Day of Infamy
We have two options for today, Dec. 7 - not quite the 70th anniversary of the day that will live in infamy. We can say something about Pearl Harbor, or, more current, we can muse on the fact that a record cold snap has hit South Florida. Why not both?
I forget the weather in Elmira, N.Y., that day when my father went to mass and my mother, listening to the radio, suddenly became all excited and began shouting, "We are at war!" I had just turned 5 but I already knew there was a war on. The English were fighting the Germans, and the kids in the neighborhood were divided. Some, who spoke English, were rooting for the Brits. Others, who did not speak German, were with the Nazis. Better uniforms. But somehow at that young age, I knew it did not affect us. Until my mother got excited.
I wanted to be the first to alert my father, so I waited on the porch on Mount Zoar Street to see his car, a black Chevy, come over the little rise on the road. When he got home I shouted about the war. He said, “I know son. They announced it at church.” We did not know that day what lay ahead over the next four years. We did not know that my cousin Tommy McCormick, who I hardly knew, but got to know better when we moved back to Philadelphia, would become a Navy pilot and die at Iwo Jima. Or that almost 65 years later we would learn that the Navy thought at the time that his plane had been hit by friendly fire. Nor did we know that a distant cousin, Billy McCann, who I did not know at all and don’t recall ever meeting, would die flying a transport plane over the famous “Hump” in Burma after the war had ended.
There was great excitement in Elmira following the beginning of the war. Everybody was pumped with patriotism. There were rumors of submarines nearby. The Chemung River, which ran through Elmira, was only a few feet deep, unless it flooded. There must have been an army base nearby, because my parents had arranged for some soldiers to have Christmas dinner with us. I was hugely looking forward to that, and hugely disappointed when just days before the big night all leaves were cancelled. Rumors of spies in the neighborhood, or something like that.
My father always went to bed early, and got up early, a habit that has proved contagious. Christmas eve he was in bed when my mother let me come down to open presents. Among mine were a child’s version of the tin metal helmet – the kind our guys wore in World War I, and still used in the early days of the second encounter – and a drum. I told my mother I wanted to show daddy what Santa had brought me. She said okay. I ran upstairs, banging the drum, into my father’s bedroom, probably singing the national anthem as well. His reaction was swift. He whacked me and said, “shut the hell up and get in bed.”
Upon reflection, I probably would have done the same. But years later, when I jokingly told the story for the hundredth time, my father said: “Bern, I’ve always been sorry I did that, because you never forgot it.” I have also not forgotten that it was one of the few unkind things he ever did to anyone.
Back to weather. There was snow that winter and where we lived had been a farm house. The farm was abandoned, but there were still furrows in the empty fields, and the snow made them seem like small mountains to little kids. My brother and I played in the snow, climbing over the furrows. Between our house and the river there were woods, and some days we could hear gun shots of hunters stalking something in the woods. Those were not the only shots heard that winter.