling to the national archives. Her hope is that everyone will learn this history.

Hardships did occur. Frances remembers one repatriation where internees, including children, were held in a smaller fenced-in area after they had been checked in to leave the camp. A toddler from a large South American family went missing and a frantic search ensued. Space in the camp was limited. At maximum occupation, the small camp housed over 3,000 internees. Originally, Frances’ family occupied a single room, 10’x 40’. Later, they were upgraded to a room and a half. The weather, likewise, posed challenges. This Chicago native remembers it as always hot in South Texas. She used to get nosebleeds from the heat. They also endured sandstorms. Even in the house, she recalls feeling the grit of sand in her mouth. When it rained, the ground got very muddy. Frances remembers walking to the latrine to take a shower or go to the toilet and sinking down in the mud, so she put her shoes inside her father’s shoes. Her father was working at the quarry so he and other men built a sidewalk in the camp to help people move safely around the camp. His quarry job, though poorly paid, did give her family a chance to beautify their living quarters. He would go out with the truck to the quarry in the morning and at end of day when they had a truckload, her father would throw a branch or two on top of the truck. He used this wood to build a rustic porch. Her mother planted morning glories to twine up the porch posts to give some shade.

In general, plants around the camp cheered Frances. She remembers that there was an area with orange trees, fenced off from the camp. The grove had a bee hive so she went to visit the beehive from school. When the trees bloomed, Frances would walk by to smell the blossoms. The camp once offered people to pick fruit for ten cents an hour because frost was coming, so she and her father went. They also gave her some oranges. Nature offered solace to this little girl, but there were also bugs: roaches, tarantulas, black widow spiders, and blister bugs. Once, her mother fell ill from blood poisoning due to a blister bug bite and had to be hospitalized. Frances recalls her mother’s hospitalization witih good humor because it meant that her father cooked supper that week—the same dish every night!

Internment could have embittered Frances. She could have seen it as a part of her childhood that she wanted to have erased and never spoken of again, but she chose to speak out, and she chose to be happy no matter what. By sharing her story, we all learn this history and we feel inspired by Frances’ fortitude. Too often we think that our various misfortunes are world-ending and we lose sight of the gift that life is. I personally believe that we can all learn a lesson from how Frances chose to see the world.

My name is Kayla Sultemeier. I am a sophomore at St. Mary's University, located in San Antonio, TX, pursuing a BA in political science. After completing undergraduate, I plan on going to law school with a focus in corporate law. On campus I am a sister of Alpha Phi Fraternity, a member of Alpha Delta Pre-law Fraternity, and I am also a peer minister with University Ministry.

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