Somebody called it The Last Happy Day.
That would be May 8, 1945, V-E Day, when we learned the war was won but hadn't yet heard about the atomic bomb.
Cities all around the world erupted in hysterical joy.
Times Square was a sea of delirious people, laughing, cheering people, packing the streets, waving flags, shouting, hugging everyone in sight.
In Piccadilly Circus you almost couldn't see the statue of Eros for the people climbing on it and waving things.
Paris was a carnival. Fireworks and cognac. Champagne corks flying. Wine pouring hilariously into glasses, bowls, saucers, envelopes, cupped bare hands. Flowers scattered at the places where partisans had been killed.
"Two parades bumped into each other on the Boulevard des Capucines," wrote veteran Washington Post correspondent Edward T. Folliard. "One was coming from the direction of the Place de l'Opera and was headed by a phalanx of Frenchmen, Yanks and British Tommies, all carrying red flares and singing Tipperary.
"The other was coming from the direction of the Madeleine. In the van was the Garde Republicaine, resplendent horsemen in gleaming helmets and red plumes, and behind them a band playing The Marseillaise. A jeep tore past, and my companion counted the yelling passengers: 13 GIs and mademoiselles . . ."
In Washington it rained, and there was no dancing in the streets. Everybody was thinking about Japan.
"The flags of freedom fly all over Europe," announced President Truman. "The job ahead is no less important . . . I call upon every American to stick to his post until the last battle is won."
In the wartime office buildings that had sprouted up all over the capital's parks and playgrounds, workers heard the president's broadcast and returned to their desks.
It was Truman's 61st birthday, by the way. For those of us who saw the war through newspapers and newsreels, the crescendo of great global events began early in April with the death of President Roosevelt. We had seen him on his return from Yalta looking exhausted and frail, slurring his words in his report to Congress and even -- shockingly -- mentioning the braces on his legs. The nation that he had transformed into a fighting unit for this struggle mourned him as someone, for the moment, beyond party, beyond politics. Old Washington hand Arthur Godfrey broke down as he announced the funeral over the radio.
Then Mussolini was killed and strung up by the heels. The enemy was breaking apart.
Then the death camps were overrun, liberated, and Life stunned us all with page after page of black-and-white pictures of starved bodies stacked in piles, skeletal gray limbs flopping on the tailgates of trucks, bony faces staring through barbed wire, eyes dark with things they would see the rest of their lives.
Day after day, the newspaper headlines ran right across the page, sometimes three lines deep. It was as though there was too much news to be contained.
Munich Falls; Red Flag Planted on Reichstag;
Surrender Reply, Due Today, Reported on Way;
Conference Overrides Russia to Seat Argentina
Berlin Falls; Hitler, Goebbels Suicides, Reds Say;
Doenitz Fires Ribbentrop; Rundstedt Prisoner;
German Armies Surrender in Italy and Austria
Foe Yields Holland, Denmark, Million Men
Rundstedt's Story: Air Assault Paralyzed Wehrmacht
U.S. To Cut Army 1,800,000 After VE-Day
German Armies Give Up Fight in Austria
10 U.S. Divisions Thrown in Czech Battle
And at last, on May 8: Germany Surrenders Unconditionally.
The sheer scale of the event seemed to blur it. Anything yearned for for so long by so many was bound to be anticipated with false starts, as was the end of World War I. As far back as April 28 Truman had declared that Germany had surrendered, only to learn that the Nazis had offered to surrender to the United States and Britain but had been rejected because they didn't include Russia.
When the real thing did happen, Edward Kennedy, a top Associated Press reporter, scooped the world by 24 hours by breaking supreme headquarters' embargo of the news. American editors acclaimed his feat. The other 54 accredited correspondents called it "the most disgraceful, deliberate and unethical double-cross in the history of journalism," and Kennedy was barred from dispatching facilities by Gen. Eisenhower.
By May 9 the Army was already pulling masses of troops and planes out of Europe to fight Japan.
All through that euphoric spring and summer, the headlines shouted of one victory after another. It seemed we could do no wrong, though of course the casualty lists kept coming. On Aug. 6 we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and the next morning Folliard's lead said simply, "Mankind has entered a new age, the age of atomic energy."
The editorials of the day showed no such grand vision, being concerned with the defiant response of the Japanese government and the fact that many of the physicists who worked on the bomb had been expelled years earlier by the Nazis.
"The shrieking and wailing and gnashing of teeth of the Japanese propagandists cannot hide the fact that Japan is getting near the end of her rope," one editorial concluded, so absorbed were its authors in the need to win the war.
So were we all, at the time.
The fear came later. We tend to find an innocence in the past, and when we look through an old newspaper its oblivious self-sufficiency takes on a special poignance. While empires crumbled and bands played and millions danced in the rubble of the world, May 8, 1945, remained, after all, a day in our lives.
Gen. John J. Pershing, who had led the American forces in World War I, was ailing at Walter Reed Hospital, where he had lived for years. He was 84.
United Press White House correspondent Merriman Smith dislocated his shoulder when he tripped as he ran from the Truman press conference to the press room phones.
In Norway, Nazi puppet premier Vidkun Quisling, whose name would soon enter the dictionaries as a synonym for turncoat, was arrested at his estate outside Oslo and interned.
Mary Winslow, 9, and her brother John, 6, whose father Col. William R. Winslow had died overseas, went to Brooklyn to see the carrier USS Kearsarge launched. An ancestor had commanded the first Kearsarge in the Civil War.
Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Hofmann won the sweepstakes at the Woodridge Garden Club's annual rose show in Northeast Washington.
Local movie theaters were showing "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "National Velvet," "God Is My Co-Pilot" and "The Fighting Lady," about an aircraft carrier.
Farm implements, regarded as a peace stock, were big on the Stock Exchange, which opened the day with two minutes of silence.
Dinner at the Casino Royal, where Ralph Hawkins' band played nightly, came to $1.25. Name-brand cocktails went for about 40 cents.
At the Pacific Fleet headquarters on Guam, every enlisted man got two free beers.
Soviet authorities reported that all but one of Hitler's personal staff had identified the body found in the Berlin bunker as the Fu hrer's. The exception was a servant who said the badly damaged corpse was that of a cook who frequently served as Hitler's double.
And out in Long Beach, Calif., 23-year-old Helen MacDowell made up her mind. She would annul her marriage of five months to Ensign Robert A. MacDowell, whom she had met after her first husband was listed as dead. The first husband, Army Lt. Harold W. Goad, 27, had just turned up in a Rangoon prison camp liberated by the British. He had been a Japanese prisoner ever since bailing out of his exploding bomber over Burma on Oct. 14, 1943.
"Somebody's got to be hurt in a thing like this," said the twice-married bride. "For that I am sorry." For those of us secure in our private lives, who had made no news and didn't expect to, the paper might occasionally be perceived as history on the hoof, but most of the time it was just something you read every morning. For an 18-year-old prep school kid, the events of May 8 were rather remote, if mildly exciting.
Most of us knew someone who had been killed in the war, usually a friend of a friend. There was short, stocky Mack Gordon, with the genial round face, who I remembered swaggering comically in his sharply pressed uniform on the putting green of the Sadaquada Golf Club back home, showing off his corporal's stripes, laughing. "Hell, I never even hit Pfc," he bragged. I don't know why that fragment still sticks with me. I forget where he died.
I didn't hear of anyone at the school losing an older brother or a father that year. Perhaps they were quietly sent back to their families. In any case, many Deerfield alumni were in the services, and almost all of us seniors wrote of military plans in the yearbook. I had tried to enlist in all the branches but was astonished to find that I was colorblind. There was nothing to do but wait to be drafted.
The war all seemed to be either in the past, which was a dream, or the future, which was never. We had got used to rationing, and the newsreels of bombs dropping and guns belching were as routine at the movies as the cartoons and previews.
It was a beautiful spring, there in the Pocumtuck Valley of Massachusetts. On Sundays we would hike up the wooded ridge overlooking the school and sit on a granite outcropping and gaze across the fields to the distant hills. You could think the afternoon would last forever.
The previous fall, Deerfield boys had helped harvest the valley potato crop. It was our part of the war effort, but for most of us it was an adventure, a way to get out of study hall. We had races to get to the end of our rows, and I discovered a skill. I enjoyed digging like an excited terrier with bare hands in the cold, fine dirt, rooting out the potatoes by feel and tossing them to the side for my bagger to pick up.
Word of vast happenings kept filtering through to us. At home my father listened to every radio news broadcast, but on this sheltered rural campus we didn't think about such things. You would spot a rumpled New York Times or a Time magazine flung down on a table at the soda fountain. You would pick up a Life in the library. Now and then Mr. Boyden, the headmaster, would announce some great victory at the evening meeting. It was like news from another planet.
Of May 8, I can't recall a thing.