18 Days Before Christmas
By Harold Shuler ~
I rolled out of my canvas Navy cot, took a pair of socks out of the drawer in the steamer trunk that served as my closet and dressed in the clothes draped over the straight-backed chair in the corner of my bedroom, a balcony which had been closed off with plywood to serve a new function. The apartment was a fourth-floor walkup, one room with a bath and kitchen, in South Los Angeles.
It was Sunday, December 7, 1941, 18 days before Christmas. I was 8 years old. The previous day, Grady, my step father and career Navy man, took Mom to the hospital to have my sibling. In those days, like the prize in Cracker Jacks the sex of a child wasn’t known until it was out of the box.
On this day, “a day that will live in infamy”, Grady went to the filling station to get a battery for our A-Model coupe. He told us later, much later, that word was sent out over the radio stations for all military personnel to report to their bases immediately. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands, a United States Territory, where the American Pacific Fleet was based. Since our car was disabled, he had to catch a ride to San Diego. We didn’t see him again for three years. We never knew what happened to our car.
Grandma, Blanche, my mothers’ mom was supposed to pick me up that afternoon. We had planned to take the bus to Echo Park to ride the paddle-boats, and then go to a movie across from the park. That particular theatre still showed silent movies. Grandma was deaf and I was always up for a Charlie Chaplin flick. I waited, but she never showed up. People were running around crying, others were yelling, “Oh, my god, there’s going to be a war. The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor.” Of course, this craziness meant nothing to me. All I knew was that everyone in the neighborhood had gone nuts; Grady didn’t come home; Grandma had forgotten to pick me up; Mom was in the hospital; I hadn’t eaten all day and it was getting dark. I thought to myself, “Now might be a good time to get worried.”
By the time my Grandmother got to the apartment, it was dark and the streets were empty. Everyone was in their homes, or bars, listening to radios for news about the sneak attack by the Japanese on the Hawaiian Islands. She asked me, “What are you doing on the porch in the dark.
I said, “I’m waiting for you.” Then, we went upstairs to the apartment. She was afraid I would get killed, out on the balcony, if the Japanese invaded Los Angeles, so she insisted we sleep together in the main room.
While I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she pulled down the Murphy bed, then put her teeth in a glass of water. Her glasses and the hearing aid paraphernalia she unhooked from her bra shared space with her teeth on a little table next to the bed. We got in bed, fully clothed, just in case.
The stress of the day caught up with me as I lay there next to my grandmother. As fatigue began to close in on me, I wondered why old people smelled like, well, old people. My Grandma’s aroma of old people, talcum powder, stale flowers, and garlic wrapped me in its cloud of love and security and I fell asleep.
The next morning, I woke to, as they say, “The first day of the rest of my life”.
I worried about Mom in the hospital. She had probably thought her days as a single mom were over, now here she was, alone again with a son and a new baby girl. I can’t imagine what the future looked like to her from that hospital bed on December 8, 1941.
Back on the cot in my balcony bedroom, I would peek through cracks between the plywood panels when the air raid sirens went off, signaling a possible bombing attack. The screaming horns demanded that all lights be shut off and windows covered to prevent any light from escaping and giving the enemy a target. During these “blackouts”, I watched the glistening city of Los Angeles vanish into the night, shielding the city from the eyes of invaders. When there was a full moon, I could see small dirigibles high overhead, shackled to the earth with cables. Their swaying silhouettes, like schools of iridescent fish, hovered, shimmering against the inky blue-black veil of the Northern sky. Dangling wires, girdling the balloons, were intended to tangle in the propellers of enemy planes. Fortunately, the bombings never occurred on this continent, but we played the game of war for four years. It consumed us.
Entertainment was almost always focused on the war. Radio shows featured spies and saboteurs being thwarted by heroic government agents and the silver screen reminded us of the atrocities perpetrated by Japan, Germany and Italy at the same time.
A kid named Ronald Reagan was in the Army, making instructional films for the military. We eventually came to realize that all that fabricated drama didn’t come close to portraying the horror of the real thing.
Young men, all over the country were chafing at the bit to get into the fight and win the “War to end all Wars,”— again.
One bright morning I was sitting on the curb putting on my roller skates. As I tightened the clamps to the soles of my shoes with my skate key, I heard the crystal-clear voice of Kate Smith singing God Bless America. It resonated from an old Philco radio through the open door of the barber shop across the street. I hope God was listening. He would have been inspired.