A Time of True Desperation
She is old now, 97 in fact. But I can remember when that was not so. It was way back, I was just a babe. It was a time of great worry.
You see, we were in the midst of a great war. People had great concern, you see, for about 30 years before we had fought “the war to end all wars”. Now it was happening again.
During that first war our country was not in any real danger. It wasn’t like Ol’ Kaiser Bill was going to jump on ships and come conquer America. No Siree, that would never happen! But now, people I knew went about their daily tasks with a furrowed brow. It was an uncertain time. You see, Nazi Germany had been raising hell in Europe for a spell. Our citizens didn’t want to get involved in it. Stay isolated they said, no sending our boys to fight and die for no reason at all. Then, on the other side of the world, Japan was spreading its armies throughout Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. Still, it didn’t bother us none. It was nigh about that time that I came on the scene. I want you to know, I just didn’t burst forth into the midst of humanity, streaming the glories of heaven from behind me like a comet shooting through the night sky. No, I was born about five o’clock in the afternoon one spring day, in a small rural community of northeastern Arkansas. I really don’t think many other than family and maybe a few neighbors was aware of my arrival.
I was born in a two story house on a cotton farm belonging to the father-in-law of Earnest Hemingway. Life in my community was not glamorous or upscale by any means. My family had come through the Great Depression. Indeed, they had not entirely shaken off the bonds that had been thrust upon them by the shackling force that had held America in bondage. Money was very short. My dad’s folks had come to this place only a few years before, and my mothers only a few years before that. They were trying to find a way to survive just a bit better.
Now the Dogs of War howled about them from both sides of the planet. Concern crept even closer. Just a few months after I was born Hitler invaded and conquered Poland, and reports coming from China had been grim to gruesome for at least two years. Still, America persisted to not involve itself.
Then, 76 years ago tomorrow, as I sit and write this narrative, early on a peaceful Sunday morning, the fingers of hellfire rained down on paradise. The Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I won’t add to the volumes that have been written or the pictures taken of that holocaust. One only must raise your head from your smart phone and search a bit to hear that story.
But even though that island was shaken and rocked by explosions and blasts, the greater damage was that America was shaken for the first time since the War of 1812. America was attacked on its on soil. No longer did the vast oceans that protected our borders enough. We were vulnerable. Our children had no guarantee of safety in their play or at school. Our homes could lie in harms way. Now parents were afraid, children were afraid. It showed on their faces.
This was my beginning in life. I was two years old. Now the call went out. And young men and women answered that call – Army Navy, Marines, Air Corps, Coast Guard – their ranks needed to be filled. And they were filled.
That lady I spoke of at the start of the narrative, well, she came our house one day when I was less than a year old. She was driving her father’s car, a Model A Ford. He never drove. I probably never knew the reason why she visited, maybe it was just to visit my mother. After all, she was her baby sister, my mother being the oldest child. As she backed the car out she backed it into the potato patch and it stuck. My father came out and put his shoulder to the car and pushed her out enough until she was on her way. I don’t know if that was the same day that she took the picture with me in her arms or not. Maybe.
Some months after Pearl Harbor her older brother, my uncle, enlisted in the Army.
By now things were getting serious. Things that was normal to have access to were suddenly limited, rationed, scarce. Gasoline was one. Many auto parts became impossible to obtain. Tires were hard to get. Sugar, alcohol… the list was long. That furrowed brow became deeper. Much of our farming was done with horse drawn equipment. We did have a tractor, an early thirties Model H John Deere. But there was the fuel, it was rationed. I can remember by now the shortages. Being country people we, to use the expression, “made do”. Dad and Grandfather would take to the woods. And they were such grand woods then; ancient, virgin forests, set in very swampy land, but full of the bounty of nature. They would find bee trees. Then, on a cool day, we would pile into a steel wheeled farm wagon and pick our way through the woods and the mud. We would park the wagon some distance from the bee tree and the men would take a two man cross-cut saw and saw it down. They would open it up and come back with tubs of fresh raw honey. Then they would go back and take a box hive and catch the queen bee and install her in her new quarters, usually leaving it for a few days until all the bees found their new home. Then they would go back and plug it, put it in a wagon, and haul it home. We usually had around fifty or a hundred hives of bees. I got stung all the time as a kid.
We had large gardens and truck patches. We raised hogs and cattle. We always had plenty to eat, we raised it all our selves. I remember my dad rolling his cigarettes out of a Prince Albert can, Lucky Strikes were too expensive.
June, 1942 brought the assault on Normandy. Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, you have heard the stories. The valor, the slaughter, the bloodshed, the victory. But with those stories came to the telegrams. Mothers waiting, wives holding on to lives while their young husbands fought thousands of miles from home. All were affected. Dinner tables held that unspoken, maybe spot of vacancy. Then the telegram would come. Another hero had fallen. But to the family it was a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle. He would never again sit at his place at that table again.
Sometime in late ‘44 I was in my 5th year. I was playing on the porch of our little shotgun house when a black ‘39 Ford pickup truck hurriedly crossed the bridge into our yard, off the dirt road that ran from US 62 down to just passed my grandfather’s house and dead ended. It was our neighbor Virgil. He hurriedly got out and approached the house. I remember his face. He wasn’t laughing or teasing me as he usually did. My dad stepped out of the house and greeted him.
He then told my dad they had gotten one of those telegrams. Their son had been killed, and he needed my mother to go down and sit with his wife Bertie or Birdie, I can’t remember for sure. Men of that era didn’t fall apart easily. They held on to their emotions. But his face displayed his grief and heartbreak. He just needed someone, a lady, to stay with the mother while he went to rally the other kin. I didn’t really understand, but I remember hours later Mom worrying about Berlon, her brother, and the brother of that teenage aunt I spoke of earlier. She was out of her teens by now. He was in Germany now, and was at the doorstep of the Ardennes Forest, and the Infamous Battle of the Bulge.
It was our family’s habit was to go to town on Saturday afternoon, and it was then they would read the public lists of casualties. The years have erased the memory, I can’t remember if it was posted or in the local newspaper. But it seemed to be sobering, and in many cases, I remember tears. Lots of tears. It seems that during the winter of ‘44 and ‘45 not much news was received from my uncle, but he must have suffered horribly. It was so cold, they lived in the snow in foxholes. He was a company cook. On Christmas Day, 1944, he and his teammates cooked Christmas dinner for their troops. Late in the afternoon some Brass walked into their area, and told them to put it away, there was no one left. The cooks grabbed their rifles and headed to the lines, but were called back and there was no use. Many years later the old lady, my aunt, told me that story, as told to her by her brother when she asked him why he would never sit down and have Christmas dinner with his family.
There was simplicity about the people of the forties. They were patriotic, they were for the most part God-fearing and religious. Those young men that started volunteering in ’41 were serious about giving for their country and for their families. Many of them had fathers that had fought in the teens during the first war. I remember them very well. I believe they deserve the designation of “The Greatest Generation”. Not many are left today, but those who still cling to life have a dignity about them that is missing in our society. Somewhere, somehow, it became a casualty of time. It was a vestige of honor.
Most of my memories of those days were less affected, but still, I remember, and sometimes something comes along and triggers a thought long forgotten, like Virgil and Bertie, and countless others that became missing during those days that a young boy might not have been aware of at the time. I remember the walks on dirt roads to my grandparents, and other children’s houses close by. I remember going to church on Sunday morning in a small country church set in a grove of trees. All the roads were dirt or if not, were graveled. The autos were simple. Many literally wore out during the war, and sat until plants quit making war materials and started making auto parts again. I remember the little ‘36 Ford 4 door sedan that was ours, sometime probably in the later years of the war developed an engine knock that became increasingly worse. Finally, it was pulled under an oak tree in the front yard. A block and tackle was attached to the engine and it was lifted out and somewhat disassembled. The knock was repaired by placing pieces of bacon rind under the rod or main bearing caps and tightening it down. It worked.
In fall of 1942 my baby sister was born. I don’t remember much about that but it seemed that my mom had less time for me. I spent a lot of time with my Grandmother, my father’s mother. She told me stories, let me help her bake, and help her in her flower garden. My life during that time never seemed dull. It was full of kid stuff; walking in the pastures and field roads, always watching out for snakes. There were lots of copperheads and cottonmouths where I grew up; an accepted way of life. I played in the woods across from our house. I was Tarzan, and it was my Jungle. I chewed the gun from the sweet gum trees, I ate the wild ‘possum grapes.” I ate persimmons and paw-paws and hazelnuts. It was a great place to grow up.
I don’t want our America to ever be in that situation again. But even today we sit on a bed of quicksand, supported only by a thin crust and large jolt could plunge us into that abyss again. If it happens it won’t be like Viet Nam, or Iraq or Afghanistan. It could even be worse than the days of our time of desperation – the years of World War II.
Two nights ago I watched a movie called “Ithaca.” It prompted me to write this. You should watch it.
~~~Larry Murley, December 6, 2017~~~