by Michael D. Riley
Four months after I was born, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. For the first four years of my childhood, I shared the burden of anxiety that a world at war pressed down on us all. I felt it even in the safety of my home in Chicago.
I felt it as we worked a Victory Garden in a vacant lot across the street from our apartment house. Or as I scanned the street gutters to retrieve discarded gum wrappers and cigarette packages that contained metal foil. This valuable material might be recycled, I was told. “It’s for the War Effort, you know…”
I still get choked up when I remember hearing about the landing at Normandy on our family radio. I was told that hope had returned, that victory was near. At last, my fear could fade.
Not that I didn’t trust my parents to protect me in any event. I was their only child. My conception and caesarean delivery nearly killed my mother, as she had known that it might. So I was their little treasure, for whom all might be sacrificed.
Shortly after the war ended, I took my first intercity trip. We traveled by train, of course, on a night coach to Cleveland. Dad’s salary as a teacher put roomettes or even Pullman cars out of reach. And of course, Mom didn’t work; Dad was too proud for that. We left from Union Station to join one of my cousins. Her husband had just returned from flying bombing runs over Germany.
That night, our seats were near the front of a car filled with demobilized troops. Most were Army, Navy, or Marine veterans returning home from service in the Pacific Theater. And I was the first American child they had seen since leaving their own families behind. That’s how a minor miracle happened.
With my parents’ consent, I was passed over Dad’s head to the trooper sitting in the next row behind us. He immediately purchased a candy bar from the car’s Porter for me. Baby Ruth? Butterfinger? Clark bar? One of them; I can’t recall. All were my favorites. I sat in his lap and had a few bites when suddenly the trooper behind my first sponsor asked if I could be shared with him, too. And in nearly no time at all, I was passed hand-over-head all the way down to the end of the car, to be coddled and treasured by the kindest group of strangers I’d ever encountered.
Of course, I was showered with candy bars as well. The goodies carried in the box at the porter’s waist was soon emptied of all of the treats that I was invited to specify. When my father finally retrieved me from the kindness of these men, I think I had stayed up later than I ever had before. Despite all the sugar I’d eaten, I was told that I fell asleep in my mother’s arms almost as soon as I found my way into her lap.
The phrase that today’s parents must teach – “stranger danger” – seems sad in light of this memory. Americans once shared trust, unity, and a patriotically harmonious spirit. It was supported by common courage and mutual respect. These people really were “The Greatest Generation.”
Can we ever recover that spirit again?