"The smart-est thing I ever did was join up," declares Fran McKeon. What she joined was the military service in 1943. She was 22.
It was not a difficult decision in what was a very dark time for America during World War II. Saluting the flag became part of her daily routine during the service, but her position on doing so changed dramatically during years of political activism since the 1960s. Now she will not salute or display the flag.
Things were different during World War II. Her brother had been drafted, but even if he hadn't, Fran is sure he would have joined anyway. Her brother was in the South Pacific by late '42 and that proved to be a boon as well as a burden.
"He wrote from Australia that he beat some Aussies (gambling) out of 300 pounds on Christmas Day (1942)," she says. "He sent the money home and Mom bought a house."
McKeon remembers with a smile what it was like for a single girl in San Francisco during the war, and how later, guilt about all that fun would be one of the motivating factors to lead her into uniform.
"We got to date a lot of Navy officers. I stayed at the Sir Francis Drake (hotel). I felt so much guilt for having fun while so many kids were
dying," she says. "Hitler was winning and running Europe. The (Japanese) were running Asia."
From that guilt and respect for her brother's service, Fran joined the Women's Army Corps, known at the time by its acronym, the WACs.
During basic training in Arkansas, a "whole new world opened up."
"I saw chiggers for the first time," she recalls. That small bloodsucking pest made life miserable. "They were everywhere. You couldn't avoid them. I was scratching all the time."
But she also saw a wonder: her first fireflies.
There was an incident during basic that still troubles her.
"Our drill sergeant was lesbian," she says. "She called herself Wally. She did get in bed with one young recruit who had lied about her age to get in the service.
"We turned her in to the commanding officer and I'm ashamed of myself for being part of that now."
McKeon says the sergeant was transferred eventually but not court-martialed.
After basic, McKeon went to Officer Candidate School.
She went to Des Moines, Iowa, but she washed out of OCS. She remembers why.
"They asked about my little brother and I choked up. I cried," she says. "They disqualified me. All of the washouts got shipped to (the base in) Blythe."
McKeon didn't hang on to many keepsakes from the war or her service. One of the few pictures she has is from her time in OCS. McKeon points at herself in the 1943 photograph.
"We were all so proper then. I'm the only one holding a cigarette."
In California, McKeon would marry an officer, but the union was short-lived. "He wasn't suitable for me or me for him."
Secretary to a general
She transferred to El Paso, Texas, where she became a general's secretary. She was part of the Army Air Corps, forerunner of the Air Force. "I was one of the few people who could type. It was the best job I ever had."
Working for the general, McKeon didn't pull any kitchen or latrine duty. "Newton Longfellow. That was the general. He had also been in the Lafayette Escadrille (a famed World War I flying unit)."
She worked in that job from December 1943 until the war was over. The day the war ended was one of the most memorable of her life.
"It was September 2, 1945," McKeon says. "I was still on the base. Many had already gone home for the day. The (Japanese) had formally surrendered and that meant the war was over.
"They played "Retreat" and lowered the flag. I was at attention. Sweat was pouring down my chest. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. After 3½ years, everyone was coming home."
The following year she would be out of the service and marry her second husband, John McKeon. They would have three daughters before divorcing 20 years later. She has seven grandchildren.
Her love for her country runs as deep as her convictions now against flag-waving.
"America is wheat fields, kindness to strangers, feeding the homeless, blue skies and purple mountains. It's like the song 'America the Beautiful.' It's boys going to war and war protests."
Above all, McKeon says, America is about those who "keep fighting to right wrongs." One of the people she most ad- mires is Jane Fonda, who paid a "terrible price for her convictions." Fonda's biography is one of the few books she has kept through the years.
Her aversion to the flag came with the Vietnam War.
"I hated that war and did everything in my power to end it. The flag always seemed to go with support for the war. That goes for the war today, too."
McKeon marched for farmworkers and civil rights as well as with war protesters.
Today her politics can turn on small offenses.
"I wanted to vote for (Democrat Bill) Richardson but I saw his flag pin (in his lapel) and I can't now," she says. "I have to talk to my neighbor about him flying the flag, too. To me, the flag means you support the war."
Bee staff writer Roger W. Hoskins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. or 578-2311.