BY JERRY STERNBERG
As I sit in voluntary house arrest due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t believe how dramatically our lives have changed in the last few weeks.
I’m reminded of Dec. 7, 1941, my 11th birthday, when my dad took me and my friends to the Isis Theater in West Asheville to see Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer Tracy.
As we were riding home in the car, skylarking and laughing, my dad asked us all to be quiet so he could hear the radio announcement about the Japanese attack on our naval fleet in some place called Pearl Harbor.
By the time we’d finished our ice cream and cake and the kids had left, the whole family was sitting in front of our radio, which I always thought resembled a miniature church. My mom and dad were visibly saddened by the terrible news; I had a sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong, but it wasn’t until the next day that I began to understand the gravity of it.
Our fifth grade teacher at Claxton School spent most of the morning showing us maps and explaining the situation. Until then the only image I had of Hawaii was a big island with palm trees, coconuts and colorfully costumed hula dancers.
Around 2 p.m. our principal came on the loudspeaker announcing that President Roosevelt was going to address Congress; soon we were listening to his famous “date which will live in infamy” speech and declaration of war. The line that subsequently became his rallying cry was, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
The home front
When I got home that afternoon, my mother sat my sister and me down and explained that my dad might have to go away for a while to help fight the war. They turned him down because his scrap metal and hide business was considered essential.
Recycled scrap metals were desperately needed to build armaments. And cowhides, which his company collected and processed, were shipped to the tanneries that produced leather not only for shoes and belts but also to make cases for military equipment and, most importantly, for the industrial belting needed to run our steam-driven industrial plants.
Our lives began to be impacted with the introduction of rationing of many commodities, including butter, meat, shoes and gasoline (a particular hardship for many).
We had air raid drills and blackouts, darkening our city so that enemy planes couldn’t bomb it. My dad was an air raid warden in North Asheville, and I was a bicycle messenger tasked with delivering messages between different posts and reporting on houses that had any lights showing.
The country’s mood was grim. Every week, newsreels showed devastating battle scenes and bombed European and Far Eastern cities. But what most affected me was seeing footage of children who appeared to be my age fleeing the destruction.
The young men disappeared from the neighborhood, as service flags displaying first blue and then, sadly, gold stars began showing up in people’s windows. Women who’d been homemakers recognized that with the men gone, they would have to fill important jobs, even as these true heroines agonized over the possibility of receiving a dreaded telegram announcing the death of a family member.
Asheville real estate also served the war effort. The federal government took over the Grove Arcade, and the Grove Park Inn, patrolled by armed guards, became first an internment center for Axis diplomats and foreign nationals and, later, a rest and rehabilitation center for naval aviation officers. Over in Swannanoa, the military built Moore General Hospital to treat injured servicemen.
We cheered the convoys of troops and equipment that frequently drove down Merrimon Avenue en route to the ports, wondering how many of those men might never return.
We had scrap metal drives, and my dad volunteered to handle the collection and processing at no charge. The A&P store at Woolsey Dip (where Luella’s Barbecue is now) made part of its parking area available, and a mountain of donated metal was collected there. I remember one lady brought a brand-new aluminum pot and yelled, “Throw this at those damned Nazis!”
Then and now
There are some pronounced similarities between World War II and the current pandemic: Both sparked great fear for the lives and safety of our loved ones. Both entailed traumatic changes in lifestyle and acceptance of inconvenience and deprivation. In both cases, there was deep concern about how long this horror would last and what our world would look like when it ended.
There are also fundamental differences, however.
During World War II we immediately jumped in and ramped up our defenses. At the start of the pandemic we were in denial, far more concerned about politics and the economy, which made us late to the dance.
In the 1940s the war was “over there,” and we were fighting to keep it from coming “here.” Today our danger is both “over there” and “here,” and our deadly enemy is virtually invisible.
In World War II the entire nation was united under the command of a decisive leader who inspired us to make every effort and sacrifice to help defeat the enemy. Now we are terribly divided by politics, racial and economic inequalities.
During World War II our president’s fireside chats communicated self-assurance during times of despair and made it clear that whatever the outcome, the buck stopped with him. Our current leader delivers self-serving TV press conferences/campaign rallies daily, surrounded by animated mannequins who are tasked with putting the best spin on the situation to avoid drawing the president’s ire. His insulting bouts with the press when they don’t throw him a softball make good theater but don’t inspire confidence.
Nonetheless, we as residents of Asheville and Buncombe County must diligently support our civilian “troops,” who risk their lives working in health services, grocery stores, pharmacies and elsewhere, by observing the safety rules imposed for our own good.
In the words of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address, in 1933, “Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, and on unselfish performance; without them, it cannot live.”
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.