History in a Child’s Eye

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Pam Linn

The recent PBS special on the Roosevelt family was not only entertaining, it was a way to jog one’s memory of history. Watching several nights in a row, I realized that I had acquired some misconceptions about FDR and the times. I was, after all, only a child. 

As a six-year-old in 1941, I remember nothing about the years leading to the day that would “live in infamy.” Our family and friends had not experienced the Great Depression in any meaningful way. I guess somehow hard times were good for the movie business. 

People who remembered the horrors of World War I weren’t eager to go to war again and fueled the isolationist sentiment of the time. The war was already at Britain’s doorstep and FDR’s friendship with Winston Churchill seemed to be pulling us toward aiding in its defense. The Lend Lease program allowed the U.S. to supply the Brits with airplanes and other weapons that it could not afford to purchase outright. 

Anyway, here are my personal recollections, a pampered childs-eye view of history. 

As an inveterate eavesdropper, I overheard my parents worrying about the draft, which started before the declaration of war. With two small children, our father’s draft status was low. His brother, uncle Bill, enlisted and served in the Pacific where he married an Australian girl he met in Samoa. They moved to her home after the armistice. 

Meanwhile, our family grew. Aunt Betty moved in with us so she could go to work as a comptroller for a nearby aircraft company. Her daughter, my cousin Shirley, arrived with a new baby after driving her old green Plymouth coupe from Seattle. Her husband was a pilot and went to London to fly missions with the Royal Air Force. 

Our Japanese gardener disappeared (he wound up in Manzanar) and our grandfather (a retired railroad engineer) took over mowing lawns and raking leaves for the duration. That same night, we lost the Japanese greengrocer, who delivered vegetables he grew on a farm just outside the city. I was given a small plot of land near the kitchen to grow a victory garden. I don’t remember having much success but it made me feel important. 

Soon after, our German cook and her husband disappeared. We never heard from any of them again. My nanny, Ellen Windgassen, was German but had acquired U.S. citizenship. My mother hired her from the New York hospital where I was born. She was allowed to stay but worried about her family still living in Stuttgart. Her mother and sister survived the war but her brother was killed in action. 

Everything seemed to be rationed, and we heard a lot about coupons for butter, meat and gasoline. Dad put his convertible in the garage and bought an American Bantam (about the size of today’s Smart car) to stretch his gas allowance. Oleo was invented to replace butter and it was pretty awful. It was white, like lard, came in a plastic bag with a capsule of yellow dye, which I was allowed to break and knead the contents into the fat. Ugh! 

Living close to the Pacific coast, we were keenly aware of a threat from the sea. We put blackout curtain liners on all the windows (it was my job to close them each night) and dad did a stint on block patrol once a week. When we heard the siren, we turned off the lights and huddled in the basement until the “all clear” sounded. It was just a drill; we weren’t afraid. They never told us that Japanese submarines were spotted offshore. 

We were, however, subjected to tons of patriotic PR. Every movie began with a newsreel full of war-like images and backed by military music. Jingoism run amok. Only successful battles were shown, but what did we know? 

There were elections during those years, but there was little argument. Mother was a Democrat and dad was a Republican. But I’ll always remember him saying after Election Day, “I voted for FDR because the country needed him.” 

It would be later that we were saddened by FDR’s death; then horrified by the atomic bomb. Democrat or not, mother didn’t like Truman, but never quarreled with his position to support the Berlin Airlift. After reading his biography by David McCullough, I realized he was brave and not beholden to business or political pressure. 

Watching the PBS film was a lesson in history, not as I remembered it, but how it fit in with the legacy of our country. A tip of my hat to Ken Burns and all those who sponsored the project.