AFTER THE WAR
"The Japs hit Pearl Harbor." I was a seven-year-old, second grader, crossing the street to my father's drug store on a sunny December Sunday afternoon when I heard those works that were to change my life for the next four years. From that December 7 until August 14, 1945, my world was put on hold whenever I asked for most things or wanted to go any large distance. The answer never varied, "After the war."
I had no real concept of what war was. Bambi was the most violent movie I had ever watched. Even as our participation as an ally progressed, I was not directly affected in terms of the loss of people close to me. My father and the fathers of my friends were mostly too old or physically unfit to be drafted. My cousins and the older brothers of my friends were much too young. As the war progressed, I would see the Movietone Newsreels before war movies such as "Back to Bataan" "Guadalcanal Diary." The Newsreels kept me visually in touch with airplanes, guns and the progress of the war. The radio and newspapers delivered every morning and evening were filled with battle news and pictures. A map each day on the front page of The Columbus Dispatch showed the advance of allied troops. We learned a lot of geography, but many of the names have changed. However, the war was no more real to me than the battle scenes the boys in my class drew every day.
What I remember most are the small ways in which the war affected me. It seemed like everything was either rationed or hard to find. The butcher kept pictures of meat taped across the glass on the meat counter so that customers could not see meat reserved for special friends. My father traded him cigarettes for meat. Grocery stores did not sell cigarettes, but pharmacies were able to buy a limited amount whenever they were available. I suppose the theory was that cigarettes were more in the drug than the food category.
Traveling any distance over fifty miles was a challenge. The speed limit was 35 miles an hour, and gasoline was rationed. Nearly all factories were converted to producing items essential to the war. New cars, tires, and just about anything that moved on rubber wheels could not be either legitimately or illegitimately purchased. This included bicycles. When I outgrew my three-wheeler, I was fortunate that my aunt gave me her relatively new bicycle that she had no time to ride.
Most of my father's family, including his parents and grandmother, lived in Denver. The train ride was long and expensive. We resorted to it only once. There were no airplanes for civilian use. My father bought retread tires and managed to collect enough gas stamps that we were able to set out in our 1940 Buick to drive the 1300 miles that separated Columbus, Ohio from Denver, Colorado. Driving that distance with a six year old and an eight year old required a lot of patience even with the promise that they would get a wish granted after sighting 100 white horses in the nearby farms.
There were no freeways at that time. Neither were there many cars on two-lane Route #46. After my brother and I divided the back seat with an imaginary line, we busied ourselves looking out the rear window to watch for police cars because there was no way we could get to Denver in two days at 35 miles per hour. Lacking a GPS, we were helpful in locating Route #46 signs, especially in cities. My father had to watch the gas gauge because gasoline stations were as many miles apart as the towns. Since there was little traffic on the roads and no cell phones or even emergency telephone booths, a driver running out of gas could be stranded for hours.
Taking care of necessities required forethought. Night time accommodations were difficult to find. There was only one motel between Columbus and Denver, in Indiana which was not even a good day's drive from Columbus. There were tourist homes – houses owned by childfree couples or single ladies who had extra bedrooms or a living room for children if necessary. Towns big enough to have a train station often had some sort of hotel by the station, but the housekeeping was second rate. My mother once routed the family out of bed at 1 AM because she discovered bedbugs in a hotel largely used by traveling salesmen. Another time the only place to be found was a room over a Texaco gas station where "Little White Lies" played on the jukebox downstairs all night. That also was a short night.
Finding a safe place to eat was easier. McDonalds had yet to be invented, and we were not permitted to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, let alone Big Macs. However, there were enough restaurants that served full meals which we routinely ate at 6:00 p.m. before my father drove another four hours to pull up to a "filling station" and ask about "clean" tourist homes. We had one unfortunate incident when a restaurant owner charged above the listed OPA (Office of Price Administration) price for lamb chops. The police were called, and my mother, brother and I hovered outside until we learned whether Daddy was going to spend the night in jail. He got even later when he received notification from the OPA that the restaurant owner had been fined.
Housing was not only a problem on the road, it was a problem everywhere. There was no construction other than war related necessities, and the need increased as people moved in from the farms to take jobs in factories producing war materials. My friend Heather's mother rented almost every room in her house and still managed to keep her family of four in it. There was rent control for the existing housing although I am not certain it covered Heather's house. My parents owned some multi-family rental houses (the 401 K's of the 40's), and were happy with rent control because the tenants stayed put and did their own repairs (within reason) and decorating.
Employees were very scarce. They all left to work in the factories – many times for double shifts. Everyone over 16 who could walk and breathe, and some who could not walk very well, had a job. My brother had three paper routes before he was 12. My father could find no one to help in his pharmacy so he and my mother ran it together while my grandmother lived with us and ran the house. My job was to help my grandmother by cleaning the bedrooms on Saturday mornings. I confess that more time was devoted to radio programs like "Let's Pretend" than it was to dusting.
Merchandise may have been scarce, but promises were plentiful. "After the war," we were going to get a new car, new bicycles, a television set (something we learned about in "My Weekly Reader") and travel by airplane to South America. We got the car, and, eventually, the television set, but I did not see South America until I was in my fifties.
The best thing about the horrific war we were fighting was that we were all in it together. It was the last war like that. Because the country had so few people to put together such a big project everyone had to use much stamina and time. For the first time women entered the work force in large numbers because the men were either fighting or working in war related jobs. ( Of course, the women had to give up the good jobs when the men returned.) Children collected tin cans, planted victory gardens and wrote with unpainted pencils. (We were told that the paint formerly used on pencils could paint a battleship). It was this great focus that kept us together. Despite the many misfortunes of others, it was not a bad time to be growing up, and we forgot about all we had been promised "after the war."