I’m old enough to remember World War II.
My earliest childhood memory is of being scolded by someone other than my parents — a soldier in uniform!
I didn’t know what I did wrong but I was consumed with guilt and humiliated to the point of tears.
I was five years old. World War II had either just ended or was winding down toward V-E Day, which would be May 8, 1945. I had no idea what war was or any inkling of what was going on in the world beyond my household and immediate neighborhood. Either my parents didn’t discuss it in front of me, or — more likely — I didn’t pay attention.
Remember, this was pre-television, pre-internet, pre-cell phones, texting, Facebook, Facetime and email. The Dim, Quiet, Dark Ages, apparently.
Men in uniform were common sights on streets, in stores, on busses, in our neighborhood. Everyone treated men in uniform with great respect. My father had a Victory Garden, which I didn’t know had anything to do with a war. My mother washed empty soup cans, put them on the kitchen floor and stomped on them, which I didn’t know had anything to do with a war.
Two of my uncles served during World War II and, thankfully, returned intact. My father was a decade older than my uncles and had a child — me — which kept him from being drafted.
One of my uncles was on leave, visiting his mother (my grandmother) in Cincinnati. My mother and I were also visiting. I remember my uncle’s uniform, which was khaki-colored and important-looking, with lots of shiny buttons and colorful decorations. He was seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table, drinking coffee.
In those days, kids my age played with toy guns. Cowboys and Indians was our favorite game. Half of the kids were cowboys, the other half, Indians. We pretended to fight with each other, but this consisted mostly of galloping around the back yard astride broomsticks, which served as pretend horses. I don’t remember that we ever pretended to fight a war. We didn’t know what a war was.
Our guns were cap guns, which we “loaded” with dotted red paper strips. The guns made a wonderfully satisfying clacking noise when fired. Clack, clack, clack. “You’re dead!” The “dead” kid had to clutch his chest, gasp, and drop to the ground.
My uncle was talking with my grandmother and mother, who were also seated at the kitchen table and I was running around my grandmother’s house playing with a toy gun. I galloped into the kitchen, pointed my cap gun at my uncle and fired.
“Bang bang bang.”
He stood up. His face grew red and distorted and ugly. He pointed his finger at me. “Don’t ever point a gun at somebody’s head,” he shouted. “Don’t do that ever. Don’t do that ever again! Do you hear me?”
I was crushed. I had never been reprimanded by that uncle — or, in fact, any uncle. I had never seen anyone so visibly angry. I had no idea why he yelled at me or what I had done wrong.
No idea whatsoever.
I remember V-J Day, which was Sept. 2, 1945. We had just finished dinner. The radio was on. My parents must have heard the news that Japan had surrendered unconditionally. Six years of war was finally over.
We all went outside and sat on our front porch, which faced a busy street. All our neighbors were celebrating on their porches or dancing on their front lawns, waving little American flags and cheering. Cars formed a slow-moving caravan, all honking their horns. People leaned out of car windows and cheered and sang.
I had no idea why everyone was celebrating. It was a good time, though. Somebody gave me a flag to wave and the noise, the singing and cheering was splendid fun.
I didn’t learn what war was until several years had passed.