January 18, 1942
Robert was leaving tomorrow. I was trying to be brave and happy for his sake, but it was hard not to worry. It wasn’t that he was too young. My son was twenty, a strong young man capable of thinking things through and doing well on his own. It was the war that frightened me. Like a demon reaching its shadowy arms in all directions, it pulled the whole world into its grasp.
Plain as yesterday in my mind was the bright December morning when I was heating water for washing while Robert tinkered at our battery radio, trying to fix the temperamental thing again. It was a Monday, and we’d been without the radio all weekend. We hadn’t even been to church because Samuel and Robert had miserable colds. The girls were getting ready for school and singing the song they were supposed to perform for the school’s annual program. Robert got the radio working. And then all the singing stopped. My wash water was forgotten. And nothing has been quite the same since.
The attack on Pearl Harbor we heard about on the radio that morning was a slap that left us reeling. Such hideous, blatant evil demanded response. We all understood that. We knew that our nation must step firmly and forcefully into the war we hadn’t asked for, and that it would require commitment, even sacrifice, from all of us.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when Robert told us he was going to enlist. He’d registered with the selective service and told us plainly that he would be proud to serve when called. But he didn’t wait to be called. And now he would be on tomorrow’s train.
At least he wouldn’t be alone. Willy Hammond was going too. They’d been best friends since they were ten, and they’d talked it over and made their decision together. Several other boys from our southern Illinois area would also be getting on that train. But it was especially important to Robert to have Willy beside him.
I stirred the batter for the lemon cake I was making, but my mind was still on that terrible news report we’d heard more than a month ago. Sarah and Katie had both sunk in their chairs and cried silent tears. I might have, if I hadn’t been so numb. I remember running to the wood shop to get Samuel and then being unable to tell him why I wanted him to come to the house. He and Franky Hammond had run inside, wondering what could have happened to get me so upset. And Samuel went white as a sheet when he heard. Frank started praying right away. But it was Robert out of all of us to be bare-fisted angry.
I guess I knew then how much the war would touch us. Seeing our son pacing, slapping the back of a chair, fiery-eyed, I knew he’d go. And he wouldn’t be the only one. Two of the older Hammond boys were already in the service. Willy and Frank would be next, I figured. And I was right about their feelings. They went with Robert not long after that to talk to the marine recruiter when he came to town.
The recruiter had been happy to sign up Robert and Willy. But eighteen-year-old Franky would be staying home. At first he’d only confided in me what happened. But then his brothers started asking him questions, and it all came out. His limp, of course. But the recruiter had asked him to fill out a form anyway, and it didn’t take the man long to realize that Franky couldn’t read it.
“So?” Robert had asked them then. “He can shoot a rifle and repair an engine. Ain’t that what you’re looking for?”
But Frank had the limp and the reading problem, and they’d also determined him to be underweight. Any one of those things could keep him from service. So he was turned away. What might have been relief to many was galling frustration to Frank. It seemed to me he’d been extra quiet ever since.
But not everybody was quiet today. Most the Hammond clan had been over for lunch. All but Lizbeth’s family and, of course, Joe and Kirk, who were already far away with the army. The place was still bustling as I tried to get us ready to go into Dearing tonight. The cake I was making was for a party put on by the Porters to see off the young men who’d be leaving on tomorrow’s train. It had started out as a birthday party for their son, Thomas, because he’d be to Fort Dix by his actual birthday next week. They wanted to do something special for him. But the Porters, who did so much for our community anyway, had decided to include all our brave young men in the party. And everybody appreciated them for it.
We’d be leaving early because of the chance of snow. Pastor and Juanita Jones had invited us to their home for a bite to eat before the party, and to stay the night afterward if the snow looked taxing, just to be sure we wouldn’t have trouble on our country roads.
I knew it was selfish of me, but I almost wished the gray sky outside would hurry up and spit the snow it threatened, in quantities enough to slow the train and let me keep my little boy home a while longer. But he wasn’t little. He was far taller than me, taller even than his father, and he was anxious to get started on the grand adventure of duty.
Oh, Lord, how I wanted the war to stay far away, oceans away, where it couldn’t touch us! But now it wrenches at my heart!