Wednesday, December 8, 2010

December 7, 1941, A Child's Perspective

Although we were considered middle class, television, then tiny and black and white, was not one of our beongings. Neither was a car or a refrigerator, for that matter. Still we possessed a big lovely home, a Steinway baby grand, and a whole library of books, including a leather bound set of encyclopedia britannica. (We were destined to loose them all about a year later in some kind of foreclosure never explained to me.) I puzzled so often in childhood at the ways we didn't fit, because we certainly did not. I tried to hide my discomfort from both my mother and my father and my beloved big sister.

This was not as hard as it seems, for we were not a family that ever talked. Even at the dinner table, everyone read silently. Somewhere around this time my mother, who had always seemed like my big sister---so young and beautiful and talented, and seventeen years his junior---abandoned all of us for greener pastures. Though now 80, I remember the Sunday morning Pearl Harbor attack. Some of the details blur, but not the feelings.

Good ear twisted toward the large brown console radio, rocker unmoving, I watched with bewilderment and compassion as I saw the tears falling from my father's eyes, smearing the gold rimmed trifocals which had made such ugly big dents in the sides of his nose. The tears were wetting the one day prickly stubble of grey on his mustache and cheeks, for unlike the other days in which he dressed as a business man in vest and tie, he never shaved on Sundays.
It was the first time I had ever seen him cry.

He was fifty and I was eleven. I witnessed the silent tears many times in the four remaining years of his life, usually after work when he was plastered to the radio listening to the war news reporting the number of casualties of the previous day.

I was probably too old to sit on his lap as he rocked and read to me, though I sometimes still did. Usually it was the Seattle Times or Post Intelligencer, but sometimes it was Fortune magazine, or collections of favorite poems, or even the funnies. On that particular Sunday morning I sensed the depth of his sadness, but couldn't grasp all of the implications. I remember hearing the battleship Arizona had been sunk, but I hardly understood, and Hawaii seemed a million miles away.

It was more than a decade later, at least five years after his death at 54, that my sister revealed the whole story, or at least as she remembered it, and she was pretty savvy.

As the District Plant Superintendent of the telephone company, my father, though self taught, had developed incredible skills in telecommunication. These included the art of laying underwater cable. I can remember trips with him on the "telephone barge" as he supervised the crew in laying cable. He was also somehow in on the early development of radar, and at times the telephone company would loan him out to the Navy for special projects. Engineers building the first floating bridge on Lake Washington borrowed him for advice in securing the cables. Sometimes the engineers at Boeings, then small, would consult with him. All of this was over my head, of course. I distinctly remember one time, however, accompanying him to a secret underground military installation where we went through tunnels, and where I was actually blindfolded. Visions of Nancy Drew whirled in my head.

Here is the rest of the story. Approximately six months before the Pearl Harbor attack the phone rang one night at home, a call from Washington DC. My sister answered. It seemed that FDR was requesting that my father move, with his family, to Honolulu at once for a special mission. It was explained that the president was concerned about inadequate communications between Pearl Harbor and the White House, and the government wanted my father, considered such an expert, to move there and set up something better. Being a very patriotic person, he felt torn. In the end his colleagues convinced him it would be unfair to me to move me out of my school. I think I would have loved it, but no one ever asked me, of course. He declined the assignment. So on December 7, 1941, he felt that he alone was responsible for all the deaths and destruction. No wonder he cried.

Historians have revealed now, of course, that FDR knew all about the impending attack, and scripted it as a way to get us into the war. Sadly my father never knew the truth, and died, still carrying the giant guilt of turning down his country.

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