The 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, got me reflecting on how much the 1942 attack changed my life—and changed Asheville. I have a particularly vivid memory of what happened that fateful day. My father had taken me and several of my little friends to the Isis Theater in West Asheville, where we saw Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Spencer Tracy.
When we got in the car to go home to celebrate my 11th birthday, the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was blaring on the radio. At first, we kids were very excited. We had seen lots of newsreels and war movies and had played plenty of pretend war in the woods around the neighborhood. My grim-faced father didn’t share our jubilation, however, and as the months went by, we all began to understand what it meant to be in a real, live war.
Asheville was a sleepy little town back then, and the biggest event of the year was the Rhododendron Parade. I was just a small-town boy going to school and working in my father’s scrap business.
The next day, we sat in the classroom at Claxton School and heard President Roosevelt declare that Dec. 7, 1942, was a day that would go down in infamy.
I was somewhat bewildered as fathers, uncles and older brothers began to disappear and stars were hung in many neighborhood windows. We all huddled around the radio at night, listening to the disturbing reports of the action.
There was no question of supporting the war effort or individual patriotism. The dastardly attack had left little room for political discourse or dissent.
Rationing was soon imposed, and items like gasoline, sugar, butter, shoes and meat could be obtained only with a coupon from little ration books. Everyone seemed to be caught up in the effort to do everything in their power to help the war effort and save our country from the evil scourge of the Axis powers.
We stood on Merrimon Avenue and cheered the convoys of tanks, jeeps, big guns and trucks loaded with troops and supplies headed for the ports in South Carolina. Citizens became very involved at every level: air-raid drills, victory gardens and scrap-metal drives.
I woke up one Saturday morning and read in the paper that the Imperial Theater (on Patton Avenue across from the Wachovia Bank) was offering a free pass to see four hours of cartoons for any kid who brought in a piece of copper for the war drive. I excitedly rushed to the garage to hunt up a piece of copper, but the only thing I could find was a big piece of iron rail with a tiny piece of copper welded on one end.
I unsuccessfully tried to separate the copper from the steel, and with time running out I decided to take the whole thing to the theater. Since I knew the difference between scrap iron and copper, I was pretty skeptical as to whether they would let me in, but it seemed worth a try. It must have been quite a sight for those watching a small boy drag this 20-pound rail up Farrwood to Kimberly, where I lugged it on the bus and then hauled it from Pritchard Park to the theater.
When I got to the theater, I tried to quickly dump my ersatz contribution to the war effort without anyone noticing. As I walked away the usher called me back. He asked me for my name, and then I was allowed to go into the movie.
I sat nervously through the first half of the cartoons, and then the lights came on and the manager came out and asked Jerry Sternberg to come up onstage.
Then it hit me: They had taken my name because I’d tried to scam them with scrap iron instead of copper, and I was going to be somehow exposed, humiliated and punished for my treasonous act.
I slumped down in my seat, trying to go unnoticed, but there were plenty of kids there who knew me and were pointing at me urging me go up.
Reluctantly I rose to face the firing squad, preparing for the worst. But when I got onstage, the manager said: “Jerry, I want to congratulate you for bringing the biggest piece of copper to the drive. You have won free theater tickets, popcorn and a $25 war bond,” which was a whole lot of money in those days.
Speechless, I hurried back to my seat, wondering how they could have made such a mistake. I guess they hadn’t been trained in scrap metal the way I had.
Asheville went through many changes during the war. Taken over by the Weather Wing, the Grove Arcade was no longer a place my mother could take me for special ice-cream treats in that wonderful building.
The military, meanwhile, took over the Grove Park Inn and interned all the trapped diplomats from the Axis countries behind barbed wire. We kids used to walk up there and try to talk to the armed Marine guards who surrounded the hotel.
In later years, I ruminated on the irony that prior to the war, the inn was restricted and did not accept Jews and blacks as guests. Yet they posted armed guards to make sure that our Japanese, German and Italian enemies didn’t check out.
Perhaps the war’s most long-lasting impact resulted from the visits of the servicemen from all over the United States who were so warmly hosted by Asheville families. Many of these men fell in love with the city and the wonderful young Asheville women. After the war, many married and returned here, and they came to play a significant role in our business, political and cultural structures over the past 60 years.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]