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