Time Capsule: 1969 –From Pearl Harbor to Vietnam

(continued from “The October Moratorium”)

(what follows is an excerpt from a work-in-progress; find more here)

Rummaging through the Time Capsule I’d sent myself from 1969, I was surprised to find among the artifacts a packet of letters from the 1940's that my mother had saved. There were about dozen letters addressed to Ellen Gould — my future mother — from Harvey Schatzkin — my future father. I have no idea how those letters found their way into my tub of journals and letters, but there they were, and reading through them gave me a fresh, first hand perspective on how much had changed between the generation that had fought World War II and the one that protested Vietnam.

Among the letters to Ellen was the one Harvey sent to his parents on December 8, 1941 — the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It was written in the evening, after Franklin Roosevelt delivered his “day of infamy” address to a joint session of Congress. After Roosevelt’s speech to Congress, a vote was taken. War was declared, and the mobilization began in ernest.

A portion of the trove of letters Harvey wrote during the 1940s

Reading Harvey’s account of the talk among his friends and classmates at the University of Illinois, I recalled the scene in “Gone With The Wind” after the outbreak of the Civil War, with all of those Southern gentlemen running off to join “the cause.”

Harvey was attending a formal dinner when the news first spread:

We learned about it just as dessert started. Someone at the other end of the table came back from a phone call and said something to the girl next to him. She turned to the boy next to her and passed it on. The word swept up the table, leaving a wake of silence behind it. Then someone told me: “Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor.” I turned to Lucille and looked at her. She gave the same look back to me. I took another spoonful of ice cream. But by this time the whole dining room was a bedlam of silence…

A chair scraped and someone got up to turn the radio on… It was a pretty tense, anxious gang of boys and girls huddled about the radio, the bird-like Kaltenborn telling us that history was being made faster than any of us could realize. It was vague, indefinite, but a few things were clear. We had been attacked and Japan was the aggressor… One girl started to cry — she had brothers in the service on the west coast. Another boy reeled when he heard the news — his brother was an officer at Pearl Harbor….

I came back to the house… constant chatter from radio, turning the dial from one set of news broadcasts to another. Gabriel Heater and Walter Winchell. I thought about studying once, sat down at my desk, and promptly turned on the radio. Study was out of the question.

[The following evening] I heard the newsboys yelling “War Declared!” and although I always knew I would hear it, it still seems more like a movie scene than the real thing.

A group of students started a rally on the campus. Cheering, noise, American flags and cries of “Beat Japan” filled the air. It was a small gang that started out, they finished up something like 2,000 students in a clamoring mob.

As far as I’m concerned, I think I can graduate, but who knows? I know of several engineering students whose draft training has been deferred so that they might graduate. I know of one, in my class, whom the school cannot get deferred. He is definitely being called in February, despite two letters from the dean to his draft board. Of course, all of this was before we went to war. God, that sounds awful…

Jim Buhai, head of our house, came up to me and wanted to know what I was going to do. Jim is over 21, not an engineer, and was making funny sounds about where he should enlist — air corps, or publicity branch of the army if he can do it. Another fellow in the house is talking about enlisting. Phone calls are going home like mad. I don’t know what it was like the last time we went into a war, but I suppose it was pretty much the same thing.

Back to the main topic — my status quo at school. I don’t feel any too secure, if you want to know. Watching this guy with whom I went through three-and-a-half years of college be snatched right out from under a diploma, has done a lot to shame my confidence of staying out because I am a ceramics engineer.

I spoke once to you about dropping out of school and enlisting or going into a defense industry, and you showed me it was silly then. How do you feel about it now?

Well, that’s about all on that. I don’t want to drop out of school, and I don’t think I will unless it’s the only way I can stay out of the army infantry. My best bet is still to graduate and see what I can do with a degree clutched in my hand

Lt. Harvey and Mrs. Ellen Schatzkin on leave ca. 1944

For my father and his generation — young men much like me nearly thirty years later, pursuing their “higher” education (though the definition of “higher” was starting to take on a different meaning in my case…) — there was no question of protest or even conscientious objection. Once America had been attacked, every man knew what was expected of him and anything short of flooding into the breach would be considered cowardice if not treason. Every American male of a certain age knew there was a military uniform in his near future. No eligible, able-bodied man could face his community without having served. The only question for Harvey and his contemporaries was how they could invoke enough of their white, upper-middle class privilege to stay out of the infantry and being sent to the front lines.

It was not at all like that for those of us reaching draft age in the era of Vietnam.

The thing about the war in Vietnam was that it tore the lid off of everything we’d been taught about America since elementary school.

The 1950s were arguably America’s Golden Age, the Zenith of the American Century. The country had emerged from the Great Depression thanks in no small part to the industrial mobilization that ultimately won the Second World War; After a brief post-war contraction, the beneficiaries of the GI Bill turned America into a cornucopia of motorized suburban affluence.

American factories churned out the products that the rest of the world envied, especially big shiny automobiles with powerful V8 engines that ran on an inexhaustible supply of gasoline that cost a whole 25¢ a gallon. Dwight Eisenhower gave all that unprecedented prosperity and mobility easy access to the entire continent by paving a network of superhighways — wide, endless slabs of asphalt (never mind that the real purpose of the Interstate Highway System was to quickly move military equipment from one coast to the other in the event of a national emergency).

Forrest dale School, Rumson New Jersey ca. 1956

In my own experience, there was probably no greater symbol of that post-war prosperity than the shiny new elementary school that my brother and I went to the day it opened in September, 1956. Forrestdale School in Rumson, New Jersey — named for the street it was situated on, Forrest Avenue — replaced the the old, four-story red brick-Victorian Lafayette Street School with a sprawling, single-story edifice of mostly glass and steel.

The day Forrestdale opened, my brother and I rode a shiny yellow bus to the new school, where he went off to Mr. Mannheim’s 5th grade class on one end of the building and I went Miss Paine’s 1st grade class at the other end.

It was from my spanking new rolled-steel-and-formica desk in Miss Paine’s first grade class that I rose every morning to Pledge my Allegiance to the Land of The Free and the Home of The Brave — “The Greatest Country on Earth” — where by some fortuitous accident of birth, we were privileged to live.

It would take a while before it became painfully evident just how short the reach of that “privilege” really was.

I vaguely remember the first time I noticed that not everybody lived the way we did; You really didn’t need to go far from the Forrestdale Shool and the affluent confines of Rumson to discover that something was not quite right in “the greatest country on Earth.”

When we lived in Rumson, we had a full-time housekeeper — OK, a maid — a black woman named Thelma who lived in her own small room behind the kitchen in our house on Monmouth Avenue near the Shrewsbury River.

Thelma, helps serve the birthday cake at my 6th birthday — Nov 15, 1956

Thelma was a fixture in our lives, as much responsible for my care and feeding as either of my parents. She did all the cooking and housekeeping. She lived with us most of the time but had her own family that lived in Red Bank.

I can’t recall what prompted the occasion, but I have a dim mental imprint of one occasion when I rode in the car with my father to Red Bank to pick up Thelma and bring her back to our house. I’d been to Red Bank lots of times, but only to the the clean, shiny streets of the business district with its shops and department stores. I got my hair cut at a barber shop just off one of those main streets and there was a hobby shop on another side street where Arthur and I bought the model airplanes we built. That was all I new of Red Bank…

…until that day we went to pick up Thelma and I got my first glimpse of the other side of Red Bank, the side that was mostly occupied by its poor, black population.

Thinking back on that occasion now, all I can recall is that being in that neighborhood made me …. uncomfortable. The experience was almost visceral, but at the age of only 5 or 6, could not have registered on any more of a level than that.

I likewise recall a vaguely similar experience a few years later later, after my mother had remarried and we moved to Essex County, the county that contained not only the leafy green suburb of Maplewood where we lived, but the gritty streets of Newark as well.

Temple B’nai Jeshurun, Newark New Jersey

The first few years we lived there, the Jewish congregation that the family joined still had it’s main Temple in the middle of Newark. In order to get there — as we only did a few times every year — we had to drive through what by then was entirely acceptable to call “the ghetto.”

That’s an ironic word for a Jew to use, considering that its use originated with enclaves where Jews were confined in the anti-semitic precincts of Eastern Europe. But by 1960-whatever, a “ghetto” was where black people lived in America’s inner cities, the neighborhoods that affluent suburban Jews would only drive through on the way to the High Holidays at the synagogue their elders had built in a previous century. And by the time I and my Hebrew school classmates rode through it, Newark was much more depressed than Red Bank ever was.

So, again, I knew on some visceral level that great inequality abounded in the midst of our land of privilege and plenty. It wasn’t really until the anti-war movement began drawing on the economic rhetoric of the New Left that I started to connect the dots between the war and economic inequality. It was an easy tranistion, from “anti-war” to “anti-capitalist.”

If the escalation of the war in Vietnam “ripped the lid” of our preconceptions, then the lid was was first loosened on November 22, 1963.

November 22, 1963 — the day “The Sixties” began… (graphic, not for the faint of heart)

There is no denying that the Kennedy assassination tore a major hole in the fabric of American society, but Lyndon Johnson did an admirable job of turning our national grief — and a landslide re-election in 1964 — into the foundation of his “Great Society.” Johnson’s subsequent tenure and his monumental legislative achievements — Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare — went a long way toward sewing the country back together.

And while all that was happening on the legistlative front, NASA pressed on with Kennedy’s most ambitious initiative — to put a man on the moon. In December, 1968 Apollo 8 sent back the first images of the Earth as as a shiny blue marble, suspended in the infinite void of space. For the first time, we saw a rendering of the Earth without any borders — a planet devoid of political separations.

For a while at least, the grievous wound inflicted that sunny-but-dark November day in Dallas had failed to diminish the American Dream. After Kennedy was buried America recovered, and all the Blessings of Liberty promised in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the spreading prosperity we’d been promised since the first grade, seemed to entirely wthin the national reach.

And then it all came unraveled in Vietnam. Not just the Johnson administration, but the whole damn country.

Earthrise, from Apollo 8 after circling the moon

There may not have been any international borders visible from outer space, but down here on earth men were bleeding and dying over the invisible 60-mile-long line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam — a line that that existed only in the minds of the old men who had drawn it, who were now sending young men to fight and die over it.

Despite a seeming resurrection after the Kennedy assassination, America’s mood turned dark again when Martin Luther King was assassinated; that was followed in fairly quick succession by the “Clean for Gene” McCarthy insurgency, and Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal from the race. Then Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and after that the chaos of Chicago and Nixon’s election in November. All that chaos at home was a loud echo of the carnage in Southeast Asia.

And out of that conflagration, all of the unsavory, underlying truth about “the greatest country on earth” that we’d been taught to revere in elementary school — the hypocrisy that was plain to see in Thelma’s neighborhood, or on the bus ride into Newark — was laid open for all who cared to lift the lid on Pandora’s box to see.

It was not easy to reconcile the myths we’d been taught in elementary school in the 1950s with the frightening realities we confronted once we got in to high school and college in the 1960s, and faced the likelihood that we might be sent overseas to fight an illegal and immoral war in support of a corrupt and inequitable system.

Unlike the war my father fought, the war my brother and I were expected to fight revealed the fetid underside of a society that in fact worked best for only a priveleged few.

With the revelations of Vietnam, we began to suspect that the whole fucking system was just a facade. The America whose flag we saluted every morning,— we came to realize by the time we got to high school and college –– was little more than a fairy tale, suitable only for children in elementary school.

©2016 Paul Schatzkin / Cohesionarts.com