The older we grow, the more dates we have stored away that can provide instant conversation with "where were you when . . .?" And I suspect at or near the top of every list of people who are 60 years or older would be Dec. 7, 1941--Franklin Roosevelt's "day of infamy" when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
I remember every detail of that day graphically. I was sitting on the front porch of a boarding house in Columbia, Mo., watching coeds stream by while I waited with a group of friends for lunch to be called. A fellow boarder who had been waiting inside and listening idly to the radio burst through the screen door, his face ashen.
"My God," he said, "they're bombing Hawaii!"
We rushed into the house and huddled around the radio, listening to fragmentary reports. Food was forgotten. We sensed that this meant a portentous change in our lives, but we had no idea the degree or direction. We were mostly silent as we listened.
Then the radio cut to the White House, and President Roosevelt was speaking to each one of us individually. He said that the United States had been attacked and would retaliate against the Japanese empire--and that he would ask Congress to declare a state of war. He called us "my fellow Americans," as he always had during his Fireside Chats, but this time it sounded different.
Then our moods changed, turned almost boisterous. We were picked up by the excitement of what was happening. From the safe vantage point of the front porch in the American Midwest, we fought and won the war. Quickly. Cleanly. We were only a few days away from Christmas vacation, and the tedium of classes was already wearing thin. Now classes were put away entirely. All the talk was about enlisting. Which branch? When? Are you gonna do it when you go home?
My home was in Ft. Wayne, Ind., and I was determined to enlist over the holidays. I knew what I wanted. Recruiters had appeared like magic on the campus a few days after Pearl Harbor, and the star turn among the services was clearly the Navy Air Corps. I had a mechanical aptitude of subzero and no great yen to fly. But I wanted a shot at the best game in town.
Because I was not yet 21, I needed my father's permission to enlist. When I told him what I wanted to do, he suggested gently--he was a gentle man--that I wait until I finished my education. I told him I didn't want to do that; I wanted to go now. And, finally, he reluctantly agreed.
The next day, I enlisted in Ft. Wayne and two days later was sent to Chicago for my physical examination. I passed everything until I got to my eye test. Then I was put in a long, narrow room with a box at the other end. It contained two pegs that were maneuvered by pulling on strings. The pegs were separated, and I was told to bring them together. They were testing my depth perception, and I failed. I couldn't get those damned pegs close enough together to pass the test.
I went back to school desolate--and determined. Several of my friends had joined and passed. A squadron was being formed called the Missouri Flying Tigers. I wanted in. So I ate dozens of raw carrots--which I hated--because I had been told they would help my eyes. And early in February, I hitchhiked to St. Louis to enlist again.
They didn't ask if I had done this before, and I didn't tell them. I just went through the whole process again, with one exception. When I got to the depth perception test, I watched the hands of the man who was separating the pegs. Then I put my hands on the two strings in the closest approximation I could muster to where his hands had ended. Then I simply brought my hands together. It worked. I passed.
It never occurred to me at that moment to wonder why depth perception was so important--or how such a weakness might affect my flying. I just wanted in. And since I never ran into the stern of a carrier or misjudged a landing field, I must have been marginal enough that it didn't make any difference.
I know now that those times will never be duplicated. We weren't moved primarily by patriotism, although that was certainly part of it. We allowed that in our lives without embarrassment. But there was a kind of innocence then I don't think this country will ever experience again. We'd just come off the Great Depression, where we'd dealt for more than a decade in basics. In survival.
There were very few shades of gray. Your father had a job or he didn't. There was enough food to eat or there wasn't. You had enough money to go to school or you didn't. It was easy to see the world in the same blacks-and-whites--and we did. It was a time of great simplicity. Not simple-mindedness. Simplicity.
I'm not bewailing the loss of that simplicity. I'm not sure whether it was a good thing. It was just a fact, and it is no longer possible today. So be it.
But when those anniversary days come around--those days of "where were you when . . .?"--one of the satisfactions of being older is wallowing a little in the answer to that question.