February 22, 2003
Child of Wars
It seems like I have been at war all my life. One of my earliest memories is from age four. In 1941 Brooklyn, my Uncle Jack was a civilian volunteer air raid warden before he was drafted. He took me to the top of a neighborhood apartment building that was his station, and showed me the sandbagged positions, the spotting binoculars, and the other gear that impressed and fascinated a boy of that age in a nation at war. The high point of the visit was when he put the steel hat that he wore on my head, which immediately swelled to fill it. I thought my Uncle Jack was about the most important man around, next to Dad.
Later, I remember being waked from a sound sleep by sirens, and running into the living room on Dorchester Road to find it lit by candles with heavy black drapes drawn over the windows. My Mom explained that it was only a drill, and the blackout curtains were to keep any light from shining out into the night sky that might help enemy bombers find their targets.
After we moved to San Jose in 1942, I remember helping Dad fight the gophers in the victory garden that we planted in the huge backyard of that house we rented on 19th Street. He would take some tubing, attach it to the tail pipe of the 1936 Buick that was the family car, and stick the other end down the gopher hole; then he would start the engine.
When my father moved us to California during the early days of the war, he expected to be drafted in the near future. My maternal grandparents, Henry & Anna Avrech, had settled in San Jose, and the plan was to leave mom and the two boys where the grandfolks could keep an eye on them. Two of my mom's brothers had already moved their families to the Santa Clara Valley, so there was an established family support group in place there. When my father finally closed up his law practice in Brooklyn and followed us out to California, he had no job, so while he was waiting to go into service he went down to a local defense plant and applied for a job as a welder, a skill that he had picked up in night school.
When the folks in Personnel at Hendy looked over Dad's application and noted that he was a college graduate with a law degree, over his repeated protests they put him to work in the office instead of as a welder.
He was told that the plant had plenty of welders, and what they really needed was lawyers. They were in the midst of complicated negotiations with the Maritime Commission, and needed legal help with the contracts. He remained at Hendy's until the end of the war and emerged at the other end as Chief Cost Accountant for the plant. I still have a nice Bulova watch with an inscription on the back of the case that reads: "To Leon from the Swing Shift at Hendy's."
The only member of my family who saw active service in WW-II was my Uncle Jack, who ended up in a Army Military Police Unit in the European Theater. He brought back a collection of German medals, ceremonial swords, and daggers that he had "liberated" during the occupation, and that brought me endless hours of fascination as a kid.
He never would talk to me about the war though. Before I learned not to ask, he would get a look in his eyes (one of which was blue and the other of which was not) and just change the subject. I know that look. It is the same one that now comes into my eyes (both of which are hazel and splotchy) when someone asks me what I did in Vietnam.
It is a look that appears in eyes that have seen the ugliness of war, and it is born of the certain knowledge that the brain behind them harbors memories of taking the life of other human beings. It doesn't matter much what the cause was. It could have been a just and holy war or a dirty little incident. The taking of human life admits one to a large but select club that has no secret handshake but that recognizes comrades in a glance. It is a fraternity that few seek to join, but once you are initiated you receive a lifetime membership. The dues can be costly, as they are paid every day in the real spiritual coin of the realm. Will Munny, the gunfighter protagonist in "The Unforgiven," has it right when he tells The Kid that it is serious business when you kill a man because you take away everything he has,
There were constant reminders of WW-II on the home front. When you went to the Saturday matinee with your cousin in Redwood City, before the Roy Rogers western feature came on, and after the Bugs Bunny cartoon, there was the Movietone News with footage of tanks, ships, fighters, or bombers,
War has casualties.
So it was that she came to be part of swing shift workforce at Hendy along with Dad. As a result, Brother and I were enrolled in the Naglee-Dana Boarding School, an institution run by two weird spinster sisters who in my mind could have been characters out of a Dickens novel. Not that they were evil incarnate exactly, but their ideas on child-rearing and discipline were definitely pre Dr. Spock and pre Dr. Seuss. I was miserable there. We were picked up by Mom & Dad on Saturday morning and returned to prison on their way to work on Sunday afternoon. I can remember crying near hysterically when the weekend release program was at an end and we were put in the car to make the return trip to the school. It was only marginally better that my little brother was with me. I was not ready to be emotionally weaned in that fashion.
Later, we were moved (perhaps in response to my tantrums), to Selma-Olinder School, a more progressive and hospitable institution to be sure. It was better, but the trauma of those repeated separations left scars that I will carry to the grave. No Purple Hearts are given out to civilian walking wounded, perhaps because it would be a major undertaking to recognize them all, but they are nonetheless casualties of the war, and need to be counted in its toll.
These days when I run into a old geezer at the base commissary wearing a ball cap that says WW-II Vet, I want to go over and hug him.
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