Pearl Harbor

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Signing Declaration of War Against Japan. December 8,1941. Photo by Office of War Information.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Signing Declaration of War Against Japan. December 8,1941. Photo by Office of War Information.

On the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor my mother was at the home of a family for whom she babysat, helping out at the sixth birthday party for one of their little girls. My mother was 16 years old.

The country was still trying to shake off the Depression and many families had very little money.  Families that could afford to give a birthday party celebrated with homemade decorations, cake, ice cream, and a few party games.  This family had decorated their dining room with pink and white crepe paper streamers strung from the corners to the center chandelier, and bunches of pink and white balloons.  Each of the dozen girls attending the party had found next to her place at the table a little pink and white paper basket with her name on it, filled with candy that she could take home.  After the girls finished their cake and ice cream, my mother helped push the table aside and line the chairs up in the center of the dining room under the chandelier for a game of  “musical chairs.”

The family had a big RCA combination radio/record player in a wooden cabinet as tall as my mother in their living room.  It was just on the other side of the doorway that separated the dining room from the living room, so it could be heard in both rooms.

My mother was stationed in the living room beside the radio, switching it off and on while the children’s mother supervised the game in the dining room.  The radio was tuned to a music program; my mother  always said it was “Make Believe Ballroom.” From her post beside the radio my mother couldn’t see the children in the dining room, but she could hear shuffling feet and excited giggles as the girls raced around the line of chairs, and then the scrape and clatter of wood as they all tried to sit down when the music stopped.

They had been playing for a couple of minutes and my mother was just about to turn the radio off again, when the announcer broke into the program with the terrible news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  She said that she had stood with her hand frozen on the knob for several seconds, listening to the bulletin, then realized that all the noise in the dining room had stopped.  She quickly turned the radio off to avoid frightening the children.

She looked around the corner into the dining room and asked if she should put on a record, and the mother of the family just nodded.   My mother said; “In that moment that she and I looked at each other, I realized that nothing would be the same for us again.”  “Both of us knew, without ever saying it to each other, that we had to carry on as usual for the sake of the children.”

They went back to playing the game as if nothing had happened, but my mother said that from that moment until the declaration of victory, there was always a deep sadness and a feeling of uncertainty that pervaded everything.  It was as if everyone’s lives had been cut in two:  the part before that announcement on the radio, and everything that came after.

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