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April 10, 2017



Wartime Home and Away

I was not yet born while WW II raged, but recollections of family members, neighbors, and the parents of friends were frequent and shared while I was growing up in Brooklyn.

According to my mother it seemed that one minute my older brother was in Eastern District High School shop class making a wooden water-pump-with-pail table lamp (exactly like the one described by Philip Roth in his novel The Plot Against America, in real life made by his brother in a Newark high school during the war and placed in the bedroom shared by the two boys), and the next minute he was drafted into the Army and stationed locally. This was in early 1945 so he served only a few months before the war was over. My mother was glad of this but then in 1950 he was drafted again, because his prior service was so abbreviated, at the onset of the Korean "police action." This time around he served his entire hitch in Japan specializing in electronics and radio communications, at which he excelled. Sometime during this period he wrote to us and revealed that he was planning to marry a young Japanese woman he had met. My mother was absolutely appalled, not because she was racist -- she was not -- but because he would have been marrying and bringing back to America a woman who scant years before was "the enemy." This too might be interpreted as racism of a sort, but my mother would have denied it vehemently. In the event, the engagement fell through and my mother considered herself and my brother as being, patriotically speaking, off the hook.

Meanwhile in the early 1940s Marie, the wife of my cousin Steve, was having her own wartime travails on the home front. They had married in 1942 and shortly afterward he was drafted and shipped out to North Africa where he spent the rest of the war, and in future years spoke very little of his Army experiences there. We knew only that he was first stationed in Camp Canastel, Oran, Algeria, and that it was a "tent city" near the shoreline with ground covered in gray powdery sand. He also became a naturalized US citizen at this time.

Communications by letter during this period abounded but were not reliable. Marie's mother, a skilled seamstress, would make beautiful dresses and ensembles for her daughter in the latest styles, and then photograph her wearing the new creations. The photos would then be enclosed in a letter to Steve. One of Marie's girlfriends who lived in a building opposite Marie's and whose back windows faced hers, would receive letters from her own overseas husband, and the two women would celebrate the fact by waving the envelopes to each other across the distance between their two buildings. This was their signal to each other that a letter from overseas had been received. Marie might receive one letter, then nothing for months until a bunch, blacked out by military censors, would arrive all at once. She could make out very little of what was happening to him from these missives, and blamed her "nervous breakdown" (crying jags, alcoholic nips, agoraphobia, free-floating anxiety for her husband) for this. She gradually cured herself first by venturing out of her parents's Upper East Side apartment and walking up and down the stairs, then stepping out of doors to the curbside, later walking to the corner to mail a letter, and finally walking further in the neighborhood to food stores and other markets. She later took a secretarial job in midtown and was working in the Empire State Building in July of 1945 when a fog-blind Army plane crashed into the 78th and 79th floors of the iconic building. Although it was quickly deemed an accident there was immediate speculation in the building that the crash was deliberately caused by crazed and suicidal Japanese pilots. After the war Marie's earnings and perseverance helped the couple put a substantial down payment on a home of their own in Queens.

My father was too old to serve in the war and was otherwise exempt from the draft because he had dependent children. He had two younger male friends, however, who were married but had no children. Each quickly produced offspring when it became clear that they would be drafted if they did not do this. Both were male chauvinists who wanted sons. Between the two, they produced three girls. My father found this amusing, especially when I came along and his two friends were envious. (Fast forward to the summer of 1965 when the end of August was the cut-off for couples to marry thereby preventing the husbands from being drafted -- and probably sent to Vietnam. I was working in Manhattan at a Project Head Start summer job with a young woman who was engaged and scheduled to be married later in the year. She and her fiancé quickly reconsidered, and married the weekend before the deadline so as to have her new husband take advantage of the draft loophole.)

Many of my father's southern European relatives were evacuated during the war to refugee camps in Morocco. On my mother's side of the family her southern European relatives wound up as refugees in Egypt. My parents did not speak to me of this while I was growing up but my mother later told me that it was a bad time for her older female relatives and younger ones with small children, who were terrified during the time of these displacements.

My mother began saving twine and cord during the war, and making soap from lye and leftover fat. She continued doing this after the war was over and used the lye soap for years in a pre-wash procedure on stained or soiled clothes before putting them into the washing machine with regular commercial detergent. I do not specifically remember any mention of ration books but knew that coffee was hard to get, and oddly ketchup as well. The coffee problem was solved in a manner of speaking by substituting Postum.

My sister saved an April 1945 Daily News Sunday magazine issue on the cover of which was depicted an unfinished portrait of FDR, the one he was sitting for when he died earlier that month in Warm Springs. It was held on to for years in tribute to and in memory of the president who was looked up to in our family.

A neighbor told of waiting on line during the war to buy cigarettes for herself (limited but not rationed). She was very young and had recently taken up smoking on the sly. Her father, a Protestant minister, came across her one day waiting on the cigarette line and publicly praised her for doing this for him so he didn't have to do it himself. She was very embarrassed at the time, but later understood that he probably knew what she was doing and this was his way of showing her that he did not actively disapprove of her newly acquired habit.

A friend told what happened to his father during the war. He was from New Jersey and when he was drafted he was shipped to France where he lost a leg. He was medically evacuated back to a hospital in Michigan, where my friend's future mother worked as a volunteer. She helped care for the wounded man and they eventually fell in love and married. It seemed like kismet at the time and the marriage turned out to be a happy one.

World War II was a long and hard one, both overseas and on the home front. Returning veterans were warmly welcomed home as a rule, and had good medical, educational, and other benefits at their disposal. In later wars however this was not necessarily the case. One wonders what sorts of horrors future wars will have in store for our country, and what lessons if any will be learned therefrom.

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