JIM STOCKTON: Happy birthday to a war

By Jim Stockton • Last Updated 10:30 am on Monday, December 12, 2011

Jim Stockton

It was not a time to grant benefit of the doubt since the Enemy had not given advance copies of his playbook. We were caught completely by surprise on that Dec. 7. Stunned and befuddled, we listened surrealistically next day to the famed “Day of Infamy” speech. Many, perhaps most of us, had never heard of Pearl Harbor. Now it was an indelible portrait of treachery.

Steeped in Ron Paul isolationism, we had not wanted war, being indirectly involved in the European campaign only through presidential shenanigans. At least, that’s what the televised documentaries purport. President Roosevelt, they say, promised not to get involved, being legally incapable of doing so, but searched the folds of existing law and the Constitution to find loopholes. The result was “lend-lease,” in which we could “lend” Great Britain commodities that we could not sell to them. Secretly I wonder if that’s where the concept of “living Constitution” originated, in which matters not previously anticipated can be treated in a manner contrary to what everyday Americans would deem proper. Only a political science major can say for sure.

There were abrupt changes in lifestyle. Rationing of food and commodities became the norm. We were allowed two pairs of shoes per individual per year. I remember the old fluoroscope at Outmans shoe store, a kind of X-ray machine that allowed a see-through guarantee of proper fit. Mom could make sure that Junior’s toes snuggled comfortably into the toe box. That didn’t last much beyond war’s end, excessive X-rays being deemed dangerous.

Once ample clothing became skimpy and utilitarian. We began to see men’s suits without lapels, perhaps the forerunner of the ill-fated “leisure suit” of the 1970s. In postwar backlash, men’s suits became overly ample and baggy until common sense set in. Even the mail order catalog had to gesture in frustration. Printed in anticipatory good faith, many a picture bore a diagonal message reading, “Sorry, Not Available.”

Conservation was imposed. Aluminum foil and tin cans were no longer thrown away, but saved and recycled. Even used engine oil and cooking grease were recycled. One wartime poster, of which there were many, showed bacon grease being poured into a kettle and a bomb coming out of the bottom. Bacon grease was a powerful explosive in those days. Many an airplane and tank succumbed to it. Your chubby girlfriend has Socratic “bombness,” as well, but we’d better not go there.

The memory of that wartime poster reminds me of a college skit in which students pushed books into the mouth of a wooden horse and money poured out the back end. Whether they were extolling education as the route to prosperity or expressing anti-capitalism was never explained. You can scratch your head and wonder about that today if you know where to look.

Toys reflected war, being made of cardboard and wood with stenciled features. Kites bore pictures of fighter planes and the caption, “Keep Them Flying,” or tanks with the message, “Keep Them Rolling.” The entire nation was at war, both on the homefront and in the battlefield. It was understood that wartime exacted a choice. It was either guns or butter and remained so until the middle 1960s. Only then did Lyndon Johnson espouse guns and butter, a malady that has robbed us of urgency in our present endeavors.

We were unfortunately boastful both during and especially after the war. Our natural resources were virtually unlimited, prated the silver screen, while Japan was being undone by attrition, as was Germany. Our ultimate victory was trumpeted in sneering, overbearing snarls of triumph which might come back to haunt us, because we became notoriously wasteful and are now the ones on the short end of resources. Maybe in the throes of despair we will be made to watch those pompous old movies while the excesses of yesterday mock us today. “Pride goes before destruction,” says Proverbs 16:18, “and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

Jim Stockton is a retired bookkeeper who lives in Belding.

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