The Early Years: 1920 – 1942
Mom was born January 19, 1920 in Machias, Maine, the third child and only daughter of Ezekiel and Harriet Means Johnson. She had two elder brothers: Warren, born in 1908, and Robert, born in 1918.
She was a towheaded toddler who explored the outdoors in a sweater and boots. The back of the photo reads:
Mom loved to play in her grandparent’s barn at the house at 24 Broadway. One day, she romped with her brother Bob and cousin Charlie on the upper floor where the hay was stored. While big brother Warren stacked hay, Mom got carried away, forgot about the hole to throw hay down to the horses, and fell through to the lower barn. When she told the story to me over 30 years later, she vividly recalled her surprise descent but didn’t get hurt. There was soft hay below to catch her. She remembered that Grandmother Nellie was not pleased.
Mom entered first grade at age four. I asked her why she started school so young. She told me that her brother Bob was entering school that year and her mother thought it best to send them together.
This photo of the first grade class at Hemingway School is kindly provided by Irene Vose Robinson. Mom is in the back row, 5th from the left, the little girl with the hat. She is beside Irene (on her left). Mom’s brother Bob is in the front row, 3d from the right.
Mom and Bob graduated from Machias High School together in 1936. Mom had an Italian boyfriend, Giouvanucci. Her mother did not like him much but didn’t interfere.
“He had the most gorgeous Chrysler car. We used to ride all over the place,” Mom said. From her grin, I knew the guy was as gorgeous as his car. Mom had an Italian boyfriend? In Machias? Now that was news. More investigation of old photo albums revealed that this intriguing boyfriend was the brother of Mom’s close friend Sue.
After graduation from High School, Mom got a job at the Washington County Court House in the Registry of Deeds office and lived with her mother who taught piano lessons. Soon, Mom met my father, James Eugene Rier, one day in downtown Machias. Dad said he knew she would be his wife the first time he saw her. I asked him how he knew he had found his true love.
“When I first laid eyes on her that day, I tingled. All over. All the way to my toes,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye. Dad always had that Lubec sense of humor.
In 1937, Harriet inherited the house at 24 Broadway after her mother, Nellie, died in 1935. She and my mother could not afford to heat the house, in spite of their combined incomes. They moved to Portland that year and rented rooms at the boarding house of a friend at 15 Bolton Street. Mom snagged employment as a administrative assistant for a prominent lawyer, Albert Knudsen. She loved the work. As Mom turned the pages of the old album and showed me the news articles on Knudsen, she said fondly, “He was so intelligent. A good man. I learned so much from him.”
Harriet and friends 1939. Her family, my father and his sister gathered there too.
L to R. Standing. Evelyn Rier (Dad’s sister), Lillian Johnson (wife of Warren), Dad, Harriet, Bob. Kneeling. Warren Johnson (Mom’s eldest brother) and son Billy.
For Mom, there was time for horseback riding. She became an enthusiast, joined a club in Portland, and made many friends there.
In 1939, Mom and her mother traveled to the World’s Fair in NYC. Dad was their escort. Or perhaps Harriet was Mom and Dad’s escort? Most of one family scrapbook is dedicated to the sights they saw and the memories they made there.
Dad took a photo of the two of them in front of a warped mirror…
One of the highlights was the precision formation flying exhibitions. Dad was entranced. Then and there he decided to become a pilot. That dream would be fulfilled. In 1942, he joined the US Army Air Corp, went to boot camp in Texas, was assigned to Stewart Field in Newburgh, NY, and trained as a flight instructor. Mom was still living and working in Portland. They decided to marry.