Chapter 19: The War
I heard rumors of wars, of course, but they were taking place in the unreal world of newspapers and movie newsreels which preceded the feature attraction. I wasn’t even sure what a war was. I was four or five when I learned from a movie newsreel that Italy was at war with Abyssinia. I hoped the Abyssinians would win because the Abyssinians I saw in the newsreels carried bows and spears and had bare feet. They reminded me of Indians, and I wanted to be an Indian when I grew up.
One afternoon I was ordered to take a nap. Lying on my bed in my stiflingly hot bedroom, I realized, apropos of nothing, there was a war going on in Spain. I didn’t know anything about it or have any reason to care about it. There was something uncanny about that moment—which is why I remember it.
I didn’t ask my parents about that war or any other war because I knew what they would say: “It’s none of our business. Those people over there are always going to war. If they want to start killing each other again, let them have at it.”
In 1939 when I was eight, the giant Soviet Union (sometimes confusingly referred to as “Russia” or “the Communists”) invaded little Finland. I saw newsreel pictures of Finnish ski troops in white suits advancing through a forest and decided the Russians (Communists? Soviets?) were bad; the Finns, good.
Mother’s “problem,” was still with her in 1940, but she had recovered to the point where she thought she deserved a treat. Leaving me, my sister, and our little brother with Gram, she and Dad set off for the New York World’s Fair. I don’t think they told anyone where they were going. There are no photographs of that trip. Every other place she ever visited is photographed to a fare-thee-well but not the Fair. I wouldn’t have known they’d even gone to see it if I hadn’t happened to turn over a wastebasket at her house some 50 years later and learned from the label on the bottom that it was an item featured at “The House of Good Taste” at the New York World’s Fair.
“Mother, did you and Dad go to the World’s Fair?”
And, perhaps without thinking, she replied, “Oh, yes, we were there.”
“Tell me about it. What did you see?”
“Oh, we drove up and down Fifth Avenue a couple of times.”
Then she said she hoped I could stay for dinner and walked from the room.
The most intriguing secrets are those there doesn’t seem to be any reason to keep. Maybe she and Herb thought her doctor would disapprove of the trip. Maybe they just enjoyed the idea of sneaking off by themselves. It would have been grueling for Herb. He couldn’t have had more than two weeks’ vacation, and he must have spent at least half that time driving to New York and then back home. However, he did have a new car, a Pontiac.
I’m sure they didn’t drive halfway across the continent just to have a good time. For them that trip was a kind of pilgrimage. They went to the Fair as true believers in Tomorrow and in Progress. They had grown up “going outside” and knew what it was like to cross streets dotted with horse plop that was clouded by flies. Their fevers had been treated with mustard plasters; Herb’s wounds, with tobacco juice or skunk oil. They had pumped water from a cistern into the kitchen sink. Now those things were “old hat.” The 1939-1940 World’s Fair was the first international exposition to be based on the future, which was right up my parents’ alley. If they told me once, they told me a thousand times, “The future is what counts, son.”
The American poet William Carlos Williams was famous in literary circles for proclaiming that modern poems should contain “No ideas but in things!” What he meant was that poets should not write about ideas in airy abstract language. They should turn specific, visible things—red wheelbarrows or asphodels—into symbols that would communicate meanings that went beyond the definitions found in dictionaries. My parents knew nothing of Williams and would have dismissed his literary advice as gobbledygook, but for them, too, there were no ideas but in things. Not, however in red wheelbarrows or asphodels. For them the poetry of the twentieth century was in telephones, indoor toilets, bathtubs, electric lights, automobiles, refrigerators, radios, talking pictures, airplanes, air-conditioning, supermarkets, vaccinations, aspirin, zippers, nylon stockings, and sanitary napkins.
At the fair, they learned the Future was going to be streamlined, rational, and efficient, just as they’d always dreamed it would be. They learned that wonders like television, fluorescent lights, robots, nylon, electric typewriters, automatic dishwashers, punch card calculators, antibiotics, and ballpoint pens were just around the proverbial corner. And so was prosperity.
And so was the war.
The Germans (Nazis) and the Russians (Soviets or Communists) got together and invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. That was “the first day of a war that would last for 2,174 days, claim an average of 27,600 lives every day, or 1,150 an hour, or 19 a minute, or one death every three seconds.”
On September 3, England and France, both allies of Poland, declared war on Germany. The Kansas City Star sent newsboys up both sides of our street in the middle of the morning shouting, “Extra, Extra!” I’d read about newsboys and “extras” but never thought I’d see one. This was the most exciting thing that had ever happened on our block. But in spite of my pleading, Mother wouldn’t buy the extra. It was a nickel. We got a morning and an evening newspaper. That was enough news. “You can read about it this evening.”
For me, an eight-year old boy in Kansas City, Missouri, the war in Europe was like a stupendous sports event. Of course, I was rooting for England. But then things got complicated. In June of 1941, the Nazis attacked the Communists, which put the Communists and the English on the same side against the Nazis. Okay, but then the English attacked the Finns, because the Finns were against the Communists, which put the Finns on the side of the Nazis. I was totally confused, but all my parents would say was, “We should stay out of it.”
Then on December 7, 1941, the Japanese (“the Japs”) attacked Pearl Harbor. Four days later the Germans also declared war on us. From then on, everything was simple. Now the war was our business, and I was on our side.
On December 7th, 1941, I was lying on the rug in our living room, reading the Sunday “funnies” for the third or fourth time. I was ten years old. My father dozed in “the big chair.” The newspaper he’d been reading half covered his face and chest. The radio was playing “Sunday music.” Something classical. A voice interrupted and said Japanese planes were bombing Pearl Harbor. That was all. The music resumed. Why would the Japanese be doing that? I had heard nothing about a potential war with Japan.
I looked up. My father was gone. I heard him talking to my mother in the kitchen.
Soon she came in and said for me to keep on listening and to tell her if there was anything more.
“Okay,” I said, unsure what I was supposed to listen for. I wondered if it was called Pearl Harbor because there were a lot of oysters there? But my ignorance didn’t matter. There was nothing more to hear. In those days when radio announcers didn’t know anything, they didn’t say anything.
We got war news from the radio, the newspaper, the Reader’s Digest, the National Geographic, and from newsreels at the movies.
This time around, nobody stopped reading German books, studying the German language, or playing German music. There was no animosity toward Americans with German names (like Eisenhower). It was different with “the dirty Japs,” but as S.I. Hayakawa pointed out to his mother whom he brought from California to Chicago, even the word “Jap” did not have the same connotations in the Midwest that it did on the Coast.
In 1917, the bellicose pop song “Over There” was a big hit. In 1941, the bellicose “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor” never caught on. What did were songs like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me,” “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.”
We heard very little about Nazi or Japanese atrocities (and nothing, of course, about those of our ally, the Soviet Union). During the First World War, President Wilson and pro-war journalists exaggerated the German atrocities to whip up anti-German sentiment, so during the Second World War many Americans dismissed rumors of German atrocities as propaganda. That’s what my parents did. They were not callous or indifferent. They were innocent, which often comes to much the same thing. They didn’t know any political fanatics—no one whose loyalty to a cause or an idea dominated their life to the point where they lost their humanity. That the Communists would shoot the whole Polish officers corps one truckload after another in the Katyn forest, or that the Nazis would gas millions of Jews, or that the Japanese would assemble their POWs in trenches and bunkers and burn them to death (to mention only a few of the better-known atrocities) was beyond their ken.
They were used to trusting people. It’s an essential feature of a capitalist economy. They took people at face value—“unless something developed.” And for the most part this worked well for them. The most notable exception was the time a salesman at the American Sash and Door Company, and a good friend of my father’s, involved the company in a kickback scheme and tried to enlist my father in the cover-up. The salesman had been billing the county for lumber and millwork that was actually going to the vacation homes of several of the county officials. When the scheme was discovered, Herb was questioned by detectives.
By that time he had become president of the company. The detectives wanted to know how he could not have known what was going on in his own sales department. In the end, he wasn’t charged. When he went before the grand jury, the foreman dismissed the recording clerk and apologized for calling him in to testify. Someone had made a mistake. But Herb was shaken by the affair. It galled him that he could have even been suspected of doing anything dishonest. The salesman and several of the officials went to jail. The salesman, after serving his sentence, sought Herb’s forgiveness. He didn’t get it.