Commentary by Ward Degler
As scary as 9/11 was – and to this day my heart stops for a second when I remember – there is another date that is worse: Dec. 7, 1941.
I was 6 years old. Like most kids that age, I believed everything and looked forward to each new day. The attack on Pearl Harbor changed all of that forever.
We were living in the North Woods of Wisconsin, 12 miles from the nearest town. It was Sunday and Dad was home from his job as superintendent at the CCC camp, a forestry extension of the Works Progress Authority, a federal program designed to break the nation free from the Great Depression.
It had snowed the night before and I was playing outside with the dog. Suddenly, my mother appeared at the back door. She had a strange look on her face, unlike any I’d seen before. She called me softly to come inside.
In the living room Dad was hunched over our battery-powered radio. We had no electricity at the cabin, and we listened to the radio sparingly to save the batteries. One concession was Sunday afternoons when Mom listened to her favorite classical music program.
This Sunday the program was abruptly interrupted with the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. As we listened to the unfolding details, a dark and heavy blanket of dread settled over us.
I had no idea where Pearl Harbor was, and all I knew about Hawaii was that the women wore grass skirts and the men played ukuleles – fanciful trivia my grandfather who had been there as a boy passed on to me.
That night I lay awake watching at the window by my bed, expecting the Japanese army to come marching down our country road at any moment. At the time it didn’t register that our cabin in Wisconsin was thousands of miles away from danger. Years later, a friend confided that he spent that night on the roof of his Oakland, Calif., home cradling his father’s loaded deer rifle.
My dad had a commission in the Army but was sent home because he had bleeding ulcers, a malady that stayed with him most of his life. The government closed down the CCC camps and the rest of the WPA and focused America’s energy and resources on winning the war. We won, of course, but at a terrible cost.
Today’s war continues against another enemy who wishes us harm, and we exercise a new brand of vigilance and determination to win. Still, when Dec. 7 arrives each year, I find myself waking up in the middle of the night and looking for a moment out the window at the darkness.