Times Past

Dan Krieger: Hardship put brothers in orphanage in 1930s

‘Today, it is hard for me to imagine 14 boys taking turns bathing in one tub in one day. When one finished he would call another to take his turn, and so on. Of course, we had to remove our own dirt rings!”

Ernie Cementina is well known to many San Luis Obispans. He served as dean of instruction at Cuesta College from 1966 to 1992, helping to found the college’s nursing program.

Today, among other activities, Cementina is a docent, giving tours to fourth-graders and tourists at Mission San Luis Obispo.

Few of us knew that Cementina spent 12 years in the Deaconess Children’s Home in Everett, Wash.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Cementina and his younger brother, Al, experienced what many children only have nightmares about.

Their desperate mother led them up the concrete stairway into a dimly lit reception area.

Cementina writes that “the trauma of that day ... still lingers in my memory.”

His mother was the daughter of Christian missionaries in China. While returning to America, she met a Filipino musician on the ocean liner.

There was a separation, and, as with many families in the Depression, the orphanage was a home of last resort for the boys.

The home was a large, two-story brick building with a common administrative area and six “apartments” to house children. Each apartment had its own basement. There were separate apartments for boys and girls, who were kept as separate as possible for all activities.

Eva Burch was the superintendent. Her living quarters included a living room, where the staff could spend time after meals listening to the radio.

The same room was the venue for a more somber assembly. Cementina writes: “I recall being summoned to this room to appear before what I call the ‘Tribunal.’ This was usually done for serious offenses or important announcements relating to one’s welfare.”

The dining room for each apartment seated 14 at a large table. There were assigned chairs.

“After washing up for each meal, we were required to sit ... until the housemother gave us permission to move our chairs to the table. I can still hear the chairs dragging along the floor.”

The Deaconess Home was unlike Oliver Twist’s orphanage in that the children always had enough to eat. Food was brought in by girls working in the main kitchen.

“We were required to eat everything put on our plates whether we liked it or not ... Al and I like almost everything ... except for breakfast ... Weekdays, we were always served ... cornmeal mush (that) was particularly nauseating to us. It usually had lumps in it. We were not allowed to eat anything else until we finished our mush.

“If we didn’t eat it the first day, it was put into the pantry, and we had the pleasure of eating it for breakfast the next day. By that time the milk had curdled and turned sour, which made it much worse. We would just sit there, looking at the terrible stuff ... I still gag thinking about it.

“After a couple of days, just looking at the mush must have made the housemother sick as well. It was thrown in the garbage where it should have gone in the first place.”

Weekend breakfasts were different.

“For breakfast on Saturdays we usually had pancakes ... Sunday dinner was always our favorite because we usually had roast beef and oven-browned potatoes. We called them ‘Sunday spuds.’”

There was KP, often meted out as a punishment. “The kitchen crew usually consisted of four boys, one washing, one rinsing, a ‘drainer’ who took the dishes from the hot water, usually using a big spoon so it wouldn’t scald his hands, and a drier.”

One day, a substitute housemother told Cementina to “do the dishes by myself. When I asked what I did to be punished, she replied, “I don’t know, but you must have done something.”

Next Week: Hardships and Joys at the Deaconess Home.

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