We celebrated Memorial Day with a picnic at Donna’s today and reminisced with her mother, Mayme, about the war years. I was four when the U.S. entered World War II and was in third grade when the war came to an end. My dad joined the Navy in 1943, went to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, then was stationed in the Pacific where he spent time in occupied Japan at the end of the war. He told my college friend Arnie that this was the most meaningful time in his life. While he was away, my mom, Steve, and I lived in a dumpy second floor apartment at the corner of Sheridan Road and Kirby St. in a building my grandfather owned. We missed my dad a lot. My mother gave birth to Peter in June of 1945, and I don’t know how she managed all of that on her own.
The war was a significant part of our childhood. We spent a lot of time – most of our leisure time – playing with guns: cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and war. When we played war, nobody wanted to be the Nazis, partly because of the stigma and partly because it was one’s obligation to die at the end of the game. We hardly ever drove anywhere because gasoline was strictly rationed. Our car had a sticker in the window that asked “Is This Trip Necessary?” It almost never was. Meat was rationed. So was sugar, coffee, and a lot of other basics. The war was a significant part of our curriculum at school, and we received regularly news reports there. Sometimes it was positive, but more often it was scary or devastating. Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower, Patton, and later Truman were our heroes. We learned to hate Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirihito, and I spent a lot of time drawing cartoons of the enemy leaders. There was, of course, no TV yet, and we got our visual imagery of the war via Movietone News at the Lloyd Theater matinees on Saturday afternoons.
On VJ Day I was allowed to go outside and honk our car horn, even if it did wear down the battery. For blocks around people were honking their horns, and there was a feeling of great communal celebration. We knew nothing about the holocaust then, though we were soon acutely aware of the atomic bomb and fearful of its destructive potential. Months later my Dad came home from Japan. Two of his other close friends came home at the same time, Mike O’Hara and Pat Steffke. Pat had brought home a young Austrian war bride, Martina, who was an opera singer and, in the estimation of us eight-year-olds, the most beautiful woman in the world. Vic and Doris, Mike and Jean, and Pat and Martina had a homecoming party in our Kirby St. apartment on their first night back. The men were all in uniform. My dad was in the Navy, Mike in the Marines, and Pat in the Army, and they kidded one another about which service branch was most essential. After a while Steven and I were relegated to the back room, and, though we felt bitter about being excused, we watched the adults joke and laugh through a crack in the door. We were grateful that our dad and his friends had made it home. These were momentous times.