I struggle to remember and can only wish that I would remember more!
by Charlie Leck
Can I really vaguely remember the moment of the photograph above? Or, am I just remembering moments like it, when my father would frolic with me in the snow? Or, do I just simply remember moments sledding on the big piles of winter snow in front of my father’s general store?
I would have been less than 3 years old in this photograph. It was probably taken during the winter of 1943, at the very time World War II was raging in Europe and the South Pacific. I cannot remember particulars about those war moments, but I can remember a general mood of darkness, despair and desperateness. I remember grown women and men, crying in the store and in the company of my parents. News would arrive about someone’s death across the sea. It was as if the breath was taken from the planet for just an instant. There was a desperate attempt to catch one’s breath; then there was crying and painful moaning. Moments such as those were frightening to a 3 year old.
My mother held the sobbing, desperate woman in her big, strong arms. She had lost someone to the war. A son? A husband? A brother? I remember only the sobbing and my mother’s arms enveloping that poor soul.
I remember this photograph. I remember being in my father’s arms as I sat on that sled. I remember him laughing. These were difficult times and we did not laugh often. So many young boys were off to the war. Everyone was aware that some would not come home. It was a truth that hung on every moment of the day and covered us all like a thick, heavy cloud.
I remember my father huddling sometimes, during quiet moments, near the radio. He listened intently to the news of war. The news was glum. The Germans had taken control of Paris and France. They were bombing London and other industrial cities in England. Japan seemed to be ruling the Pacific and folks were wondering if they would dare attack California.
I remember nights when we were plunged into darkness. A siren would sound and everyone would rush around turning off all the lights. We would sit in darkness, aware that it was only a practice drill this time. There were no guiding lights for planes above to use. There were no targets. Darkness lay everywhere across the town and out over the fields. It was a time of war. At that time, the war was over there, across the wide, wide sea; yet, I remember that everyone wondered if it would come to our land, too. In the darkness, my sister held me close to her and tried to make everything all right.
I remember rationing certificates. There were gasoline pumps at our store during the war. My father would only supply gasoline to those who had certificates. Gasoline needed to be saved for the war effort. People walked more. It was difficult to repair an automobile. Parts were rationed also. Mechanics were in short supply. Other things, like milk, cheese, sugar and chocolate were also rationed. I remember that my father had access to ration coupons and that he would occasionally help out some poor soul by slipping him a coupon or two.
I also remember the Honor Roll. I was in awe of it. During the war it was constructed in a small park right out in front of “our store.” The names of the boys and men of our town who had served in war were painted on the sign. I stood looking at it one day as someone explained that the little stars were put beside the names of those who did not come home, but were killed in service to our nation. It was a heavy thought for a small boy to carry and it weighted me down. I often wandered over to the honor roll sign to see if any new names were posted, if any new stars were added.
Even though it was 66 years ago, I remember looking into that camera lens. It was a happy moment. My father held me. The war was not there for an instant. For that single moment my father was free of it. It was a happy, peaceful and hopeful moment; I remember it.
Later, in the evening of that day when that photo was taken, my father would again huddle with the radio and press his ear against it, trying to hear clearly the news of that day’s war. He turned to my mother. He could barely speak. Something caught in his throat and it made him breathless.
“Hitler is fortifying the sea,” he said to my mother. “He is building bunkers and laying barbed wire at all the possible landing places. Why have we waited so long?”
Of course I don’t remember those exact words, but I do remember a strong sense of foreboding from time to time, when something went wrong in Europe or the Pacific. The older men of Chester, many of whom, like my father, had served in the Great War that was supposed to end all wars, gathered around the old coal stove in the store and went over the news of war. Each day they gathered and some days there were smiles and cheers and there was gloom on others.
I was approaching 5 years when the war came to an end, first in Europe and then in Japan. There was a great celebration in town when it was all over – when the surrenders were official. People hugged, laughed and screamed. I have a strong memory of sitting out on the roof of the porch just outside my bedroom window in the dark, listening to the celebration over at the Chester House across the street. People sang songs and screamed hurrahs. I think my big brothers were out there on the porch with me and maybe my big sister, too. I can’t remember precisely, but I’d guess they were with me. John and Frank would have been nearly 11 and 12 respectively. Sister Jean of Blessed Memory would have been going on 15. It only seems right that we would have huddled out there together and listened to the noises of victory and the celebration for the boys who went to war and would soon becoming home.
Across the street they sang and danced and hugged and kissed. It was a happiness I’ll never forget.
“When der fuehrer says we is de master race
We heil heil right in der fuehrer’s face
Not to love der fuehrer is a great disgrace
So we heil heil right in der fuehrer’s face”
The town's honor roll was in a little park straight across from our store and I could see it at night when I lay in bed.