Wednesday, December 06, 2006

December 7, 1941 and 2006

Sixty-five years ago today, the world changed.

I was in a hospital next to a young man with a dazed grin, staring through a picture window as a nurse in white mask held up a sleeping baby. A minute later, she drew the curtain.

In those days, fear of germs kept newborns isolated, and the new father could get only a quick look. As a college student, my part-time job was to hand him a hospital gown and lead him to the window. The babies all looked 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 those tableaus of new life. Happy faces at mothers’ bedsides turned to stone, nurses and doctors looked lost behind their masks of composure. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

The next day, I was in the Great Hall of City College of New York, my eyes on a huge mural, a black-robed graduate amid flying cherubs and, in togas, the figures of Wisdom, Discipline and Alma Mater pointing 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 saying we are at war.

The day was a 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 warm 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 in unimaginable places, and I would soon be with them.

That was how the “Greatest Generation” came to its calling
--with a shock that would be unequaled until 9/11/01. The war was unseen but our imaginations, overheated by a recent Orson Welles’ broadcast of an “invasion from Mars,” produced pictures in our minds more horrifying than anything cable TV and the Internet give us now.

This week, despite all the news from Washington as leaders debate the war in Iraq, millions of Americans will go about their lives untouched by the life-and-death drama our young people there are living every day.

As a nation, we are swamped with information and images of this war, but do we feel a fraction of what we did on December 7, 1941?

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