Saturday, March 2, 2013

Shanghaied

            Everyone, of my generation, can recall where he was that memorable Sunday when Pearl Harbor came blasting out of the radios of America.  I hold the distinction of remembering the next day with equal clarity.  I was driving truck for my father, a plastering contractor, on a housing project in Long Beach.  The work day had just started when my uncle, his foreman, tapped me on the shoulder.
            "Your father wants to see you at the motel."
            "Now?"
            "Get going."

            My uncle was a decisive man of few words, and I could see
that my unnecessary question had pained him.  Accordingly, I slapped the morning's cement dust from my clothes, hopped in my nearby car, and drove to the motel.  The importance of this project was such that my father had dropped all other work to concentrate on it.  When I entered the motel room, I expected to see him engaged with plans, lists, and schedules, but he was sitting beside the radio, an opened bottle of bourbon on the table beside him.

            "Sit down, I want you to hear this.  The President is going to ask for a Declaration of War."
           
            The sonorous phrases of one of our century's greatest orators were soon swelling from that oval shaped box, and I felt honored to be connected, if only by radio, to history in the making.  A dastardly attack by forces of the Japanese Empire . . a day that will live in infamy . . the phrases came like a drum roll.  America was roaring its defiance, and I could sense millions, sitting beside the radio with me.

            However, my father sat in silence, his features set in grim determination, taking periodic swigs from the bottle.  The address, delivered against a backdrop of total silence, was followed by deafening applause.  The Congress moved immediately to speeches.  The only woman in Congress, a representative from Wyoming, went against the tide.  Conceding that the provocation was great, she was, nevertheless, opposed to sending American boys to war.  My father and I jumped to our feet, shaking our fists at the radio, and the thunderous boos that came from it convinced me that this rash woman was being denounced across the land.

            The bottle was half empty as Congress proceeded to the vote. The ayes came loud and clear, state by state, a vote that would have been unanimous but for that crazy woman.  Finally, the Speaker of the House announced that the United States was in a state of war with Japan.  My father finished the last of the quart and put it down.
            "Good.  I'm going to join the Marines.  You coming along?"
            Was I coming along?  What kind of a son would not see his father off to war?  Besides, he was in no condition to drive.
           
            On the way downtown, I asked myself, why the Marines?  I had played with the idea that summer, but not with war in mind.  The son of a missionary, just back from China, had sat next to me in high school, and he had told me about the Fourth Marines.  Many of the Russian nobility had settled in Shanghai, after the Russian Revolution, and beautiful countesses, impoverished in their exile, had married or formed liasons with Chinese.  The products of these unions were Eurasian girls of our age, beautiful beyond belief, many of them starving, willing to work as maids, practically as slaves.  A private of the Fourth Marines, poorly paid by our standards, could live as a Sultan in Shanghai.  I had formed a mental picture, not of a comic strip Dragon Lady with batwing eyebrows, but of the waif Vivien Leigh had played in Waterloo Bridge, with an exotic tilt to her eyelids, eternally grateful to me for rescuing her from a life of degradation.

            That summer, after graduation, I had considered the abundance of occupations open to me and an even greater abundance, should I go to college.  My father, settled as he was, went from initial compassion to irritation, succeeded by scorn, as I unfolded, each day, a new option.  He was particularly scornful of Shanghai.
            "You don't even know the Marine Corps would send you there.  They're not a travel agency."  He had laughed at my getting the concept from a missionary's son, had some choice comments on that, and had concluded by saying that, if I was lucky enough to get there, all I would acquire would be the clap.  Somewhat resentful of his middle aged disillusionment, I had increasingly kept my own counsel, and he had decided in the Fall that, since I couldn't even decide on college, I should work on his project as a truckdriver.

            Was that why he had chosen the Marines?  Did a sense of the romantic lurk somewhere, under that hard headed, practical exterior?  We proceeded to the Federal Building in Long Beach and found the Marine Corps recruiting office on the top floor.  It was more of a closet than an office, manned by one leathery faced sergeant with a chest full of ribbons.  My father stood, weaving slightly, in the doorway.
            "My son and I came down to join up."
            I was joining?  There was not the wealth of information then that there is now about Marine boot camp, but I assumed that there would be strenuous drilling and some degree of hardship.  I would go through all that with my middle-aged father?

            The sergeant studied him from his desk chair, engaged in picking his teeth.
            "I assume you're married, have a family?"
            "Yeah.  There's a younger son."
            "What work do you do?"
            "I'm a contractor, plastering a big housing project for the Navy.  Biggest job I ever had - 600 units - we've got 200 men on the payroll."
            The other nodded  "Yeah, defense workers are streaming in.  Sir, we can't take you - you're too important to the war effort."
            There was a pregnant silence as two pairs of eyes shifted to mine.
            "However, we can take your son."

5 comments:

  1. shanghaied?! Railroaded. What a story. Thanks for sharing it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. HI Jack,
    Its really good to be here.
    I am here via Arlee's notification.
    Great story of a wonderful father and son.
    Said well Jack.
    Keep cracking more such informative stories
    for the new generation about the wonderful
    past history of your country.
    Keep Going
    Keep inform
    I just joined in.
    Best
    Phil

    ReplyDelete
  3. What words: we can take your son. Great re-telling, Jack. I was with you all the way.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What's that saying: be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Eeeks.

    Thank you for committing that wonderful piece of your history to paper. As you say, not many people are still around who actually remember Pearl Harbor. There are some days that you cannot help but remember in detail. Of course, not all of them have such a personal impact. I remember the 9/11 like that, but it didn't end with me enlisting... hahahaha. I did feel shellshocked all day long, but that is not nearly the same.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wonderful story-telling. Arlee sent me.

    ReplyDelete