Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Pearl Harbor

I do remember Pearl Harbor.

I was ten years old when the news came. It was Sunday. Every Sunday afternoon, my dad drove my sister and me downtown to the Paxton, Illinois movie house. We each had a quarter to pay for the show and a nickel for Milk Duds. My sister was 13 then. She was getting old to be with her little sister on a Sunday afternoon. Still, it was something to do. Tony Fratia was the manager. He took the tickets and stood at the back of the theater when we came out and smiled and shook people’s hand when they said, “Nice picture, Tony,” or “Good show”.

I don’t remember the movie we saw on December 7, 1941. I just remember that it was cold and rainy/snowy, and that when dad picked us up, he said, almost as soon as we got in the car, “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor”.

I wasn’t sure who the Japs were or where Pearl Harbor was. But I was very sure that something awful had happened. My dad hated President Roosevelt like poison. But we all sat around the radio at noon the next day, very solemn and  with respect while Roosevelt made his “day of infamy” speech and declared war against Japan. A few days later, we sat around the radio again and listened as Roosevelt declared war against Germany on December 11, 1941.

On a day-to-day basis, the wars probably affected Paxton less than many communities. We had rationing. But ours was a farming community, and I don’t remember going without anything. We felt only a little deprived of gasoline, meat and sugar. We had a black and white “A” gas rationing sticker on the car windshield. That meant we were among the many who got the least gas. But we didn’t go many places anyway. And we started using oleo instead of butter. The oleo came in white chunks that had a capsule of yellow dye included. Actually, I loved oleo days. My mom would churn up the white chunk and the dye capsule in the Mixmaster so it looked like butter. I couldn’t stand the taste unless it had plenty of sugar and cinnamon mixed in. But the good part was that after mom put the yellow oleo in a container, she made a cake out of the oleo sticking to the sides of the bowl.

People were always giving my dad things in exchange for I don’t know what. Dad had a great personality. He looked like Gary Cooper and he knew the names of all 2700 people living in Paxton. He was a cashier in the First National Bank, and I know he wasn’t giving away free samples. But what he did for people that made them give him sugar and meat, I don’t know. I think it was little things, like helping old people figure out their bank statements or giving people more of a grace period than their loan agreements allowed, but I’m not sure.

People put a fringed flag in their window with a red star in the middle when a son enlisted or was drafted. Occasionally, the red stars changed to gold stars when they were killed. It didn’t happen often, but often enough to remind us in grade school that there was a war on.

I listen to old-time radio shows on XM-Sirius. The ones that ran during the war years still include PSA’s about buying bonds and remembering to turn in lard for the war effort. To this day, I don’t know what lard was used for in making ammunition. But I remember collecting containers of lard and grease with my friend Marilyn. We went around our neighborhood on Saturdays with her red wagon and collected lard, then we took the containers to a war-effort center downtown. It made us feel good.

To run a really good war, the enemy has to be demonized. Our Defense Department did that and does that, in spades. As kids, we loved to hate the Japanese and Germans. From the time I was 10 until I was in college I was very standoffish about people with Asian eyes or a German accent. I think I started to realize how illogical that was when I worked closely with Doug Kimura in an art-supply store at the University of Illinois. Doug was one of the most attractive, funny, warm-hearted men I have ever known. And he sounded like he’d been born in Iowa, which he probably had been.

My mom’s biggest fear during the forties was that my sister or I would get pregnant by a sweet-talking soldier in nearby Chanute Field. The air force base was in Rantoul, just 12 miles south of Paxton, straight down Route 45. And it’s true, I did walk along Railroad Avenue rather than take another route home from the stores on Main Street because there were always convoys of soldiers rumbling down the highway, and I would get whistled at. But I don’t think mothers knew how pragmatic and independent the war had made their daughters. At least some of us had decided our lives would be on our terms, whatever that entailed.

The wars became a way of life for us kids. There were daily reminders on the radio, in the newspapers or at the moviehouse where “The News of the Day” ran just before the feature. But we adapted our lives to the far-away atrocities. And even as the Honor Roll down at the Legion Hall got longer and longer, our lives had a familiar, secure, hum-drum, day-to-dayness until May 8th 1945 when VE Day was announced. And finally VJ Day arrived on August 15, 1945.

I was 14. And NEVER would my mom have allowed me to go to a party with my sister under normal circumstances. But Mom just said, “Go ahead”, and even though my sister wasn’t thrilled about having a tag-along to a major party…it was VEEJAY DAY!!!!

And the party was one hell of a blow-out. And yes, soldiers from Rantoul had heard about it. Turns out, the telephone was just as effective back then as Facebook and Twitter. And there was beer, there was kissing, there was fumbling and groping and truth to tell, this fourteen-year-old was all-eyes and a little scared. Funnily, I didn’t drink any alcohol. I am positive it was because of an adventure I had when I was eight years old while my folks were out shopping. I found my dad’s cache of homemade wine and stole a Kool cigarette from my mom’s stash. And I had a little party. I just barely got myself cleaned up and out of the bathroom by the time they came home. It was quite a few years before I tried booze again.

Of course, the whole world has learned a thing or two since Pearl Harbor Day. We’ve become cynical. We’ve learned that no war, no fighting anywhere is about freedom or human rights and protecting the homeland.

We’ve finally learned that all wars are about enriching people, particularly those in positions of power who can start wars. We’ve learned that no war anywhere is worth the costs in men and material except to the powerful people who get enriched because they started the war in the first place. What we haven't learned is how to keep powerful people from starting wars to enrich themselves.

We’ve learned that people in power tell powerful lies. We've learned that all people in power tell lies.

And though it’s tempting to look back 70 years and idealize the “good wars”, we know that we were being lied to back then too.

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