2014-10-10 / Front Page

Everyday Maine: Rachel Deans, part I

‘It was like being thrown into the wolves’ den’
By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


Rachel Deans, 93, poses in the kitchen of her Washington Avenue home in South Portland with the ceremonial shovel used to break ground in 2006 on Mercy Hospital’s new Fore River campus. Deans, who worked as a nurse for 42 years, was also on hand in 1943 for the opening of Mercy’s State Street facility. (Duke Harrington photo) Rachel Deans, 93, poses in the kitchen of her Washington Avenue home in South Portland with the ceremonial shovel used to break ground in 2006 on Mercy Hospital’s new Fore River campus. Deans, who worked as a nurse for 42 years, was also on hand in 1943 for the opening of Mercy’s State Street facility. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Rachel Deans, 93, of South Portland, has led an extraordinary life. As a nurse for more than 40 years, first at Maine Medical Center back when it was known as Maine General Hospital, and later at Mercy Hospital, Deans touched hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives.

But Deans also had at least one brush with history. On July 11, 1944, just one year out of nursing school, Deans was the nurse in charge of Maine General’s accident ward when a Douglas A-26 Invader crashed into a Brick Hill trailer park. As such, she has a unique perspective on Maine’s greatest aviation accident, an event that has come to be known as the Long Creek Air Tragedy.


South Portland resident Rachel Deans, originally from Waterford and a 1939 graduate of Bridgton Academy, poses on her entry into nursing school at Maine Medical Center, then known as Maine General Hospital. The black shoes and stockings signify her status as a student, prior to earning her “white cap.” (Courtesy photo) South Portland resident Rachel Deans, originally from Waterford and a 1939 graduate of Bridgton Academy, poses on her entry into nursing school at Maine Medical Center, then known as Maine General Hospital. The black shoes and stockings signify her status as a student, prior to earning her “white cap.” (Courtesy photo) In an interview conducted Oct. 3 at her Washington Avenue home, Deans took time to share her story.

Q: When and where were you born?

A: I was born in November 1920 in Waterford, Maine, in a little farmhouse up on a hill right off Route 35.

Q: What was Waterford like when you were a young girl?

A: It was a very quiet, quaint little village. We had a post office and that was all. The church was the social life of the village. They had what is called the Waterford Inn now, but it was a hotel then. Before my time it was quite a thriving place, where the stagecoach came through. I’m after stagecoaches, but I’m still from horse and buggy days.

Q: So, there were no cars in Waterford at the time?

A: There were very few, and none in the wintertime. I think I was maybe 6 or 7 before my father had an automobile. But even then he put it up in the winter. You had to use a horse and sleigh to get around, because the roads were not plowed then, they were rolled. They did not start plowing the roads until the 1930s.

Q: What does it mean, to “roll” the road?

A: My father had two or three pair of oxen that he drove for the town and they would drag a big, heavy roller behind them. It was made of wood, like a giant rolling pin. It would pack the snow down tight into a sheet of ice that the sleighs could go over. Of course, nothing was paved then. It was all dirt roads. So, that made for a long mud season in the springtime, with all that ice melting in the road.

Q: What was your family like?

Q: What was your family like?

A: I had two older bothers, an older sister, and a twin brother. There were five of us. My father was a farmer and we lived off the land. It was Depression time. But we didn’t realize we were poor because everybody was the same way we were. We grew our own crops and always had plenty to eat. We had beef and pork. It was a good life.

Q: What was life like on the farm?

A: When you live on a farm, there’s always chores to do, especially in the garden. That was a team effort. My father raised corn for the corn factory, and beans to can, and cucumbers. So, there was quite a lot of activity in the summertime besides our own garden. And, you didn’t let anything go to waste. You preserved everything. We picked strawberries and blueberries and blackberries, and mother canned. We didn’t have any freezers then. We didn’t have any electricity. We had an icehouse and in the wintertime they’d cut ice from Keoka Lake — it was called Tom Pond then — and they’d store it in the icehouse with sawdust all around it and it would last through the summer. My sister did a lot of the cooking and I was the helper. There was always cleaning up and prepping to do. Mother made butter and cheese and I took my turn churning to make the butter. Yes, there was always something for a little kid to do.

Q: What did you do for fun as a little girl?

A: We didn’t have play dates in those days. Our nearest neighbor was a mile away. But we played ball, played sports, climbed trees. There’s all kinds of things to do in the country.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: I went to a little one-room schoolhouse out on Plummer Hill. It had all eight grades in one room. Probably there were 15 or 16 children, with only one or two in any one grade. My grade was the biggest. There were four in our grade, because there was my brother and I, and then two other boys.

Q: Where did you go to high school?

A: I went to Bridgton Academy. We didn’t have a high school in Waterford, so you could go to Norway High, or any school around in the region and the town paid the tuition. We went to Bridgton Academy because it was the nearest to us. I just went to my 75th class reunion. I think there were 59 in our class. There are only three of us left.

Q: What was Bridgton Academy like back then?

A: It was a private school then, too. They had two dormitories and P.G. (post-graduate) boys from around New England and Maine came to be finished up, to get some credits so they could qualify to get into college. They made up the bulk of the school. In my class there was 11 local kids. The rest was all P.G. boys. But it was a progressive school. We knew the P.G. boys were more affluent than we were, but it was a level playing field. There was no class distinction at all. We all meshed together as one. It was great. I was on the field hockey team and the basketball team.

Q: So, were you pretty athletic then?

A: Well, when you only have about 35 kids, there isn’t much competition, really. But it was a big deal. I graduated in 1939 and my last three years the school had a bus. We came down and played Waynflete and Deering High in field hockey. And in basketball we played South Portland. That was a big experience for us. But things have changed a lot. We played two-court basketball. Nowadays, they go all over the field.

Q: What did you do after graduation?

A: I came down to Portland for what they called “in training” to be a nurse at Maine General, which is now Maine Medical Center. In 1951 Maine General merged with the Maine Eye and Ear Infirmary and the Children’s Hospital to become the Medical Center, but I was with Maine General, in the old part of the building, before all the other floors and wings were added. My schooling lasted three years and I was an R.N. (registered nurse) after I took my state boards.

Q: What was in like to be “in training?”

A: For nursing school there was a three-month probationary period. During that time we had to go in the back door, we couldn’t go in the front door of the hospital. Then we got our nurse’s caps and we worked eight hours a day for the hospital. It was on-the-job training. It was a 48-hour week, but there was no time clock or anything. You worked until your work was done. And there was no overtime. You stayed and did what you were supposed to do. Our classes were extra, on our own time. And you studied on your own time. It was very disciplined.

Q: Why did you want to become a nurse?

A: There was nothing else I wanted to do. I certainly didn’t want to become a schoolteacher. I didn’t want to be a clerk in a store or a secretary. I didn’t want to be domestic help. There was nothing else I wanted to do. I wanted to be a nurse and help people. That was my nature is all. I took the exam to qualify and I got in.

Q: Where did you live while you were in training?

A: I lived in Vaughn Hall first. That building is Mcgeachey Hall (Mental Health Center) now. It was a big three-story apartment house that they made into a dormitory. We all had individual rooms. But they were just rooms. We shared bathrooms, one at the end of each hallway, and went over to the hospital for our meals. We had to be in at 10 o’clock every night. The house mother would come around checking on you. Then I lived in Alida Lease. That was the name of an old nurse and they named the nurse’s home that was behind the hospital for her. The nurses and some of the graduate nurses lived there. It’s been torn down now. I think it was probably where the emergency room is now.

Q: As a farm girl from Waterford, what did you think of Portland the first time you saw it?

A: Oh, my goodness, it was a whole new culture. I had been to Portland a few times, but coming down to live, it was kind of like being thrown into the wolves’ den, really. But everybody else was in the same boat. In my class they came from Millinocket and Milo, from Downeast, from Brooklyn and Columbia Falls. Some of the girls were from Portland, but most of them were all from little farm towns like mine. And we all had to live in the nurses’ residence. One of my classmates lived in the Chadwick apartments right beside Vaughn Hall, and she also had to move into the nurses’ residence. And she couldn’t go home either. We started in May and were not allowed our first overnight until August.

Q: How were nurses treated in those days?

A: We were treated well. We had room and board. And they furnished our uniforms. There was discipline, but we were treated with respect, too.

Q: You would have been in school at the start of World War II. Do you remember what you were doing when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred?

A: My roommate and I were working 3 to 11 on the children’s ward. The news of Pearl Harbor came in and we were all upset about it. We were just petrified. There were no radios in the hospital, but my friend, she had a little radio. As nurses, we wore capes then and so we tucked that radio under our capes and snuck it into the hospital. We plugged it in and turned it on real low, while one of us watched to make sure no one was coming. We got reports of what was happening all evening long. And we got away with it. We felt pretty proud of ourselves for keeping up on current events.

Q: How did the nurses feel about America’s entry into the war?

A: We didn’t know much about the war. You’d go to the movies and you’d get those news clips, and you’d see the big tanks and things, but there wasn’t very much in the newspapers about it. Communication was entirely different in the world during World War II. The news took a long time to get here.

Q: What was Portland like during the war?

A: There was a blackout. The whole city was in darkness at night. It was all black, no streetlights, no nothing, all during the war. And you’d go up onto the Eastern Promenade and look over toward South Portland and it was just like a huge parking lot for ships. You know how you go by the Maine Mall and you see all those automobiles? Well, that’s what the harbor looked like with all those big gray ships out there. The whole place was alive with activity.

Q: What did you do for fun in those days?

A: When I was a student nurse, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. If you’re working eight hours, plus classes, plus studying, and you have to be in at 10 o’clock at night, and you have to be up at 6 in the morning, you make your own good time. But on our days off, we’d go to the beach, or the movies, or the library. Then, in ’42, the military started coming in. And so, then there was a lot of activity (laughs). I went to the U.S.O., which was down where the Children’s Museum is now on Free Street, and made sandwiches and things. They had music and dancing. I married a sailor, Edwin Deans. He was from North Carolina and was assigned to the fuel deport out on Long Island, but he ended up being a Mainer.

Q: How did you meet?

A: One of his buddies was marrying a friend of mine. I met him at the wedding and things followed through from there. We met in October of 1943 and we were married in December of 1944.

Q: How did you know he was the one?

A: He was the only one that came back (laughs). There were plenty there to pick from, but he was the only one brave enough for me.

Q: What did you do after you graduated?

A: I had a job in the accident ward; $18.90 was my first paycheck. That was for 48 hours. But, you figure, I was still getting my room and board. It was a good job. I was charge nurse of the accident ward when the plane went into the trailer park out here in Redbank. I was 24 at the time. Just a young pup.

Q: How did you get to be in charge of the ward at such an early age?

A: You figure, it was wartime. I was a registered nurse and I had been there a year. I wasn’t in charge when I first went there. I was with another woman, but her husband was in the military and he was transferred. So, I fell into the job of being in charge.

Q: How did you get the job in the accident ward?

A: I never really applied for the job. When I was graduating in 1943 the superintendent of the nurses’ school called me in and asked me what my plans were. I said I’d like to stay on and work at the hospital if there was a job for me. She said, “Would you like to work in the accident ward?” And I said, “Yes.” That was the contract right there. There was no interviewing. There was no nothing.

Q: What was the accident ward like?

A: People think of it like the big emergency room they have now, but we had eight, maybe 10 beds in two rooms. Just the trauma came in there. It wasn’t for treating people. And we didn’t have any ambulance service then. It was the policemen that were the ambulance. They’re the ones who brought the people in from an accident scene. Of course, they hadn’t any training to take care of people. They just brought ‘em in.

To be continued . . .

Next Week: A firsthand account of the Long Creek Air Tragedy as they “bring ‘em in by the dozens.”

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