Thirteen going on fourteen . . .
Shirley Morgan Smith

On Sundays our family—mom, dad, older brother—always went to church at eleven am and came back home to our dinner meal around 1:20 p.m. In our dining room we had a large buffet with glass cabinets on each side. There was a radio in the middle. I don’t remember the make, but it was high and round with a screen of netting and wooden knobs on each side. I imagine you could buy one in an antique store in 2001.

Music was playing—then came the voice: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and maybe we would be at war.
My mother started to cry. My brother would be sixeen in May and was a freshman in high school. My father had been in World War I in the waning months. My grandparents lived in California with us six months of the year, and I remembered them talking about “The Great War to end all wars,” and my uncle had been wounded in France. Our phone started to ring. (I’m the only girl with one brother and eight cousins . . . all the boys were close to draft age.)
One of my memories was of my mother, late that night—I know it was dark—talking about my grandmother, who had died in late October: “What a blessing it was now, because she would not have to see her grandsons go off to war!”

Everybody went, even my brother, who was the youngest. They fought in the Pacific and Europe. Tommy and my older cousin, Jack, were taken as POWs in Germany. We were truly a blessed family because everyone came home.
I think we went to school that Monday but came home early after President Roosevelt made his announcement. Our teacher, Mrs. Turner asked us to pray for the President, and a boy in the back of the room started to laugh and was sent directly to the principal’s office. Wow!

Some of my lingering memories:

• Gold stars hanging in windows.

• A star hanging in our living room window when Tommy went off to war.

• The night the brown Army car with the single star on the door came to our house . . . two men in uniform, with the telegram: missing in action. Late that night in a dark house I heard my father crying, “My son, my son.”

• A lost childhood: no proms, blackout shades at the windows, sailors, soldiers everywhere, and air raid wardens in the neighborhoods (my father being one of them). But also because of my age . . . romance, intrigue, patriotic songs, heroes, glamor all made up by Hollywood and the movies for the sake of the war effort and the selling of U.S. War Bonds.

• My brother, now seventy-five, still and always my hero.

Notes and observations:

• I was born and raised in Oakland, California, known as the Bay Area now. Because we were on the west coast, we expected to be bombed. We had it all—the Presidio in San Francisco, the Oakland Army Base, the Alameda Naval Air Station, Mare Island at Vallejo, the shipyards where people came from all over the country to build the mighty ships, and an Army base down the coast. All these places sticking out at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

• I was fortunate to grow up within a great ethnic culture. One of my early childhood friends was a Japanese-American and we shared the same birthdate, and from kindergarten on our families had joint birthday parties. His name was Norman and his daddy was an optician. One day the military came and took over their house, with all their treasures and belongings, and off they went to Tule Lake, California, all because they were “Japs.” Some of our families protested, but to no avail. I don’t know what happened to them, because they never came back. Another example of a lost childhood.

When I want to see “Saving Private Ryan” a few years ago, I had to leave the theater, early on, when the Army car pulling up in front of the farm house with that telegram was shown on the screen. The memory had been buried for me, but at that moment it became as vivid as yesterday—I was home alone that night; my parents were up the street a few houses playing canasta; the men asked me to call my parents home . . . and we waited.
I did return to see the movie with a friend a teacher from Reno High School.

Shirley Morgan Smith was born in Oakland, California, February 17, 1928. She was raised there and went to Sacramento Junior College. Shirley moved to Reno in 1958 and is the parent of three adult children, all boys, and grandparent to three children. In 1963 she went to work as a librarian at Getchell Library, University of Nevada, Reno. In 1968 she transferred to the library of the Desert Research Institute. She retired in 1994 after thirty-one years of service.

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