Distant Storm

Out of the blue in the week before Christmas, my daughter asked me if I had any idea of how the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, early in December, 1941, generally affected the Christmas mood that year. Of course, she knows that I wouldn’t have any personal memories of that period (as I wasn’t even born until 15 years after that event) but I grew up pretty well marinated in memories and memoirs of World War 2 – even more so when I sat down to write a novel set in that time period. Yes, the Christmas of 1941 was a nerve-wracking time for more than just Americans, even if a war in Europe had been going on for more than two years. In the Far East, countries and colonies were falling like ninepins to imperial Japanese invasion and occupation all through the first months of 1942. I have gathered so from memoirs; and also from my own memories of the lead-up to Christmas, 1990 and the buildup when operations began before the first Gulf War (the last year that we were in Spain) and how mothers and fathers put on a brave face for small children. They did their best then, as we did that year, to have an absolutely normal, reassuring Christmas, with presents and Santa, carols and a nice meal. In 1941 and for three subsequent years, parents had to explain the sudden absence of older brothers and cousins, younger uncles and fathers, and the necessity of blackouts. Probably later, they had to put a brave face on depressing headlines in the newspaper that yet another island, town or province had been attacked, and might soon surrender – just as I and other parents stationed at European bases had to explain Desert Shield; new concertina around the base perimeter, a flightline full to bursting with parked transport aircraft, the long hours that military parents and spouse volunteers were all working.

This last Christmas wasn’t so fraught as all that, but it still seemed to me to have been pretty restrained; the two Christmas markets that we participated in were almost flat-lined. Everyone seemed to be holding on to what money they had. We went to one small-town Christmas tree lighting ceremony, which was crowded … but it was a small town, out in the Hill Country, which we presumed to be fairly sheltered against disruptive shenanigans. But everything costs more, this year – we couldn’t do massive batches of fudge to give away to friends and neighbors this year but had to settle for baking a few sheet pans of bar cookies instead. UPS used to park a storage unit in the driveway of a house just inside the neighborhood and made deliveries in a golf-cart with a trailer hitched to it … not this year. (Or last, to be fair.) On the other hand, the post office was swamped; they had at least four days backlog on deliveries. This seemed to be nationwide, as it made the local news. I suspect it was not the number of parcels in the system, but that transportation systems were clogged and erratic. I have the sense of people hunkering down, looking at a dark horizon, waiting for the storm to hit. Inflation, terrorism, crime, war and civic unrest, the near-certainty of an election season that will make the history books in a bad way as a cautionary tale and a renewed panic over a wildly-communicable but relatively harmless virus – any or all in combination.

There is a brief passage towards the end of Marcia Davenport’s family epic of the Pittsburgh steel mills (a book and the movie made from it posted about here at Chicagoboyz by David Foster) which resonated with me, when I reread it late last year… “One thing was held by everybody in common, everybody from the flower-seller on his corner and the gruff driver of a rattling hack, to the artists at the opera and the sober officials up in the Hradĉany; a knowledge that every day of the good life now was a day gained from an ominous and impenetrable future. They would make and listen to their music and cook and eat their delectable food and promulgate and live by their wise laws intently aware that the rim of security and sanity was shrinking, shrinking visibly around them, every day. … it was the infinite personal perfection of life that glowed warm and treasurable against the thickening miasmas of the wilderness outside. Each homecoming now was not merely the delight of coming home, but the tense appreciation of this home to come to, this perfection balanced so delicately on the brink of a volcano.”

Ah, well – I wish that I could hope for a happy new year – but I can read the skies as well as anyone. Discuss as you wish.

13 thoughts on “Distant Storm”

  1. I suspect that what we feel now, and the restrained celebration of the holidays, are a domestic equivalent to the nerves felt in 1941. And perhaps to what was being felt in 1859-60 before the election. We seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop, with a whole cobbler shop overhead. And to be doing that waiting while knowing that the Social and Political Contract is shaky at best and the rule of law is more dependent on who you are, and what group you belong to, than to what the law says.

    Subotai Bahadur

  2. David Foster-

    Actually, I just thought of it as I was typing the above. Sometimes I get lucky.

    Subotai Bahadur

  3. I’m reminded of what Doyle had Holmes say to Watson:
    “There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson. And a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind nonetheless and a greener, better, stronger land that will lie in the sunshine when the storm is cleared.”
    Let us hope the sun shines here again.

  4. “… intently aware that the rim of security and sanity was shrinking, …”

    I’ve often likened our family’s current existence to this metafor, but not in the exact words. We live in a safe neighborhood with like minded people intently aware of our surroundings, because we are not far removed from crime and poverty. And every day I imagine the protective circle around us has shrunk a tiny bit. Not much, but it’s there and does not ever let up pushing against that barrier around us.

  5. Never forget who it is that constantly presumes to reduce our circle of safety. And don’t fall for the sleight-of-hand that it’s some impersonal, corporate or political entity. It is a person of evil, with evil intent, leading an army of minions in thrall to this evil person’s promises of power.

    Never forget.

  6. “…waiting for the other shoe to drop, with a whole cobbler shop overhead”… brilliant, and it causes one to wonder what sort of umbrella might be of use when it starts raining shoes.

  7. I don’t remember my grandparents speaking about Christmas’41, but I never asked them either.

    The run up to Desert Shield/Storm was only slightly apprehensive around Minot/Grand Forks/Fargo, worried more about gas prices and how that would affect the prices of other goods, but not so much about actual hostilities. Most of those thinking about Iraq/Kuwait seemed fairly hung-ho even though the MSM were pushing a downer narrative about forced recalls. The prologue to Afghanistan seemed similar around here, with people ready to go.

    I was much more concerned about what the future would be like after Tiannemen Square. I felt sure that our next major military campaign would be in the far east rather than the Middle East.

  8. I don’t know any Christmas after Pearl Harbor stories, but I will add a Pearl Harbor story. After my mother died, my aunt (her sister-in-law) told us that my mother’s beau was on a navy ship that was sunk at Pearl Harbor. Which we had never known before. In recent years, we checked the Pearl Harbor ship and sailor losses online, and confirmed that part of my aunt’s story. As my mother was an Okie, I am reminded of this song. KATE WOLF – In China or a Woman’s Heart, There Are Places No One Knows.

  9. I heard (but cannot confirm) that Kate Smith was opening the Christmas show at Radio City and asked her friend, Irving Berlin, for an appropriate song. He gave her “God Bless America”.
    He told her, “It’s not much, but it’s all I have.”

  10. I heard (but cannot confirm) that Kate Smith was opening the Christmas show at Radio City and asked her friend, Irving Berlin, for an appropriate song.
    It was definitely her signature song.

    The Wiki article states that the song had an interesting group of enemies: Woody Guthrie and the KKK. :)

  11. The war in Europe had been going for two years with Roosevelt continually angling to get us in the fight. Only lacking a blatant enough provocation and had been ratcheting up pressure on Japan that had been fighting for ten years with the Philippines an obvious stumbling block to their plans.

    The attack on Pearl Harbor could have come as a surprise only to the sort of fools that seem to have inhabited the War and Navy Departments, then and now. To anyone paying attention, it probably came, with Hitler’s very convenient, swift and unexpected declaration of war, as a relief.

    Today’s question is which, if any, of either ongoing or bubbling merrily away beneath the surface conflicts will entangle us. Not to forget the “and” option.

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