Korea, or Viet Nam weren’t wars but “police actions,” undeclared by the US Congress as required by the Constitution. Iraq and Afganistan aren’t wars either, but there is a difference, Before, we only got killed overseas. September 11th showed us that the bad guys will come to us.
But I was a little kid during World War II. I thought it was a marvelous adventure, taking place for me in a tropical paradise. I don’t know what is lurking ahead for us now, but this time I don’t expect to be so lucky.
I was born in 1937, which put me well after the Great Depression but very shortly before World War II started. Hitler had already begun his rise to power, and on September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war to stop him. A month later, I was two years old. The bombs falling on Pearl Harbor brought the war to us in December of 1941, three months after my fourth birthday. When we stormed the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944, I was only six.
It is well that I didn’t know then what I know now, that we very nearly lost the war. I spent from May 1, 1942 until April 1, 1945, in what was Paradise for a little kid, Galveston Island, where my dad, exempt from military duty because of his age and family responsibilities, had found civilian work . For years after leaving, I yearned to return. Even now, what little I remember made Galveston an almost perfect place to be very young, after leaving behind the chilly bleakness of early spring in Chicago.
Galveston was a beehive of military action during the war, being a major naval base full of uniformed sailors. The war went on all around me, but I was too young to know much about it. I thought it was like the 4th of July, with live artillery rounds going off over the Gulf during training. Blimps floated by. Although sugar was rationed for us civilians, a sailor whose wife stayed with us briefly had base exchange buying privileges that got me all kinds of treats. War never came closer than an occasional movie, when there were newsreels full of war news. At the time, I couldn’t understand how the grainy, black and white footage made all the women in the theater cry.
I did learn that the heavy air raid blinds on all our windows had to be down at night to seal the light from unfriendly eyes. Even to this day, I can’t shine a flashlight into the night sky without feeling guilty. We had a game called Hitler, where we placed a comb under our nose as a mustache and goose-stepped around, but Hitler didn’t seem real. My toys were made of cardboard, because metal was needed for war production. We thought ration stamps were like Monopoly money that we couldn’t touch.
My favorite playground was full of history. I lived an easy five-minute walk to the sea wall, built after a major hurricane in 1900 almost erased the island. I climbed down the stairs to the beach, almost as good as having an ocean-front camp. Stone crabs living in pools around giant granite boulders taught me not to dangle my feet in the water. I learned about jelly fish, sand dollars, and hermit crabs.
Late in the war the draft threatened even older men with families. Still, Dad knew the war was almost over, and set out for a postwar job in a Midwest tire factory.
Paradise ended for me in April of 1945, abandoning Galveston on a secretive, three-day trip to Topeka, avoiding any communication so the draft board couldn’t find us. Our 1931 Chevrolet stopped only for gas and water for the leaky radiator. Kansas springs are like those in Chicago, cheerless, gray and cold.
Within a month of our arrival, Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage and Hitler committed suicide. Before I turned eight years old, Truman had dropped atomic bombs on Japan and the war was over.
I see with adult eyes what is developing for us. This time there will be no Paradise to harbor me. I have found it true that you can’t go home again. I visited Galveston, even found my old home still intact, and walked the beaches. The sea wall was shorter. The Galveston I remembered wasn’t there. Probably it never had been.
I once regretted being so young that I couldn’t tell what was going on. Now I know what Thomas Gray meant when he wrote, “... where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” I know we are at war, and what that can mean. Although newsreels have been replaced by television evening news, this time I will know why all the women are crying.