The air was crisp and cold on that December morning in 1941. We were having Sunday dinner at my newly married sister's home. She was eager to show off her cooking skills.
Papa had stayed home. His cough was getting worse, and he did not feel like going. Half way through the meal, he came riding up in the old 1931 Plymouth. He was out of the car and running toward the house. Turn on the radio. Turn on the radio, he panted. It's war. It's war. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Our boys will have to fight. War. War? But that was only in my sixth grade history book. My brothers would have to go to war? Only old men with trembling hands and stooped backs were soldiers.
The young men in Glennonville were enlisting in the service as quickly as they could. It was their patriotic duty. All their friends were going. And they could leave school and home behind. Only women, the halt, and the lame were left behind.
And little kids!
Why couldn't I grow up quickly and join the WAVES? If the war would just last long enough, I could enlist and wear those snappy uniforms. I could get away from Mama and her outdated Victorian ideas about dress, boys, and fun. I wouldn't have to go to church. I could paint my toenails and wear lipstick. I could kiss Protestant boys. I would have a whole library of movie magazines. It seemed that Mama's one goal in life was to keep me from growing up and to preserve my virginity. All my dresses had gathers or pleats at the bosom to hide my emerging womanly figure.
The little trail through the woods that my Grandfather had taken forty years earlier was now J Highway. Green military trucks carried tanks, equipment, and men through Glennonville. My little brother and I sat on the side of the road watching the convoys roll by. We waved to the soldiers sitting in the jeeps. Sometimes a truck would stop by the farms to pick up scrap metal for the war effort. Papa was glad to get rid of it. It was a help to the "boys in the service" and cleared up the barnyards. Occasionally the soldiers would come to our farm and spray DDT to rid the countryside of mosquitoes and flies.
Soon the war would be all too real for me. I was sitting in the apple tree munching an apple, being careful to eat around the wormhole. I was hiding from Mama and her endless chore assignments. Suddenly, one of the planes from the Cadet Field swooped low. I could see the pilot. I could hear the plane sputtering like the protestations of an ill-tuned Model T. Suddenly it plummeted down to the ground. I scampered down from the apple tree. I ran to the house, shouting Mama, Mama an airplane has crashed. It's in the cotton field. I'm going down there.
Mama came from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Oh, Margie, don't go down there. You don't want to see this.
I'm going, I'm going. And off I ran. I jumped over the rows of cotton. When I arrived at the crash site there was a crowd of local men already gathered there. Stay back, little girl.
But I want to see, I want to see.
I saw. There in the cockpit was a young man with his goggles and his leather flying jacket. There was neither blood nor twisted limbs, but his face was so still. I realized he was dead. He was not much older than I was. The plane that had loomed so large and mysterious in the sky was just an insignificant piece of trash on the ground. So this was war!
My devil-may-care brother was called up by the draft board. He quickly enlisted in the Army Air Corps so as to avoid the dreaded infantry. He was sent to Texas to become a gunner on a bomber. He had come home on a compassionate leave to attend Papa's funeral. Papa had died of the tuberculosis that he had battled for so many years. He was on his way overseas to an assignment "somewhere in the Pacific.
"I'l1 be home Mama. Don't cry. And I will write to you every week.
Three weeks later he had been shot down over the Philippines. His pilot and crew were "90 day wonders. They were young men who had been taught to fly bombers and shoot guns in the ninety day training period. A taxi driver delivered the telegram to our farm. Mama had been expecting it, as she had not had a letter from Arnold in a couple of weeks. He and his crew were missing in action. There was still hope that he was alive. His few belongings, left behind in his barracks before that fatal first mission, consisted of a razor, some letters, and photographs. They were sent home to Mama in a small duffel bag that was coated with mildew. His body and those of his crew were recovered after the war.
It was a bittersweet victory for the Smith family when Japan surrendered. Japan had surrendered within a day's time when the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
Our Arnold would not be coming home.
There were two other Glennonville men killed in the war. One had planted my first kiss upon me under the persimmon tree. Then he roared off to war on his motor cycle, never to be seen again. His plane crashed as he was delivering food drops to the starving Dutch. We had to be happy for the other families in the community. Their sons would be coming home.
The war was over but it would never be completely over for me. It continued in my dreams for over a decade. I chased my brother's elusive curly topknot though a labyrinth of strange city streets night after night. My cries awoke me from these awful dreams. I lay there sweating with my heart pounding. I finally realized he was dead when I visited his grave in Nebraska. I checked in at the front gate of the National Cemetery. The clerk pulled out an index card and said,Yes, Cpl. Arnold J. Smith, Serial No. 518912004, Row 958, Space C-12. Try not to walk on the grass. Then she snapped the little index drawer closed with a click. I located Space C-12 and said, Goodbye serial #518912004 It wasn't fair, you know. Rest in peace. I loved you dearly.
The young Glennonville warriors drifted home one by one. Their eyes were old and dead. Their boyish good humor had been left on the battlefields of Europe and in the swamps of the South Pacific.
My oldest brother was called up by the draft. He had lost two fingers and could not carry a gun. He was not drafted until near the close of the war. So many young men had been killed that even the crippled were called upon to serve in the military. The younger boys of the family were yearning to go to the army too. But one suffered the scourge of being 4-F because of his flat feet.
He was finally accepted for military duty when the Korean Police Action erupted in Korea. His letters home spoke of the terrible cold in Korea and of the deaths of his comrades. His letters were not censored as the letters in World War II had been. The descriptive letters home brought the war up close and personal.
When he came home he would dive under the furniture at any loud noise; then sheepishly realize that he was safe at home. He took to the bottle to find some peace from his nightmares.
It seemed that in no time we were at war again in Vietnam. I could not bear to think about this war. I had been through enough war in my life. Vietnam was for a new generation to grieve. I had been through the good war. That old song, Down by the River Side, kept running through my head. Im gonna lay my burden down, down by the river side. I ain't gonna study war no more.
Margaret Smith Oakley was born and raised on a Missouri farm. She attended the University of Missouri and received the Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1971. She lives in Reno with her husband of forty years.