Remembering World War II
October 3, 2007
I have a black booklet bound with a golden cord, holding what is left of the ration stamps for my family when World War II ended. There seem to be quite a few remaining, but I don’t know what they mean (28 Spare, T8, S2) or what they allowed in terms of pounds of coffee, ounces of beef or rashers of bacon ” items that often weren’t available, no matter how many stamps you had.
I remember greedily licking the butter paper after my mother had scraped it clean and cut the stick into pats and, when margarine came on the market, stirring the packet of powdered coloring into the white, Crisco-like substance, or popping the orange capsule and squeezing the plastic bag until it was yellow like butter (one couldn’t believe it was butter).
World War II began when I was 5, and ended when I was 9 ” an eon in child-time that I associate with minor deprivation and extreme terror.
I’ve been watching the new Ken Burns special, “The War,” and realize that I got off easy in the war that was supposed to end all wars ” 56 million dead, more maimed and injured, and unthinkable devastation and heartbreak.
A small sacrifice to slog through swamplands, filling clothsacks with ripened milkweed pods for Kapok, used to give floatation in life jackets, wrapping bundles of newspapers and magazines, taking the ends off tin cans and stomping them ” talk about your recycling programs, this was mandatory and intense.
You could not throw away a piece of rubber or metal, and every bit of leftover fat had to be saved for glycerin, which was needed for ammunition.
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The country was so united in the war effort that we were all into it, doing our part, saving pennies for Liberty Stamps, which we glued into booklets to buy war bonds.
We had a big vegetable garden (Victory Gardens, they were called) and an apple tree, the neighbors raised chickens, everyone canned, no one I knew went hungry, and we all got birthday cakes despite the sugar rationing.
My father was too young for World War I, and too old for the Big One; he worked at the Bell Labs on top-secret code descrambling stuff that none of us knew about until years later ” longer hours for less pay. No one had any money in those days anyway, so we didn’t miss not being able to drive or take vacations. I was 11 when I had my first meal in a restaurant.
The terror part was the air raid drills at school, sitting in hallways with our knees to our chins, not knowing if it were real or pretend until the all-clear siren sounded and, even worse, the sirens at night when we would rush to pull down the black window shades and turn off all but one low lamp which, too, would be extinguished if the bombs started dropping.
I was sure that the bombs would drop, but never said anything, took my terror to bed and dreamed of explosions. In my only not-waking-up-in-time death dream, I rounded the corner of my house and came face to face with a Japanese soldier (buck-toothed, of course, like the posters of the enemy) who ran me through with his bayonet, and I rose into the air, looking down at my lifeless body from the height of the locust trees.
Heavy dreams for little kids ” and we were the safe ones.
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