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A veteran remembers a time gone by

    I’m navy and a Vietnam veteran. I guess my memories of a time gone by started on June 19th, 1940, what a glorious day to be born. Known as Juneteenth Day it’s the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of ending slavery in the United States. Freedom Day, I couldn’t have picked a better day. 1940 was also the year of the Dragon, the only mythical oriental birth sign. To make it even better while most are born the same day as mundane famous people my birth brothers are the Tasmanian Devil a cantankerous whirlwind and Garfield the opportunistic gadabout.  Gemini twins we three. The stars were aligned; it couldn’t get any better than this; however, it went downhill fast.

I am lucky I have a dash between dates, in fact there wasn’t many who thought I would live long enough to become an old white man.  Born prematurely at a whopping three pounds four ounces the first days of my privileged life started in an incubator.  After a full body inspection, and probably a mini mental evaluation, the Ward Nurse, definitely not a Florence Nightingale, more like Nurse Ratchet from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest”, offered my mother this unofficial advice. “Let him die, if he lives, he’ll be an imbecile anyway.”

Unlike today’s babies at half my size live and thrive, many medical professionals of the 1940s believed premature babies my size would end up at best a dead or dumb kid. Couldn’t much blame them for their evaluation though, I was feeble, cross eyed, and uglier than a bag full of smashed behinds. Years later my mother would tell me, “I had a face only a mother could love on payday.” What a privileged life.

     Choosing not to let me die in a cold hospital my mother took me home to finish a less than stellar entry into the world. With the help of my grandmother “Galloping Gertie” and my Aunt Bobbie, who was barely eighteen at the time, these three angels of mercy took around the clock nursing shifts.  They sat by my side, keeping me in a closed bedroom to protect me from any forms of normal living conditions that could be deadly to me. To repair my damaged skin, they bathed me in a chicken pot filled with wine or milk and watched over me as I slept in a nightstand drawer padded with cotton. In Nurse Ratchet’s defense, since I did live, she was at the least only half wrong however, addle-brained possibilities may still be on the table. 

Alas, eighty-two years later, from a less than privileged entry I am alive, and may not be as much of an imbecile as first forecasted.  After all there are some childhood ailments one can outgrow.  Thanks, Mother, Nana Gertie, and Aunt Bobbie.  I am so grateful that with your love and patience you each proved the ward nurse was badly mistaken. A side bar – According to family lore my birth is registered in Manhattan Hospital’s archives as being the smallest baby to live during this period.  I’ve never set time aside to research this amazing piece of history; but I do enjoy the lore – especially when it is about me. 

   Lore and truth, I remember the truth better.  I remember my years growing up in the Bronx.  I remember what life was like when America was a country of purpose, a country with a goal for growth, harmony, and people of all walks of life who wanted to provide a better life for their lineage. People, citizens, those waiting for citizenship, and many more individuals arriving on our shores every day with the skills to move America to become the powerhouse of the world.  My best recollections of these times started in 1945. I remember the noise, the joy, the pride, and the collective love of a glorious night.

Pots Pans and Patriotism

I remember, we went to school wearing ties and pledged allegiance to the flag. We respected our teachers and sat in hallways during air raid drills.  We played king of the hill and football between cars on the street, cuts and bruises were badges of honor.  No one, I mean no one, would dare curse in front of the girls and we were taught to hold doors open for them. 

At early age we were allowed to love our country, have pride in being an American, openly, and unashamed. Kate Smith sang, “God Bless America.” We were taught to be respectful, to love our country through words and deeds passed to us by family and neighbors. Many of these Americans were immigrants who left their homelands for a better life or were fleeing the atrocities of their former countries.  They learned English and taught their children the same. They pledged allegiance to the flag and country and put their lives on the line to defend their new homeland against Germany and Japan.  Harry Truman, our 33rd President, had a plaque sitting on his desk, it proclaimed, “The Buck Stops Here.” I remember. 

       Happy Mother’s Day – on this historic date May. 13, 1945, President Harry Truman declared it as the official day of celebration for Victory in Europe with this caveat, “The war not over – the Japanese had not yet surrendered.” The song of the time was “Over There,” specifically stating, “It’s not over till it’s over – over there.” The end came several months later, August 15, 1945, Victory in Japan VJ – it was finally “over- over there.”

       America celebrated. That night set the stage for a five-year-old boy to become a patriotic country loving American. This hasn’t changed since that noisiest day in 1945. It was the coolest thing in the world when a five-year old is turned loose on the block, in a middle of the night and given permission to beat the hell out of pots and pans. At that moment I had no idea why I was l allowed to do this and really didn’t care. I was making noise without being punished. Like everyone else in the neighborhood I screamed, yelled at the top of my voice, and did my best to beat metal on metal. If there were any monsters under our beds or in our closets you can bet, they’d be gone after that night.  Over the glorious din everyone hugged celebrating the war’s end. It wasn’t just the war’s end that was being celebrated but the realization that the men and woman who served would soon return retaking their places in the community. 

       They came home from the wars, some in caskets, some with missing limbs, others with disturbed minds, but mostly came back with pride and the feeling of a job well done. Eight million “GI’s” were on their way home thanks to “Operation Magic Carpet.” Boarding          carriers, battleships, and refitted passenger ships such as the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary they were at sea an average of four to five days. Sardined with thousands of their comrades for several days might have been the best therapy a soldier could have. Talking with each other during those days at sea gave them an opportunity to debrief their minds of the physical and mental horrors they had endured. The troops had the time to laugh, cheer, cry, and congratulate each other.  It was group therapy helping to wipe away the physical and mental horrors of battle.  By the time they reached their homes after train delays and days of being stranded there was little need to tell of war experiences to those who would probably not understand anyway. These men had already talked to experts. Although most didn’t discuss “War Stories” on their return they did loudly vocalize the love for their country.

       Then, setting aside their war experiences, they laid down their weapons and picked up the tools needed to kick start America to greatness.  Make no bones about it – America would be great. Home they came, my dad served in a tank division on the front in Europe, Uncle Frank Hraygil had been blown off the USS Fisk when it was torpedoed by a German U boat five months prior to VE day. Although he was already stateside most of those last months were spent in hospital recovery. Receiving many awards and citations for his heroic actions this brave man came home but never fully recovered. “Frankie Ray” was a boxer whose arm had been destroyed by falling ship’s debris during the attack. He was one of the best in his weight class but would never return to the ring again.  Even in his bitterness after the loss of his career he still remained patriotic. For a fighter he was also one of the most sensitive men I knew.

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