11 November 2009

A World at War & Childhood Memories.

Memory, childhood and a world at war:

There is a place in my memory that is hugely cavernous, dimly lit and noisy with distant sounds of shouting voices muted by hissing steam and the metallic clangs of great pieces of metal slamming together. It is the sort of place where an adventuresome and independent 5-year old decides the best part of valor is to cling tightly to his mother’s hand. Even rambunctious little boys were intimidated by St. Louis’ Union Station at its peak in 1944.

Much has been written and spoken about the Greatest Generation (the young men and women of World II), but my memory of it is much like, and inextricably tied to, that old train station; noisy, dimly lit, incredibly busy, with flashing bits of reflected impressions overloading my senses, each of them compelling and often more than just a bit frightening. It was at Union Station that I first met "the boys".

My mom and I were taking a trip on the L&N Railroad (Louisville & Nashville) to visit my grandmother in southern Illinois. We had set off on the Inter-Urban from Woodriver, Ill., to St. Louis very early in the morning.

Back then, trips were indeed exactly that — trips! We left home as the sun was rising to arrive in Union Station at mid-morning, in order to catch a midday train that would arrive at our destination in the late afternoon or early evening. Our entire journey covered no more than 150 miles. It would be an easy three-hour drive today. But then, if one had an automobile and if one could get the gasoline ration to drive it, the drive easily could take twice or three times that long. So, like so many others, we were taking the train.

My memory of the scene at the station is an impressionistic blur of khaki, olive-drab, brown, blue and white uniforms, scarlet and gold patches, silver and brass buckles and medals, and blue, orange, yellow piping, trims and lanyards. The "boys" were loud and wildly garrulous, tanned as berries and lean as wolves. The air reeked of the acrid fumes of diesel and coal fumes. Impatient black men in resplendently official dark blue suits and red and white caps hustled about importantly, directing people to their proper exits and entrance gates. Everywhere there was swirling motion, loud clangorous noise and vivid colors smeared against a canvas of khaki, while our nostrils took in strange, sweetly unpleasant smells.

All that is merely memory now. All has gone, except for memory and recollection, perhaps romanticized and certainly made hazy by time. Who, but a dwindling few, recall victory gardens, paper and scrap metal drives, collections of rubber tires and inner tubes, saving of household grease, peeling tin-foil from chewing gum wrappers to roll in large balls, winding huge balls of twine; all which somehow helped "the boys over there battling Tojo and Hitler"?

How many others remember peanut butter that had to be stirred, Cracker Jack toys made of tin rather than "real" metal, cheese that came in wooden boxes that later served as the frames for home-made radios, kites made of newspapers, string and school paste, stretched tightly on crosses of slender tree branches?

There are other, later, memories, too. How many remember VJ Day and how people came out on their porches and cheered, or shouted, or fired a rifle, shotgun or pistol into the air; or merely stood silently with tears streaming down their faces? Who remembers how some cried for the joy of those who finally would be coming home, while other wept for those they would never again see?

Of all my memories, the one with the most clarity is how we neighborhood children were turned loose to run and race along the sidewalk on our tricycles and scooters, yelling and screaming, and how our terrible-tempered, child-hating, shift-working next-door neighbor, Mr. McMillan, called several of us over to his yard and handed us sticks so we could pound on his tubular metal lawn furniture, adding to the din and bedlam. Somehow the moment was too much for him, too out of character. For, while we kids pounded and shrieked, he ascended his porch and went back inside closing the door and drawing the curtains and the pull down shades.

There are other memories. Memories of how it was when the "boys," my uncles and cousins and neighbors and their buddies and buddies of buddies, came home. How some of them strutted and preened for their gals, and others limped along on canes or crutches. There are memories of shirts with empty sleeves pinned to the shoulder and of empty pants legs pinned to the waist. Some were happy and full of hope, while others were quiet and withdrawn. All were different than when they had first left. Perhaps, some were those same garrulous soldiers that I had seen at Union Station a year or so before. No matter, the boys were home and the future was full of hope.

Those boys and girls, the young men and women of WWII, were very different from you and I. I can’t tell you exactly how, but they were.

They’re leaving us now. Each day, there are fewer and fewer among us. Respect them, love them and revere them, because when they are entirely gone our country and our world will be the less for it.

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