It was a different America then. News of the Japanese attack came from bulletins that broke into radio programs and spread by word of mouth over the phone, on streets of cities and house to house in small towns.
That Sunday, I was a college student with a part-time job in a New York hospital, standing next to a young man with a dazed grin, staring through a picture window at a nurse in a white mask holding up a swaddled armful inches from our eyes. She gently shook the sleeping baby into a red-faced wail, then drew the curtain.
In those days, fear of germs kept newborns in a nursery while mothers spent a week in hospital beds. The babies were brought in to be breast-fed, then carried back to their cocoons. During that time, the new father would get only one quick look, and my job was to lead him to the window. The babies were all alike. The real show was on our side of the glass: a man’s eyes flooding with pride, wonder and worry.
But on December 7, 1941, sudden death six thousand miles away shattered the tableaus of new life. Happy faces at mothers’ bedsides turned to stone, nurses and doctors looked lost behind their masks of composure. My stomach churned as I climbed to the Third Avenue El to go home. As the train hurtled over familiar streets, I felt cold and exposed.
The next day, I was in the Great Hall of City College, holding a half-eaten sandwich, my eyes on a huge glowing mural behind the stage, a black-robed graduate amid flying cherubs and, in togas, the figures of Wisdom, Discipline and Alma Mater pointing the way to a bright future.
From a loudspeaker the voice of the only President I could remember (FDR took office on my ninth birthday) was telling of a day that will live in infamy and announcing we were at war. I was suddenly wrenched into a world beyond my familiar slivers of the Bronx and Harlem connected by a subway ride.
The following days were a thrilling blur of rumor and fear. A history professor stopped a lecture on Victorian life. “You’ll hear the Japanese have poisoned the water and Nazi subs are off Staten Island,” he said, with a reassuring grimace. “Nothing will happen. Go home, do your homework.”
Every night at 8:55, breaking into the flow of radio comedy and dopey drama, the chilling voice of Elmer Davis told of battles in Europe and the Pacific. Older boys from my neighborhood were fighting in unimaginable places, and I would soon be with them.
World War II came to us in slow motion and seemed unreal until we read the next day's newspaper. Why, then, did that unseen war affect our lives so much more deeply than the 24/7 images and endless words about the Middle East, which now so easily slide out of national consciousness?
World War II was everybody's war, fought by our fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and those of the people next door and down the street. In little more than a year, I knew I would be among them. We were all in it together.
If my friends and I had known we would be called "The Greatest Generation," we would have wondered what was so unusual about doing what we had to do. And it would have saddened us to know that our children and grandchildren would have to fight and die when the nation's survival was not so clearly at stake.
Now Japan and Germany are among the least warlike nations on earth, but what have we the victors learned?