A photo of my Mom appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1943. She would have been sweet sixteen at the time. The section with the full page picture was published in living color. I suppose it would have been new technology during the War. A cherished copy is tucked away in an old album. The colors are faded now; but real.
Mom sits in a classroom looking up at a uniformed GI. It’s a close-up. Behind her on a black board are chalked mathematical formulas, complicated but clear. The soldier holds a balsawood model of a winged fighter plane and looks as though he’s explaining some complicated principle of aerodynamics or airborne engagement with the enemy. She smiles with delight. In each hand she holds a knitting needle. She listens intently working the stitches without the need to look down. On her head, she wears a cap with a Red Cross. Her white uniform identifies her as a volunteer. She’s young, pretty and symbolizes a community’s commitment to the war effort. Behind her, Old Glory. She’s a daughter of the Windy City, Chicago. And she’s the daughter of a nation at War – with victory in her sights.
She was the kind of young citizen Ken Burns highlights in his seven episode fifteen hour retrospective on World War II aired on PBS. America may never repeat the national commitment to the war effort that those four years demanded. Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation out of a depression. And then, he led the nation through the inevitable involvement in a world war that was triggered by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mom was in high school.
She knew the dark turmoil of the depression years. Her mom and dad barely kept the rent paid and food on the table during those hard days when employment was scarce and the weather harsh. What she experienced during that cruel era she rarely talks about.
This photo is a treasure. You don’t see the pain of a complicated childhood. You see instead the optimism and hope that lit the smile and signaled what would become a lifetime of service and care.
It was a sailor who captured her heart.
Ken Burns has created another masterpiece in The War. Using original photographs and sixteen millimeter newsreel footage, letters and interviews, he traced the history from beginning to end on both sides of the globe. The perspective he chose was from the small towns in America who sent their men to war. He focused on the universal war effort that turned factories into twenty-four hour a day munitions machines. Ships and tanks and cannon and rifles and sleek fighter planes and high-altitude bombers and countless uniforms and boots became the products that flowed off the assembly-lines until both the European and Pacific theaters were thick with the weapons of war. It’s an amazing story.
Mom and dad found each other during those days. They started their life in the post-war era that gave us Ike and Leave It to Beaver.
So now we’ve been together all these years. Back then, we predicted what life might be like after the year Two Thousand. We imagined that everyone would fly in their personal airplanes and that the world would be wired to nuclear power plants and we pictured a landscape that looked something like the animated utopia the Jetsons called home. We didn’t even think of a thing called the Internet. But the year two thousand has come and gone and it doesn’t look much like we imagined it would.
We still drive internal combustion automobiles and talk on telephones and watch television.
Mom is about to begin her ninth decade. In so many ways, she is still the same woman she was in that photograph. Her smile still draws people in. Her warmth brings healing and hope. Her laughter livens up the room. Conversation is her life.
Everyone wants time with her. The children. The spouses. The grandchildren. The great-grandchildren. They want to tell her their stories. They want to hear her advice. They want to tap into her faith.
All fifty-two of us will celebrate, along with a host of her favorite friends. We’ll celebrate the memories.
But mostly, we’ll wonder where the years went.
* * * * * * *
It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. The years have come and gone and some things remain.
The most important things. Like family and faith and optimism and hope – a smile from underneath a Red Cross, knitting needles in hand, listening to the words of a starry-eyed visionary paint a picture of victory and conquest with the formulas in place and the red-white-and-blue signaling the identity of a Grand Old Flag that declares liberty and gives assent to the pursuit of happiness.
It’s all there. This Monday morning.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp October 2007