War stories? WAR stories? Hell, man, I was a Boy Scout in that war.
Which really wasn't bad. I mean, I am alive and well, having survived four years of world-wide mayhem that killed millions of people. Yes, millions in Russia, millions in Germany, millions on the battlefields and millions more in extermination camps. I was there, a young witness to the killing, an eye witness from the sidelines, doing what I could to support the guys that were fighting for our side.
It was an important role, in terms of history. My history, at least.
That sounds pretty dramatic, but we children of the forties did live through that mayhem. As teenagers we did what we had to do on the civilian front. Life went on, school was there, our parents were there, and we of my generation watched and learned. We were full of patriotism, raging for a fight - any fight - and we couldn't wait until we were old enough to put on a uniform.
But on the lighter side ...
Life went on, perhaps not quite as usual as it was before, because we all had friends and relatives in uniform. We had a job to do -- primarily to get an education, and that was kind of like the draft -- we had little choice in the matter.
However, on the lighter side, let me tell you a war story on the homefront, of how it was for us, the civilians, the workers, and the kids. Let me tell you about how we Scouts went AWOL and almost got, ah, ah, introduced to women ....
1945, WE WENT AWOL: Several of us Senior Scouts went AWOL from Camp Tamarack in New Jersey and thumbed our way over to New York City on VJ day -- Victory over Japan, when Japan surrendered in summer of '45. We hitched a couple of rides to Newark, then took the train to Hoboken, and the tube right into Times Square, and it was just jammed, shoulder to shoulder with people, and you moved when the people around you moved. It was a rolling sea of people.
Scouts Bob Hill, Don Norris and Bob Burman, at the Eagle induction, 1944.
They were all screaming and cheering, and the soldiers and sailors were kissing all the women. And one woman, she was dressed like one of the showgirls, banged into me, took one look at my uniform with all the badges, and grabbed me and planted this long, don't-swallow sort of kiss on me, so I kissed back, and we hugged and kissed right there in Times Square, and that went on for what seemed like several minutes. We two were being moved along with the crowd, and finally a bunch of sailors grabbed her and she was gone. To this day I don't think she knew one uniform from another, and I was so handsome and had so many badges -- Boy, that was some night. I was never kissed like that woman kissed me. 'Course, I was only 14, but very mature for my age and I looked great in my Scout uniform.
Actually that happened. What else am I going to tell for a war story? It was the biggest thing that ever happened to me during the whole World War.
GAS RATIONING BROUGHT INNOVATION: I remember Pop had an A-card for his 1940 Pontiac, which allowed only half a dozen gallons of gas a week -- someone recently told me that an A-card would buy only three gallons a week. I have a suspicion that the fellow who ran the neighborhood gas station would cheat a bit for his favorite customers, and I know that our Scout troop, which owned a cabin near Delaware Water Gap (65 miles away), would find enough fuel to drive one or two cars up to camp once in a while.
Camp Oschner at Kittitiny Mountain in Stillwater, NJ -- a good place to grow up.
1943, HITCH-HIKING: I also remember that we used to hitch-hike all over, including to camp in Stillwater, across the state, and we even hitched up to Lake George in upper New York once. For some reason, things were safer then, and my parents hardly ever objected to my travels. Bob Burman, Ted Moulton (now gone) and maybe Bernie Kelly would take off as the whim would take us, often changing our destinations as our ride would go.
It seems to me that there were lots of cars on the roads, although all had rationing stickers on the back window. It was hardly like today, however, with bumper-to- bumper traffic the norm. About the only real danger we had was on hitch-hiking the six miles to junior high, after missing the school bus; there was one guy who drove that route regularly, and he was as queer as a three-dollar bill -- and that is the terminology of the forties. Of course, he tried to get every one of the boys to come across, but I don't think he was very successful. We all knew about him. One day the crossing officer pulled him over and told him point blank not to fool with the boys.
1944, THE ARMS RACE: One day my dad came home from work -- he worked in New York City, in an office -- with a special package. As I recall one of the older men in the firm retired, and gave my father two revolvers he had used in World War I, to be given to us boys. My brother got the .45, I had a .38 -- at 14 years old. A buddy said his dad had some old .45 ammo in the attic, and I could have it. Well, toting a .45 revolver in my backpack, me and my fellow Scouts hitched rides up to our troop camp, by ourselves -- we were senior Scouts by this time -- and that's where I learned to fire a handgun. Unsupervised. Except I was the senior patrol leader and on my way to becoming an Eagle Scout.
The .45 was no big deal. On my 11th birthday Uncle Carl had given me his old 30- 30 Winchester '94' -- now a collectors item. And I also had use of my brother's .22 Remington, and hunted squirrels with my air rifle.
We didn't abuse the fact that I was the only kid on the block with a .45 revolver, however. We were all very careful, and my father had long before taught me gun safety. But we did carefully pack the big revolver in my knapsack, slung that on my back, then stood beside the road, hitch-hiking across the state. Or up to New York state.
AIR RAIDS IN BROOKDALE? My father was an Air Raid Warden -- an honored position -- and every so often the newly installed sirens would scream for an attack, and everybody would run outdoors looking for bombers. Pop would grab his white helmet -- like the Brits wore -- and his armpatch, and patrol the neighborhood for any lights that might be showing -- thereby giving the enemy bombers a target. However, no German or Japanese bombers ever hit New Jersey.
Several ships off the coasts of Long Island and Jersey were torpedoed or shelled .
If one drove one's car at night, there was a blackout mask that was painted over the headlights, which allowed only a slit of light to show through. It was enough to be seen, but not enough to see by. And as I recall, the street lights were not on early in the war because the reflection of that light against the clouds gave German subs a good picture of our ships just off shore. We also heard that bombers could see New York quite well from cloud-reflected light.
So everybody had to have heavy black, blackout curtains, which were drawn every night.
SHORTAGES EVERYWHERE: I remember tires were impossible to get, so an industry appeared that would re-cap your old tires. And suddenly everybody was searching for old, discarded tires, to have re-capped. Of course they were highly unreliable. And the front end alignment of that time was rather rudimentary, so that tires wore out in little time. And recaps would lose their new treads sometimes within days.
Dad solved part of the gas rationing problem by buying a second car, from a friend. Cars were scarce, and of course there were no new models available. What car you had when the war started in 1941 was the car you had on VJ day in 1945 -- if it lasted that long. Some people were so desperate for parts -- especially tires -- that they would buy used cars just to keep one car going.
Anyway, in 1944 Dad bought this 1931 Model A roadster, a convertible with two 19-inch spare wheels mounted in the front fenders. It had leather upholstery and a rumble seat, and was really a classy old car, except second gear whined like a trolley car. From that point on, Mom would drive Dad the three miles to the train station in "the flivver" -- and save the Pontiac for weekend travel.
That was the point: You could own a dozen old cars, -- one for each member of the family -- and as long as each was registered, it was deserving of a ration card. But then, used cars were scarce and high priced. Lots of junked cars were resurrected.
Tires were in such short supply that people would drive them until they could hold no more air. One time, when the Scout troop saved enough gas coupons for Mr. Burman to drive us the 60 miles to our camp, he got a flat way out in the country. I remember seeing that wheel being taken off by the gas station guy -- it was scalloped terribly from misalignment, so that threads were showing in the scallops. Mr.Burham waited for the flat to be fixed rather than risk the possibility of getting a swapped tire -- or even losing it. People were more honest in those days, but after all, a tire was a tire, and worth a roust with the police.
Mr. Burman's car was a '38 Pontiac, I think, but in 1944 it was in such bad shape that the steering wheel would shake violently as he drove along the highway at 45 mph. We boys used to hitchhike up to camp, and most of the time it was trucks that would give us rides. It wasn't hard, hitching, cause people realized how hard-up everybody was. And besides, we used to wear our Scout uniforms. Scouting in those days meant something, and I learned much from my four years in the troop.
My brother's Bloomfield High School class of 1945 was graduated early, in April, so the boys could go into service. When he got out of basic training, he found an old motorcycle -- I think it was a 1931 Harley Davidson, but it was a basket case. He rebuilt that machine and used it to drive the 70 miles home from Fort Monmouth, each weekend. But then he took over the Model A, and I used to steal the Harley and drive it all over town -- at age 14. Until the cops got after me.
1942 AND RATIONING: Both my parents smoked, and I can remember standing in long lines for cigarettes. At one time there was a cigarette substitute: it came in brown paper, and there was little tobacco in it. Dad finally gave it up, but Mom was smoking into her nineties.
Meat was rationed, as well as cheese and butter. Most everything was hard to get -- and while I don't think there were anything as crude as payoffs at the local level, each butcher favored his regular customers. He would put a pound of bacon, maybe some eggs, some bologna, aside for his good customers, making each feel that she was the only one on his special list. We used to call the store "Mike's Black Market" -- in jest.
SILK STOCKINGS WERE PAINTED ON ... Silk stockings were very scarce, and soon the department stores were pushing a new product -- a stocking-colored make-up that ladies used to paint on stockings. And then someone invented a paint for the seam. And this is the way it was for several years, until the country got back to civilian production after the war. Women with painted legs. And of course bobby socks were all the rage in high school.
Ladies' fashions of the day called for girdles. And girdles were made of rubber and thread. And rubber wasn't available to civilians, so suddenly we had a new look, au natural. I know Mom resorted to old-fashioned corsets that were laced up by a companion. Pop.
Knickers, which I wore all during the thirties, went out of style in the war. The Scouts still had uniform pants that required knee-sox, but knickers were suddenly a thing of the past. But everyone wore sweaters inside, since it was patriotic to turn down the heater -- and we never knew if fuel oil was going to be available. Dad, always afraid of gas, bought a big fancy gas-fired heater for the fireplace, just in case there was no oil available.. But it was always cold in the house.
1943, WAR WOUNDS: On numerous occasions we boys were asked to participate in scrap metal drives to help the war effort. I remember one summer day when I hauled junk out of endless cellars in our ten-block neighborhood, throwing it on trucks that had been donated for the cause, then unloading it at four-block field, half of which had been taken up by Victory Gardens.
And this is where I got my first wound during the war -- no purple heart but a nice hug from my Ma. We were throwing scrap metal up on this humungous pile and my buddies were throwing it off the truck, sort of in my direction. Suddenly I was hit with a missle, more like flak, in the form of a giant tin egg beater that had sharp, pressed tin teeth all along the drive wheel, and that sucker hit me flush on the side of the head and knocked me for a loop. I wore my badge of courage -- a dotted circular impression of those tin teeth, on the side of my head, my ear, my face, my nose, for three or four weeks.
1942, FAST WHEELS: My Dad, who lost a little brother in a bicycle-car accident in 1913, wouldn't let me have a bike because they were too dangerous. However, I did get roller skates, with steel ball-bearing wheels, and I'd go to school every day, 12 blocks including one hell of a downhill that ended in a major 3-way intersection. You know kids. We went down that hill faster than the cars, passing cars on the right, swinging across the smooth tar road through morning traffic, totally ignoring Steve the Officer at the intersection. We had to ignore him because we were doing 30 miles per hour with absolutely no brakes. Sometimes he'd see us coming and direct traffic away. Amazingly, no one got hurt, but we did take some horrendous headers when jumping onto the grass in order to stop.
Buses, trolleys and trains ran with great regularity during the war -- that is, there was always enough gas for public transportation, including school buses. Most of them were old-fashioned clunkers, loud, gassy, smokey, gears that could be heard over the roar of the motors. But gas for cars was rationed.
Cars for regular folks got an "A" card, maybe half dozen gallons a week. Those that could prove they drove for some official, government-related reason, got a "B" card, while those that used their cars for the war effort got a "C" card -- which meant unlimited gasoline, if you could find a station that wasn't out of gas. At times the supply was so meager that the gas station guy would only be open, say, four days a week, and when the truck delivered it, one had to get in line to get his weekly ration.
THE TOO-BIG SHOES: Even shoes were rationed. But they had this gizmo in the shoe stores that when you stood on it, you could see how your feet looked INSIDE your shoe. It was amazing. If your toes looked crunched up, the shoes were too small. If the shoes were to last a long time -- necessary in war time - - you could buy huge shoes that made your feet look awful long. Walking in such shoes was difficult. It wasn't until the fifties or sixties that the shoestore owners found out that lots of their compatriots got cancer from that X-ray machine. We were dosing ourselves with X-rays every time we bought shoes.
(As an aside, I remember when White's Ice Cream Parlor opened in Brookdale in 1938, that Mrs. Whalen walked with Jackie and me down to get a ten-cent ice cream cone, an opening special of two for ten cents. I can remember that hot summer day, eating two ice cream cones at once).
As the war progressed and the tide had turned, more and more soldiers and sailors were appearing downtown, back home from the battle. They were greeted as heros, patted on the back, saluted by civilians, and bought beer in the bars. Never have I seen that scene repeated: The Korean War, which was called a police action, didn't draw the patriotism of WWII -- probably because our homeland wasn't threatened. And then came the war in Vietnam, which had a very unpopular aura, complete with armies of young protestors marching in the streets. The poor GI's who came home from that terrible war certainly didn't get the same patriotic reception that was part of the Big War.
As a mature fourteen year old in 1945, I couldn't resist the temptation to dress up in my older brother's army uniform. It had corporal stripes, and I walked through downtown as big as I could be, and a couple of older men wanted me to step inside a bar because they wanted to buy me a beer. I couldn't go in, 'cause I didn't have the nerve to carry the charade through. But that was a thrill.
Me and a couple of my buddies all had official-looking papers that proved we were part of the Norwegian Free Merchant Marine, on leave. We typed out those orders on the church typewriter.
In spite of our youthful shenanigans, when it came our time, we all served in the military -- several of us in the Korean War. I was in college (Tufts) at the time, but joined the Marines and was deferred until graduation.
But that fall of 1945 was a glorious time. We lived near New York City, and went to the city to see the troop ships returning with our soldiers and sailors -- it was spectacular at the wharfs, with thousands of people cheering and waving at the ships tied up. And then at the tickertape parades down Broadway, the troops marching and the generals riding in open cars. That's a memory that will stay with me forever.
December 12, 1998