The Washington Post Studio Theatre
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

NextCard Internet Visa - Apply Now
Related Items
On This Site
  • Slide Show

  • Photo Galleries

  • Celebrating A Century Index

  • Tell Us Your Story

  • Millennial Survey

  • Millennium Milestones
  • WTDA
    The Shops at Georgetown Park
    FED Financial
    From D-Day to TV Nights

         '40s illustration
    (By Margaret Riegel for The Washington Post)
    Fifth in a series

    By Henry Allen
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, September 24, 1999; Page C1

    P ack of Pall Malls in my pocket, Vitalis on my hair, penny loafers, sport coat with the shirt collar spread over it so I'm all shoulders and shoes walking into the drugstore. Whistling "Fools Rush In" with all the trills.

    And I know every jitterbug break in the book.

    My girlfriend Arlene – sharp little bobby sox, sweater and pearls – says when popular dances get violent it means there's going to be a war.

    I say: "Arlene, I don't think you're gonna start any wars."

    She takes it all wrong, like it's an insult. Dames, who can figure them? She won't let me past first base, anyway.

    Some things are more important than women. Bogart knows that: Check out "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca."

    DiMaggio hits safe in 56 straight games. You can get work. I got a job in the new government plant. Women working there now, even some colored guys.

    Building stabilizer fins for the British on Lend-Lease.

    Build them for the Eskimos for all I care, as long as we stay out of the war.

    My old man was in the last war and he's still sorry. He says: "Make the world safe for democracy." You bet, pal.

    The Germans and the Japanese are nuts, that newsreel of Hitler dancing around when the French surrendered. Let them fight it out over there.

    Then it's a Sunday morning. I'm out back trying to get my jalopy to start, and Mom hollers out the back door with this amazed, right-now sound in her voice. I run inside. She's not just listening to the radio, it's like she's watching it. I hear "Japanese" and "Pearl Harbor." Goddam sneak attack.

    The next morning, there's a line around the block at the recruiting station. I'm in it. Forget my old man, forget the America Firsters and the isolationists, forget my job – let Arlene do it.

    Everybody agrees. That's what's so wild. Businessmen, professors, Republicans, Democrats, the unions, Wall Street, everybody. Has this ever happened before in this country?

    It's like what they say now: Forget it, Mac – there's a war on.

    Cordley Electric drinking fountains have gone to sea!

    Mogul Metallizing Gives Wings to Paratroopers!

    Joe's the boy for WORK. And till we measure the Axis partners for some snug wood vests, he'll have little time for play. So Joe keeps his morale hitched high with long-wearing clothes ...

    Scratch one Zero! Wherever Navy buzzard-busters swing into action, you'll probably find Synthane!

    Bleak horizontal war world ... boot camp drill fields in pre-dawn ... drill sergeant's power-grinder voice YOUR OTHER LEFT JACKSON YOU GODDAM HILLBILLY ... the heft of new web-belts and canvas packs, the compression of a helmet YOU WILL KEEP THAT CHIN STRAP BUCKLED YOU ARE NOT SOME MOVIE ACTOR ... the hikes ... CLOSE IT UP BACK THERE YOU'RE LAGGING with 70 pounds of pack, entrenching tool, canteen, extra boots, gas mask, M-1 rifle ... staring at the back of somebody's neck, everything in rows ... bunks, barracks, the latrine with its rows of commodes whose seats are always warm from the last guy ... the loneliness ...

    Please don't call long distance this Christmas – war calls come first.

    Vitality Shoes fit the victory tempo!

    What Comfort and Efficiency with Tampax – Women's monthly sanitary problems more acute during wartime.

    You wear a white shirt and become a team player, and if you don't mind moving all over the country you get promoted.
    You're writing to a soldier in Italy. You know he isn't in love with you, he's in love with the idea of having a girl back home, the way you were in love with having a soldier thinking about you over there. It feels wrong to write him a Dear John letter, and it feels wrong not to. Did you lead him on? Then he gets killed and you cry and cry without being sure what you're crying for.

    Sometimes you wish you were married. Dearest Jim, You are the proud papa of a six-pound, three-ounce bouncing baby boy. ... But a girl down the street was just home from the maternity ward and a staff car pulls up, the officer knocks on the door to tell her that her husband was killed at Guadalcanal.

    You keep hearing about them. Johnny Vudraskis, the butcher's son, got a posthumous Medal of Honor in North Africa. Your second cousin Bill missing at sea ... you had the worst crush on him in Atlantic City that time.

    Dance with sailors at the canteen, put their hats on your head and look cute, hair bouncing.

    Your best friend has a little girl – they go to the beach, and the little girl keeps running up to boys in uniform and saying: "Are you my daddy?"

    Get a job at an ammo plant. Have to work with a chemical called tetryl, it dyes your hair orange. You don't want other women thinking you dye your hair. You get another job typing at the Office of Price Administration ... people complain about their rations ... rich woman in a huff – she has a house with six bedrooms, you give her fuel oil for two ... shortages of meat, gas, stockings ... Some women color their legs brown like stockings and draw the seam lines up their calves with a mascara pencil.

    Government poster says:

    Use it up,
    Wear it out,
    Make it do,
    Or do without.

    Warm thick smell of berthing compartments on troop ships, like fresh bread made out of old undershirts and cigarette butts. Stack the troops four high on canvas pallets ... hear water rushing past the hull ... rough weather – guy on top rack upchucks, it drips ... guys skidding and falling in it ... all these bodies and you're lonely, bored, scared ... crap games, decks of cards so worn they're soft ... skipper says all the Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth cheesecake has to come down.

    After '42 and the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, you know we're going to win, it's just a job now ... North Africa, moving up Italy ... you hear about the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles, GIs beating up Mexicans ... same stuff in World War I, race riots, people go crazy during wars ... you're writing to a girl, she sends you her picture but then she stops writing ...

    Then a strip of land like a pencil mark on the wall. Landing craft circle for hours and you're scared, praying to Saint Mike, the embattled sword guy ... rows of bullets flash in the water, then the artillery zeroes in ... explosions that move the whole world sideways, hammer you down into yourself, and then one so close it feels like it blew the soul right out of you ... the amazements of blood, the back-of-the-throat smell of bodies in the sun ... the terrible truth of the first dead enemy you see ... he's just a guy like you ... rubble, whores ... Roosevelt dies, a nation mourns, you're walking through mud, looking for a C-ration with fruit cocktail.

    Page 1   |   Page 2   |   Full Text

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

    Back to the top

    Navigation Bar
    Navigation Bar

    EDS Coolfont