Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mother Of All Summers

As summers go, the one 67 years ago beats them all, both personally and historically. It was 1945. As a prelude to summer events, Pres. Roosevelt died on an April Thursday afternoon. I heard the news on my way to Hebrew School to learn the mother tongue. Germany surrendered the first week of May. By June Truman was getting up to speed. In July the Allies met in Potsdam. Churchill was voted out of office. Ten days later we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, then on August 9th, on Nagasaki. Japan officially surrendered on September 2.

I didn’t go to Times Square to join the throng on V-J Day but I did publicly weep when FDR died. For my entire life up to that point he was the voice on the radio I associated with God’s, stern yet warm, intoning his commandments. By the end of summer I was no longer a believer but God didn’t care.

I should thank my mother for giving birth to me twelve years earlier with the foresight to plan my coming of-age when the world seemed to be starting over again. This would be my summer of exodus from an Edenic childhood into the larger, uncertain world; my secular Bar Mitzvah a year before my Bar Mitzvah.

Whatever meaning the ritual of initiation had, it was for me, not religious but an entry into the adult world; not a tribal identification but a dim sense of being a grown-up American, coming into consciousness at the end of a war. It felt like a beginning as if I were new, just as everything around me were about to begin.

I remember the returning G.I.s, baseball players back on their teams, new building developments, no more war bonds, air-raid wardens or blackouts. I wondered what newspapers would have to print without those front-page maps of advancing Allied armies.

The end of one chapter began another. Winston and Franklin were replaced by Clement and Harry. Truman was neither fatherly nor the charmer like his predecessor. His cadences were in mid-western no-nonsense clipped tones. I was ready for a harsher voice.

Patriotism, for a child is visceral. I believed in those Four Freedom posters by Norman Rockwell; freedom from fear, from want and freedom of speech and worship. The images were everywhere, in public buildings and classrooms. Movietone news gave us victory after victory. Songs and movies showed us as wholesome, healthy and happy. The world was presented as good or bad and we were the good guys.

Paradoxically, the end of the war signaled the start of a more complex ideological war which split our country into partisan camps. I was politicized early, perhaps too early. Even in my thirteenth year, I felt the change resulting in some frayed friendships, moving me closer to the margin. My family bought The Daily Worker, a newspaper few others read and I echoed that radical voice in my bumbling way. It was a step toward separating me from the pack, for better or worse.

The events of that summer shook the world in ways all of us would come to understand a few years later. The Nazi atrocities scar my sensibilities to this day, too much in my thirteenth year and still beyond my imagining. Like most Americans, I wasn’t fully aware at the time, the Nuclear Age had begun. Global annihilation was to be factored in forevermore.

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