—Adolf, Benito, & Hideki
A MicroRetrospective of “The Last Good War” & Familial Sequelæ
by D. Peter McIntyre ’52
I was an eight-year-old sitting alone in the living room of my four-person immediate family’s first-floor apartment in Eastchester, NY and listening to our tabletop radio on 7 December 1941. Suddenly, John Daly’s resonant voice interrupted regular programming to announce that armed forces of the Empire of Japan had attacked the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor early that Sunday morning. (“Pearl Harbor? Where’s that?”)
Days later the Big Brother squawk-box (containing hidden microphone & speaker) hanging high on the front wall in Miss Charlotte E. Matzka’s Third Grade classroom ordered us all to pour out into the corridor. Only the hall speakers’ wiring was patched into the principal’s office radio, which resembled our model at home. We pupils and teachers stood listening in real time as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nasally addressed a Joint Session of Congress about “a date which will live in infamy.”
Hitler and Mussolini declared war on the USA shortly thereafter, pitting us and our allies, “the United Nations”, against the three Axis powers. (After the War the antifascist nations yielded this title to the newborn successor to the footling and toothless League of Nations.) My older relatives quickly joined various U.S. Armed Forces serving across the Homeland and in the European and China-Burma-India Theatres of War. Some had near-death experiences, although most eventually came home and transitioned into civilian life as Veterans. But not all.
My father, future PA Parent Douglas L. McIntyre (1901-1994), a teenager during the Great War (World War I, “The War to End All Wars”), was annoyed at being too young to enlist. During the great influenza pandemic his Mt. Vernon, NY high school was turned into an emergency hospital. He volunteered to carry cadavers on a litter down the stairs to an improvised morgue in the basement. As a matter of fairness, the other volunteer and he swapped ends on successive trips, because gravity made dead feet kick the lower guy in the kidneys. And we complain today about lower back pain! By 1941, Douglas was the 40-year-old night commissary superintendent for the New York branch of the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurant chain and wanted to see action this time around.
He joined the Army Air Corps and graduated from Officers Candidate School as a Second Lieutenant. Then he was assigned to run mess halls on bases across various Southwestern States. His applying work simplification and labor-saving techniques reduced Roster KP lists by as much as 80%. Before that, bombardiers had wrecked their sensitive hands in hot water and couldn’t go back to work for three days. Grateful Airmen “promoted” lumber and paint and donated their skilled labor and free time to spruce up the hall. A cartoonist poster-painted illustrations. A photographer printed enlargements of his local mountain shots, reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams. Morale improved.
Noting that the guys routinely loaded their mess kits with more food than they needed, Lt. McIntyre asked them to take only what they planned to eat and stood beside the garbage barrel giving each wastrel The Evil Eye. Later, an anonymous note in the Suggestions Box read, “The Lieutenant should inspect his garbage before he serves it.” Eventually Douglas was promoted to First Lieutenant and then Captain, ending the War at Bolling Field outside D.C. as Chief, Food Services Division, Headquarters, First Continental Air Forces.
Whoever said that “Family is everything” probably didn’t get euchred out of $4,500 in a business deal by a female relative, as my parents did. One day when she was very old, this lightfingered lady commanded her investments manager, “Move X dollars from my account in Bank ‘A’ into Bank ‘B’.” One of her younger brothers drily observed, “She has finally achieved the ultimate in larceny: she is stealing from herself!”
By contrast, my belovèd Aunty Florrie (Mrs. Florence Mary Caygill McIntyre), a native of England who gave me pointers about playing the piano by ear, headed the family branch which continues to give me Clan McIntyre’s happiest memories from childhood. Aunty Florrie and five of her six kids (whom she had raised as a single mother headquartered near Philadelphia after her husband divorced her to marry a younger woman) were irrepressibly congenial, optimistic, and encouraging. They regarded relatives—even distant ones—as cherished best friends whose company they preferred, given a choice. With seemingly effortless grace, they meticulously carried out the demanding, day-to-day work of nurturing friendships: remembering other people’s interests, likes, and dislikes; tactfully thinking ahead to avoid stepping on emotional sore toes; passing along news of shared interests; and warmly supporting the other person’s pet projects.
One daughter, Isobel, served in the WAVEs and married a Navy man. Florrie’s elder son, Captain Donald K. (an M.D. who interned at Hartford while treating hundreds burned in the terrible circus big top fire which spawned flame-retardant laws for all future canvas tents), and her younger son, 2nd Lieutenant Alan G. (a ticket agent for railroads), became soldiers in the U.S. Army. The “G” stands for Graeme (rhymes with “frame”), a family name on his mother’s side.
Aunty Florrie was the first year’s prizewinning correspondent for THE FAMILY BULLETIN, a 5.5” x 8.5” newsletter I founded, published, and reproduced for up to 40 subscribers on a gelatin-filled Hektograph pan duplicator and later an Old Ditto successor between Fourth and Sixth Grades (1943-45). At Alan’s suggestion, I ran a directory of the APO and FPO addresses of relatives and family friends in the Armed Services to complement his ad requesting “letters, and lots of them.” He wrote, “ …. You’ve no idea how much a letter can mean to a guy when he comes in from four hours of drilling, exercising and running the obstacle course in the afternoon. It helps a lot — just the way the USO says it does. Cause when you listen for your name and it isn’t called, you get a mighty blue feeling.”
At intervals starting when I was seven years old, Alan wrote me newsy and thought-provoking letters. The first missive (postmarked January, 1939 from Theta Xi House at State College, a.k.a. Penn State) addressed my interests in carnivorous animals and plants. It also celebrated the farsighted California rancher who single-handedly saved the chinchilla from extinction and got rich in the process.
In the first of two letters from Infantry Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1943, Alan wrote, “How is school coming along? Right now you’re taking the subjects that are more important any day than those you will take in college. One of the first things they give to the officer candidates when they arrive here … is a simple test in 8th Grade arithmetic, spelling, grammar, and geography. And you would be surprised at how many men had trouble with it. Out of our class of 200 — almost half of them flunked the test. And because of it, unless they prove that they possess outstanding qualities of leadership, they will be busted out of here in the fifth week [of the 13-week course]. In other words, they’re half licked before they start, all because they couldn’t do decimals, fractions and stuff like that there, as Fibber would say. [Alan refers to the star of the weekly A.M. radio comedy serial titled “Fibber McGee and Molly”, notorious for crashing sound effects when Fibber’s wife, Molly, opened his closet door, and an avalanche of clutter fell out.] … I passed the test, by the way. This place is really rugged. West Point has nothing on this….”
Although an avid fan of American jazz who might understandably have devoted his 10-day leave (after graduating and being commissioned on 3 August 1943) to haunting jazz clubs in Philly or New York, Alan invested that precious respite in visiting my mother, sister, me, and other kin.
On the Home Front, Joe Fitzgerald, the amiable maintenance man for our group of apartment buildings, tilled and prepped a plot of land for us to plant and tend as our family’s Victory Garden. After patient watering and weeding, it supplied our table with fresh veggies. Good thing, because we had to deal with red and blue ration stamps to buy meat, sugar, & other groceries.
Although the U.S. domestic gasoline supply was adequate, the federal government’s arbitrary curtailing of fuel was intended to make natural rubber tires last longer. The Japanese war machine conquered the Dutch East Indies, cutting off the United Nations’ supply of latex. Western chemists’ early attempts to invent satisfactory synthetic rubber were disappointing. We kids had to take off our street shoes while playing sports in the elementary school’s auditorium-gym because their synthetic rubber soles left black marks on the floor. Buffing the blemishes off was labor- & time-intensive and, therefore, costly.
Our pediatrician made house calls. As an essential worker, he merited a Gasoline Ration sticker with a reverse cut of the sans-serif, boldface letter “C” on the driver’s wind vane of his car. (Ask one of my fellow dotards what a wind vane was, and did.) This label got him a bigger allotment of gas at the filling station than a mere peasant could demand with the “A“ Mileage Ration sticker. Ration Book #4 carried a picture of a young woman with the patriotic injunction, “KEEP The Home Front Pledge. Pay no more than Ceiling Prices. Pay your points in full.” (Prices and wages were controlled by a new Washington bureaucracy.)
A counselor at my day camp had prominent scar tissue on one shoulder from entry and exit bullet wounds inflicted by a Nazi spy in our neighborhood when the counselor helped police corner the Fifth Columnist. Too close to home for comfort! A German submarine landed eight men in civilian garb on a nearby New Jersey beach to mingle with the local population and sabotage targets of opportunity. All eight were caught quickly, tried, convicted as spies (if captured in uniform, they would have been protected by various Geneva Conventions as Prisoners Of War), and executed.
Middle-aged domestic codgers were left in Home Front jobs after tens of millions of able-bodied men volunteered for (or were drafted into) the U.S. Armed Forces. A typical troll customarily replied to customers’ complaints about the lousy goods or service he provided by snarling, “Doncha know there’s a WAR on?” out of one side of his mouth, as if that justified his arrant snottifications.
My mother, sister, and I got through until VE- Day (Victory in Europe) and VJ-Day (Victory over Japan) without running out of salt print butter, although once we were down to an eighth of a pound.
The powerful dairy lobby rammed through Congress a law forbidding makers of barfy old margarine to color it yellow, like butter. (Surf the ’Net to find the emetic ingredients the French Academy dithered for 30 years to include in early XIXth Century versions of this nauseating spread, intended to put fat into the diets of citizens too poor to buy butter.) I once saw a neighbor’s malleable, clear plastic pouch of pus-white margarine with a separate dot of coloring gel glistering like a navel jewel in the middle. The customer had to punch the dot, rupturing its thin inner membrane, and then knead the mass interminably to distribute the yellow tint evenly throughout.
Once, another first cousin, Lt. j.g. Ted Stouffer, had become a Navy fighter pilot, Aunty Myrt only had to feed herself and Uncle Peeko. So she used her leftover red ration stamps to buy roasts, which she mailed to us from Narberth, PA by Special Delivery. Myrt was a generous and hospitable darling, but her wrapping skills were imperfect. One day our bemused NY Letter Carrier handed my mother a package of fresh beef with paper and string trailing down the corridor. Aunty Myrt happily devoted many hours to volunteering as a Gray Lady in a seersucker uniform at a military hospital, trundling a book-filled lending-library wagon through the wards, encouraging patients, and writing letters home for them.
Ted had a couple of close calls. Before he soloed in a two-cockpit training plane, crewmen lashed a 200# sandbag into the seat behind him to approximate an instructor’s weight. As Ted dove alone, G Forces caused the bag to unship and wrap around the joystick, which was in tandem with his stick in front. It took all the muscle on his 6’ 3” frame to pull out before crashing. Danny Hodges, the son of family friends, wasn’t so lucky. He was killed in a plane crash during a training flight.
Another day one of Ted’s fellow pilots was fooling indoors with a side arm, supposedly unloaded. But it went off. An unsuspected bullet in the chamber grazed Ted’s scalp. A Family Bulletin article for March-April, 1945 quoted Ted’s letter home. “‘Remember what I told you the other day about licking the skipper, Lt. Commander Murphy, in a [practice] dogfight? And how my chest deflated when I found he wasn’t playing anymore [because of sudden mechanical trouble]? Well, my chest is out again. This time I really did lick the skipper. In fact, three times in a row! It doesn’t mean a thing, but it is nice to outmaneuver a man with three DFCs (Distinguished Flying Crosses). What’s more important is that he told me that I am going to be his wing man!’ (ED NOTE: A wing man flies along beside the skipper on missions and is his fighter escort. It takes an excellent flyer to be a wing man, and we are sure that Ted is doing a swell job.)”
With an interest-free, $20 loan from my parents, I bought a sturdy wooden wagon with removable sides and ends. This permitted me to tour our neighborhood collecting scrap metal for bullets, recyclable newspaper bundles, and #10 cans filled with stove grease for nitroglycerine. Then I sold them for pocket change. These coins (plus earnings from my weekend shoe-shining business @ 5¢/pair) enabled me to pay off the loan and to buy War Stamps from our teacher every Friday and paste them into a booklet. When full, each booklet could be swapped for an $18.50 Series “E” War Bond redeemable years later for $25. Unless, of course, the Axis powers won, which came closer to happening than anybody wants to remember.
Among a neighbor’s discarded books hauled home one day on the bed of my wagon, I found a green, hardbound Latin grammar from the early 1880s. I wanted desperately to learn that ancient tongue. But the book was incomprehensible to me: clots of boldface Latin words strung together by tissues of meaningless English gibberish. The Greek tragedy of my early education is that I couldn’t think of a single trustworthy adult with whom to share this passionate curiosity and downright physical yearning. Our upstairs neighbor was the Dean of City College of New York, but it never occurred to me to ask him to teach me this venerable and fecund language, or at least to triage me to a tutor.
In Fifth Grade during WW II, my gray-haired and statuesque teacher (whom I admired and loved) got us kids to move her big desk from the front of the room to the rear. This permitted her to put the peek on what we were stashing in our open-fronted desks, and whether we were passing notes. She habitually carried on a rambling monologue to us all, complaining that the only two men she had loved (her father and her husband) had died and left her defenseless in a hostile world. She used us as listening machines, or unpaid psychoanalysts.
I didn’t learn until decades later that, when a woman complains, she wants a man to identify with her feelings and to validate them. The last thing she wants him to do is to offer practical advice to solve the underlying problem.
Our teacher worked herself into a screaming rage one day and yanked me out of my seat and slapped and punched my 10-year-old body in front of our entire class after insulting my wartime Captain father’s “pots and pans”. The trigger was my respectful, helpful suggestion that she take courses on the side — this in response to her stream-of-consciousness complaint to the class in general about not having a graduate degree, which she identified as being her key to a better-paying high school job. I probably wasn’t the only pupil to wonder, “How important are we mere Fifth Graders to her?” As I silently walked toward the Principal’s office for guidance, she sent big kids thundering down the corridor to carry me back horizontally like a log to our classroom. (The Principal, himself, routinely sneaked up behind us kids as we chatted innocently in line waiting for the bus, grabbed a boy by the hair, pulled his head back, and endlessly slapped the boy’s face from behind in front of everybody.) My teacher’s second verbal and physical assault followed. After the Principal’s conference with my mother three days later, I was put back into the same classroom with the same teacher (who had tenure) and spent 5th through 8th Grades with the same kids amid our burning memories of my humiliation. This unresolved, open-ended atrocity destroyed me for life as a student in a classroom setting.
Abused kids pay MICROSCOPIC attention.
Abused kids NEVER forget.