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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 4th, 2007 - 01:08:31

An America I remember
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Mar 3, 2006, 01:21

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I was born in 1938, when Hitler was busy gobbling up Europe with the help of some American bankers and elites: Prescott Bush, his father-in-law George Herbert Walker, the Harriman Brothers, Henry Ford and Thomas Watson of IBM, to mention a few. Yet on December 7, 1941, a crisp cold Sunday morning in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of three, knowing nothing from nothing, I can remember FDR�s voice on the radio, talking about �a date which would live in infamy� and then declaring war on Japan for its attack on Pearl Harbor.

My grandfather, Raphael, a naturalized citizen from Naples, Italy, stood next to me, shaking his head. My aunt, Fanny, unmarried and living at home, ran in from the kitchen through the dining room to the living room of the railroad flat to the big wooden Philco. Tears came to her eyes as Roosevelt spoke. She thought of her three brothers, two at church, the third wandering somewhere, who would be asked to go.

When my parents came home from church, my aunt, Milly, my uncles, Arthur and Tony, I blurted out, �There�s a war, there�s a war, the president said.� After the initial shock, Aunt Fanny and Grandpa filled everyone in, in English and Italian. The boys knew they would go. Uncle Jimmy, who suffered from emotional problems from the time he was a boy, would be called up, too, and given an honorable discharge not too soon after.

Jimmy couldn�t deal with authority. He fought with officers. He was a street fighter from boyhood, a thorn in the family�s side for as long as anyone could remember. Grandpa said Jimmy had fallen on his head, on a stone stoop as a child, and this must have knocked something loose. Grandpa�s diagnosis aside, we all still loved and tried to protect Jimmy from life and from himself. And so he came back home for a while, while Tony and Arthur went off.

On my father�s side, his brother, my uncle, Vincent, a printer dating a pretty young girl named Rose or Rosey as we called her, went off to Texas for basic training, and then off to Europe. He would eventually end up in the Battle of the Bulge, returning quieter than ever, rarely to speak of it, a shadow of that thousand-yard stare in his eyes, a sweet lovely man.

I remember a round wooden serving tray, ringed with lasso rope, that said, �Deep in the Heart of Texas,� matching the song title. He sent it to us from his base somewhere in Texas. I treasured it, and the thought of Texas and cowboys and the real America. What did I know?

I remember particularly the leave times my uncles would get, home for a week, and the souvenirs they would bring, and the tales they would tell of training, the rigor, the officers, the chow, the soldiers from all parts of the country they met, the southern accents Uncle Arthur, the family comedian, would do. And I remember the tearful goodbyes, the smell of their heavy wool overcoats, their hats plunked over their cropped haircuts.

But there was a long stream of Tony, Arties, Jimmies and Vincents all over Brooklyn, New York, and America, from families poor or working class as ours, rich as the Bushes, and from the middle class, like my father�s cousin, Woody, who was an Army Air Force pilot. What a guy, in his two-tone uniform, dark brown jacket, tan pants, and the bent officer�s cap. He drove his Oldsmobile like he must have flown a plane. And there they all went, into the blue.

And there at home we all pulled together, families, neighborhoods, towns, states, making sacrifices for the war effort, Mama saving bacon fat in coffee tins, getting food rationing coupons for them from the OPA, waiting on lines at the butcher for meat. Nobody complained. It was the right thing to do. We were of one mind, fighting a real enemy. Perhaps now I can look back and imagine Pearl Harbor was allowed to happen. But the war in Europe was not staged. And the little man with the mustache was coming for us one way or the other.

I don�t remember too much talk then about Democrats or Republicans, perhaps because Roosevelt was a Democrat and president -- elected four times -- through the war. I do remember my father was a Republican, a self-made manufacturer in the glove business, who did not care for Roosevelt. He voted for Dewey twice, Nixon three times, and Reagan twice.

Yet my father supported not only us but his parents, my paternal grandfather, Louis, being a hopeless wino. He also helped out my mother�s family. My dad told me he was dismissed from military service because his absence would create a family hardship.

Ironically, after the war, glove imports from Europe and Japan were encouraged, most likely out of war-guilt. They literally destroyed the American glove business and certainly my father�s. Yet he remained a staunch Republican, faithful to his notion of free enterprise. He struggled for a while as a salesman then built a golf-glove business using Italian manufacturers in Naples.

I also remember that soon after the war began small Service Flags with a blue star or two were hung in windows. They signified a son or two or husband serving in the Armed Forces. The blue star was covered or replaced with a gold star if the family member was killed or died during the war. And that gold star always radiated sadness.

I remember that each summer we rented a little bungalow in New Dorp, Staten Island. It was a ramshackle beachfront community. One of the all-year-round houses had a gold star in the window. The shades were always drawn behind it, as if hiding a darkness in which the wife or mother abided with her tears. Seeing people cry for the lost and wounded was something I will never forget. It made grownups look like the vulnerable children they once were. And there seemed to be no strangers to grief. We were all extended family.

In New Dorp, there was also a small airfield installation, Mitchell Field, with a few Piper Cubs, some trucks, Jeeps, and soldiers. I�d love to walk by the bucolic airfield and feel I was close to the war effort. Even better, there was an officer�s club nearby, which held dances and such, and all kinds of whispered goings-on. I wished I could be in there jitterbugging.

Staten Island was very rural then, long before the Verrazano Bridge connected it to Brooklyn. You took a ferry out to the Island, passing by Lady Liberty in the harbor, saluting her in your short pants, maybe a sailor or soldier�s hat on and a sword at your side or some toy rifle. On the Totenville Train to New Dorp from St. George, we�d pass the endless shipyards, repairing wounded warships and freighters.

On New Dorp�s Boames Beach, facing the Bay of New York and further to the Atlantic Ocean, there was an Army Hospital repairing wounded or recovering soldiers. There I felt as if in one of those Hollywood war movies that always brought tears to your eyes and a sense of pride for the men and women whose stories were told. I idolized those soldiers in their maroon bathrobes, white pajamas and slippers. I had a crush on the nurses in their white uniforms, the sun shining through, revealing the outlines of their curves. Yes, even as a kid I noticed them, and the short skirts, too. And how some legs kinetically drew your attention.

Debris always washed up on the beach, wooden cases with ships� names on them or an occasional life jacket. Across the bay, on Sea Gate beach in Brooklyn, German subs were spotted. Our band of urchins kept a close eye out for them.

There was a romance to the war, the longing, the sacrifice, the love songs, though certainly there was a terrible reality. It was reflected in the newsreels on larger than life movie screens and in the newspapers and on the radio, with Westbrook Von Voorhies' voice booming over, as the Allies advanced or were thrown back, whether on land, sea or in the air. There were the dogfights, and then the enemy or our planes going down in smoke into the sea or crashing into earth. There were the big land or sea battles, explosions of cannon, men with lost looks in their eyes, the dead beyond seeing, ships sinking in smoke and flames.

I remember too the air raid drills. How everyone in my neighborhood or in the city had to shut all their lights off and draw the blinds, to make the city unseen for a bombing force. My dad, mom, and I would huddle by the glow of a radio dial, waiting for the signal to turn the lights back on. This while the air raid wardens swept through the streets looking for snippets of light. And finally, the sirens would blow, indicating an all-clear and the lights would go on again all over New York, as if it were Paris, liberated from the Germans.

Again, the tragedy of the war brought us together as we huddled in the dark before the large black and white screen of the Lane Theater in New Dorp or the RKO Republic in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. You could hear people sobbing in the dark, or cheer for a victory, applaud as Yanks rolled into some town in Germany or France or Italy on tanks, trucks or in Jeeps. I looked for my uncles always. Arthur and Tony were there somewhere, and my dad�s brother Vincent.

Those newsreels also brought us our first glimpses of Nazi death camps, of the living dead standing behind barbed wire fences, of hills of emaciated bodies, pits full of cast-off human souls, men, women, and children, Jews mostly, and others unfortunate enough to be caught in the barbed wire web of the Third Reich. Those images were riveted into my soul.

Some of the newsreel film was retrieved from the Germans, and showed the smoking factories of Daschau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, the posturing German officers, the dazed human prisoners, the industrial bestiality of it all. It gave me bad dreams at night. I woke up crying often and my folks would have to console me, stay with me till I fell back to sleep. I learned to close my eyes in some parts of the newsreels and even in the war movies. There were some things I didn�t want to or couldn�t bear to see. This was not a game. My uncles were nowhere to be seen.

Occasionally, though, my uncles would send home a box of souvenirs from the war, paper money or coins from France or Italy or postcards of towns. We got a huge red, white and black Swastika one time, along with a German helmet, in a box sent home by Arthur. My grandfather hung the large flag on the wall in his bedroom, over his bed. My Aunt Fanny was chagrined that he even put it up. He said it brought him closer to Arty or �Arturo� as he would call him, �figlio mio.�

Everybody was in the same boat. And as I grew up -- 5, 6, 7 -- and played with the kids in my Brooklyn neighborhood, the game of choice was always War. We choose up sides, except nobody wanted to be the Nazis or the Japanese. We abstracted ourselves into two fighting forces, good and not so good. And nobody Italian claimed Mussolini was anything but a creep, although my grandfather had to comment that Il Duce made the trains run on time. Who cared? We had the subway for a nickel, and it came and went quick enough.

But in our war games, curiously reminiscent of today�s guerilla warfare, we shot from behind cars, doorways, the tops of stoops, behind garbage cans. We had toy rifles, wooden pistols made from the frames of fruit boxes with rubber bands nailed on, designed to shoot pieces of linoleum or cardboard to incoming enemies.

When we fell, we fell dramatically, like John Wayne, or some other hero, in phases, stumbling, getting in three or four more shots and taking someone with us. Even when we fell, we rolled over and shot a few more, and rolled over again, then stood, and went down with a final blast. We were ready to go if they needed us, as children are and do in so many places today.

Back in New Dorp, we could hide behind big hedges or climb in trees and shoot the unsuspecting. The Dugan�s Bakery truck that delivered pies daily became a Panzer division, and the driver was shot at as he brought the blueberry bomb to the door. We overlaid the diorama of the war on our innocent lives. Occasionally we pulled Japanese beetles off of flowers and tortured them, simply for their name. Hate and viciousness were gently sewn into our souls.

And when August 6 and August 9, 1945 came, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the second on Nagasaki. And the war was immediately over it seemed. People streamed out of the bungalows and bars of New Dorp and embraced each other. Grownups picked me up and whirled me around in the air, laughing. Even the door of that house with the Gold Star window opened, and a lovely but sad looking young woman came out and planted a kiss on the top of my head.

My god, what a thing to throw us into such joy. Yes, the war was over. There were block parties in Brooklyn for homecoming local heroes. People dancing, eating, drinking in the streets, enjoying community. And always dummies of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini hanging from light poles.

But it would be several more years before I understood that 45,000 people died at Hiroshima on the first day, another 45,000 by December, and in the long run, 192,000 all told from burns and radiation. And an additional 73,000 died from the August 9 blast. And then those mushroom clouds were imbedded in the memory. We had crossed some terrible threshold into the future as a people, as Americans, as an extended family, even with our Allies across the oceans, in Europe, England, the Far and Middle East.

We had avenged Pearl Harbor, we had avenged the camps. An eye for an eye, as Ghandhi said, had made the world blind. We had won the war but a larger battle had begun. Between remaining enemies and ourselves, between forces of fascism that were not defeated, but lived on, even in NATO, into present time, disguised, ready to begin the onslaught against the American people and their laws and institutions that bring us to the world of today.

And suddenly the America I remembered begins to fade into pictures of Fallujah, Baghdad, Tikrit. My beloved uncles who came home and were embraced, who married, had families, got jobs were now fighting as another generation of young men in even more menacing uniforms, armored vehicles, thunderous jets. Yet the family we were as a people seemed to fall apart, into the same factions we suffered in the Vietnam War.

Something had happened, deja vu all over again. Something we had not remembered had to be lived over, some tragedy, some Groundhog Day, lived over and over, till we finally got it right. Pray that day comes soon. I need to close my eyes a moment . . .

Uncle Jimmy comes to my mind. He moved to the streets after the war, unable to live with grandpa or the family. He spent several years as a homeless person. My father and grandfather finally found him on the Bowery, not an alcoholic, just lost. They brought him home, where he stayed for a while subdued by the life he had led.

During that time, still a child, I would spend afternoons with him. Sometimes he�d sit silently in the rocking chair, rocking forever, lost in his own thoughts, till Aunt Fanny would come in and tell him to stop, the rocking was driving her crazy. Other times, I would play a game of hide and seek with him. And we both had great fun hiding behind chairs or in different rooms, surprising each other. There was a kind and beautiful side to Uncle Jimmy that maybe only a child could draw out. It was the child in him that had never had a chance to live.

They finally found a place for Uncle Jimmy, ironically in a Veteran�s Hospital in upstate New York. He found real peace there for a number of years. One day, in my 17th year, my Aunt Milly called and said he had passed away. He was a victim of fate�s war, somehow mandating our love for him and all members of our human family like him in perpetuity. That too, that compassion is part of an America I will always remember.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writing living in New York City. Reach him at

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