Monday, January 19, 2009

Sounds from Silence

Len Klein
Memory Sketch #21
Friday, August 10, 2001

The unit that served as my communications scanner sat on the sill of the living room window facing the back yard on the third floor of 180 Chester Street. Looking at it from the outside, it appeared to be a brown wooden box, a little larger than half a shoe box, a deceptive size considering its function. With that unit I could scan the skies and select specific lines of communication. Signals, which were otherwise silent, could be detected and amplified, thus allowing me to listen to them for as long as I wished. Each day, after school, I would sit and adjust my brown box to select out of the air such exciting lines of communication as Captain Midnight, Jack Armstrong, Lorenzo Jones, Superman, and Dick Tracy. In the dark after nightfall, the little box could still find such messages as The Inner Sanctum, and the FBI in Peace and War. I listened to them all, often on the edge of my seat, and looked forward to the experience.

The little, wood-cased radio brought me reports and explanations of many real events which when I first heard about them were more than a little confusing. In front of the Stadium Movie House on Chester Street, in the evening, there was usually a boy selling papers, using some boxes as a stand. One day, while walking by, I noticed that the newspapers had only one word on the front page, in large letters, very large and very black: WAR.Back home, no matter how I tuned my radio, the lines of communication were all talking of war, and the sound of it was serious. The WAR reporting made me think that what was happening far away could come to Chester Street and tear apart our neighborhood and the people I knew, and that was troubling. At first, nothing happened, nothing much I could see. Sure there was a lot of talk about doing this and that, but nothing was getting done. After awhile, we had air raid drills in school during which we would get under our desks until the all clear sounded. That was soon changed, and all the classes had to go into the hallways and stay away from the windows and doors. In a while, general air raid drills began with lights out or blackout shades required on windows. My neighbor, Manny Fischler, became an Air Raid Warden with a World War One teppel hat, an arm band and a whistle. He marched up and down our block and blew out any visible light with his whistle. In school and everywhere we went, we were always pledging allegiance and singing the Star Spangled Banner.

Gradually people began to disappear, like the sharp dressers that hung out at Mike & Harvey's Luncheonette, and some of the bigger guys I used to see around the block. The radio said that single men were being called up, which seemed to mean that they had to go somewhere and get on a bus together so they could get to the Army. More and more, guys in military uniform could be seen everywhere. My cousin Lou Berland went into the Navy and served valiantly with the Pacific Fleet. In my building, Danny Kaplan, an older friend who was deferred due to being in college, nevertheless, enlisted in the Army following his ideological beliefs. Cousin Maury Haykin went into the Army after having completed Pharmacy School; he was put to work on the Stars and Stripes publication because of his considerable skills as a cartoonist. After a while they began to draft married men with up to two children, and my cousin Nat Berland, Lou's older brother, also went into the Army. We were getting concerned about my father's status, so he found essential work, as did cousin Irving Kramer, building Navy ships, and they gained deferment that way in case the draft reached the three children level of call up, which I believe they did. Doing the plumbing on Naval vessels required my father to work out of town at the shipyards of Norfolk,Virginia, and we all missed him very much.

From my radio I learned that Esso Petroleum offered free War Maps to anyone who would send in a penny postcard requesting them. I sent for several of them. After June 1944, an Invasion Edition became available and I got a few of those. A year ago I discovered that I still had ten War maps from that time, and when I looked at them I could still feel some of the interest and excitement that I felt as an eleven year old obsessive-compulsive, bright-eyed kid from Brooklyn.

Each day I listened to the radio to find out how our troops were progressing, following on my war maps the names of places in which they fought and those they had taken. To me, the War seemed endless. Some days, looking at my maps I could see that they hardly made any progress at all,and I was so disappointed. I wanted our troops to be overpowering in their advance so I could follow their progress on my Esso maps. My paper war movements seemed safe enough, so that I wished I was in on the war and could make our victory possible more quickly.

In Brooklyn, of course, there was no war, just the collecting of junk metal and the silver paper from cigarette packages, until you could hardly get cigarettes anymore. Eventually, it came to the rationing of many items, and ration books with stamps in them were distributed to each of us. The most concerned talk about rationing had to do with gasoline and sugar. Seemed as though there was never enough to go around.

We also had what was called Meatless Tuesday, the one day of the week that everyone was supposed to forgo meat so that there would be enough beef to feed the troops. Rumors were heard almost daily as to the presence of horse meat in the butcher shops, and by some accounts there actually was some sold. Everyone knew of someone who could get extra ration cards for a price,but most of that was bull. Yes, of course, there developed a black market in goods that were in high demand, but I never saw any of those goods.

Buzzy and I went around taking timed pictures of stationary objects on Photostat paper which we had placed in our 120 cameras. It made people crazy to see us photographing buildings like the synagogue, and also lamp posts.They thought we had regular film, while they couldn't get any at all.

Early in the war, I told my friends that one of my cousins, I couldn't say who, was in the Secret Service and had instructed me to write down as many license plate numbers of cars as possible. So, I had all my friends copying down plate numbers and giving them to me. We stopped after a while because we just got tired of doing it.

We also collected old newspapers and tied them into bundles for collection similar to what we do now for the recycling. It was all called the War Effort, and that's what we were doing about it.

Sitting by the window sill one day, my little radio started to cry, on every station it cried while trying to say things that felt unbearable to hear. Our President was dead. The President of our country since I was born, the only one I had ever known, President Roosevelt had died of a stroke. I felt terrible and could not stop myself from crying. I ran down into the street expecting to find the world turned upside down. But everyone moved along as usual. Most people hadn't heard yet. Just returned from a day's work, the men sitting at the counter in Mike & Harvey's luncheonette just sort of shrugged when I told them that the president was dead. I don't know if they believed me. Their lack of reaction, and what seemed like a 'so-what' attitude, came as an upsetting surprise, because to me it was very painful. What was going to happen to the country, after all we were still at war. It was so hard to grasp that Roosevelt was actually dead. Once, sitting on my Dad's shoulder, I had seen him; he sat in the back of an open car which was traveling along Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, moving East toward Stone Avenue. I wish I could remember what he looked like then, but I can't.

One Sunday morning I had just turned on the brown box when I heard great excitement in the announcer's voice. We had bombed Japan. So what; we'd been bombing Japan for months now, why was this so exciting today? It was a new kind of bombing, it was one bomb only, from one plane only, it was an Atom Bomb. We had dropped it on Japan and wiped out the entire city of Hiroshima with just that one bomb. But, what was an Atom Bomb? It had been kept very secret, until it was ready, so there was little available information on it. Then there was mention of the Manhattan Project, and it was somehow linked to the Bomb. We later found out that the chairperson of the Mathematics Department at Thomas Jefferson High School, Dr. Kramer, was working on the Manhattan Project, so everybody said. All that time, was she making the Bomb? There was much more excitement than clarity, and it was some time before we understood what had happened. It took two bombs for the Japanese to get the message; the war was over and they had lost. The days of personal killing and beating of civilians and military prisoners alike, by Japanese soldiers, had come to a fiery end. The incredible cruelties by those who postured as the world's most polite would now become exposed to everyone, to the well deserved humiliation of the Japanese. Our technology of remote devastation had triumphed over their system of personal cruelty.

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