Thursday, September 18, 2008

Recalling a Time When Terror Sunk In

EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! North Adams, Massachusetts. I am five years old. I am awakened by a boy’s voice below my bedroom window on Church Street. It’s still dark. I look down. The boy stands in the shadow of our maple trees flashing a newspaper. He shouts, "EXTRA! EXTRA! Read all about it! Roosevelt Dead! Roosevelt Dead!"

Roosevelt died hours earlier, World War II is almost over, but we don’t have TV or computers, so news doesn’t reach us instantly. We wait for the news. This war demands patience, sacrifice and unity. During the war years, my uncle and his son make the big guns at the Waterveliet arsenal. America makes no new cars. Meat is rationed. No butter. Margarine is white, with a small bulb of red dye that we Americans dutifully press into the margarine to give it the yellow color, to show we support the war. On Wednesday or Sunday afternoons, our family traipses to the Mohawk Theater for a double feature and the Warner Pathe News with its crowing rooster.

The Walter Winchell and the Edward R. Murrow cover defeat, from the Battle of the Bulge, to D Day. Artillery booms. Tanks clank. Troops advance. They dig foxholes. They dive for cover. War planes strafe. Big ships rock when their 16 inch guns roar. The whine of kamikazes echoes in the black & white film. There are blackouts and blackout drills, when under penalty of the law, we turn out all house lights so the bomber planes can’t find us. Street lights are out. We sit at grandma’s kitchen table, shades pulled, a towel over a small green lamp; mom and dad, all of us, hands folded, waiting, hoping German bombers don’t bomb North Adams, that this horrible and unforgiving war will end. My stepbrother comes home on crutches. My other stepbrother is pulled out of the Bulge with frostbite. His entire unit is killed. The German Restaurant on Route 7 in Troy is boycotted long after the war. This is an unimaginable terror, that as a boy one processes with wonder and fear.

Today I‘m truly amazed at the whimsy, the gloss, the Happy Meals and the commercials for teeth whitener, the incongruity, the lack of sacrifice. My, my, how the dance goes on. I recall a few slow news days during our “Showdown with Saddam.”Camera pan deserts and beer commercials. A man shoots his wife and children in a jealous rage. A man tries to hang himself from the balcony of a jai alai stadium during the game. The news clip reads, "Mr. Cruz was not working at the time of the incident." A News FLASH spins on three local TV stations: “Loose Monkey!”

Sure enough, a monkey is loose in Fort Lauderdale and we’re treated between shots of the oncoming or non-oncoming war on terrorism, to "Monkey on the Run," with three channels in hot pursuit. The TV stations are out of sync, so if we switch channels, station one shows us where the monkey has been, station two shows the monkey captured in a cage and station three shows us the empty cage where said monkey chewed its way out. Terrorist Monkey? Then, and I don’t know how she manages a straight face, a newscaster stands in front of the camera and says, "We want you to know, that we have now established a Monkey Hot Line." I immediately envision a chimpanzee holding a cell phone, then my mind whips to a woman I met several weeks ago, who was leaving South Florida because it is too crowded and the people are unfriendly. She sits in her packed car. An Igloo cooler rests on the passenger seat. She tells me it contains her dead parrot on dry ice. She intended to cremate her parrot, but that didn’t work out. She’d like to put the parrot on a raft and float it out to sea, if she can find a biodegradable raft. She is driving to Boca Raton to consult friends before continuing to Alabama which I think is not a good idea.

I remember the Terrorist Bees of Boca. A beekeeper in Deerfield Beach, a few miles South of Boca Raton has been reported because his bees allegedly flew two miles north to the Boca Raton Executive Airport and deposited bee droppings on the planes. The camera zooms to the bee keeper, who assures us that bees do not fly two miles for this activity. The camera zooms to a rather large women who is on the Boca Raton City Council. She announces, again with a straight face, "We cannot have bees in Boca Raton. Boca Raton is a growing community." I try to connect a monkey on the run, a bee keeper’s dilemma and Mr. Cruz, who did not succeed in hanging himself at the jai alai game, with these so-called warring honey pots from the Middle East, to Korea to any old TV camera at all. New cars roll into gas stations. The kidnapped young girl from Salt Lake City is returned to her parents. The front page of the Sunday New York Times boasts a photograph of a navy man hitting golf balls off the fantail of a carrier. I hear Fort Lauderdale school kids protest their right to wear pajamas to school because they feel more comfortable. After all, "It’s a long day."

I am swept back to that night when the newsboy shouts under the maple tree on Church Street. "EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT. ROOSEVELT DEAD!" When "evil" and "terror" draped Europe, the Far East, the World; when real shadows crept into our little hearts, into our North Adams, when all our dreams felt clouded, when we pressed the red dye into the margarine and pushed on.


At September 19, 2008 at 12:19 PM , Blogger Jen said...

Sometimes the planet indeed wavers, and life becomes eerily glossy. A new vet in a swanky cat-only hospital tells me, in my desperation, that my cat needs back surgery, and if not, perhaps I could consider physical therapy. Do you think they will make him wear a track suit? A sweatband with tweety-bird on it? But he's got a slipped disk and lost much weight due to pain and immobility in back legs. What is the humane thing to do? Is it the same as the financially sane thing to do? Probably not. Oy.

There is no such thing as a happy medium when a pet needs constant care and attention. How happy will he be? How happy will I be?

And yet, I know that even considering this issue is a luxury most do not have. Sad, and guilt, and all sorts of weirdness creeps in. My boyfriend thinks I'm crazy for even what I've done so far. But to not do it tears me apart, because as much as I've tried not to, we treat animals like people nowadays, and it's hard to remember we're dealing with a fur ball and not a fur person.

Ok, well, back to work. This life made possible by all that has come before, all sorts of bombs, abandoning of homes and pets to flee an advancing enemy, and even the sad nights staring at a screen telling us the president is not the person they told us an hour before, followed by eight years of bizarre flips around a deserted world where we shouldn't be and we are not wanted. There is no such thing as understanding, there is no such thing as agreement, there is no perspective taking when your neighbor would kill his son so that he will never utter your words. What is to be done but to smile, gloss it up, and say Cheese? To move on anyway despite cynicism, choose to see and do good in small ways in the broken world, to not criticize but to learn from the failures of those around you, and to keep viewing the world as a good place, even though you know there is no such thing.


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