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Walking with my granddaughter through our neighborhood, I bend down to pick up an aluminum can carelessly discarded by the side of the road. A deja vu vision flashes through my mind; it was 1942, and we were at war. My sister was pulling a red wagon through our neighborhood, and I was picking up a can to add to our collection of cans, newspapers, scrap metal and containers of melted fat. We were helping to win World War II and knew that planes and bullets could be made from the metal, but we wondered what could be done with the fat. After a brief discussion, we decided that maybe they could melt it and pour it on the Germans when they tried to climb the walls of our forts. Much later I would learn they used it to make explosives.

The bullets, tanks and ships that our soldiers and sailors needed were expensive, and we wanted to help pay for them, so we brought dimes to school to buy savings stamps, which we pasted in a small book. When the book was full, we traded it for a savings bond that would be worth $25 in 10 years, after the war was over. In this way our soldiers got the money to buy the things they needed to fight for us.

We also helped our troops by not telling anybody, especially strangers, about what they were doing. A large poster proclaimed “A slip of the lip can sink a ship” as a desperate sailor swims away from a burning, sinking ship. I will worry about security again as I watch both my boys march off to wars in the Mideast. 

To support our troops, we also did without certain things including gasoline, butter and sugar. We had ration books with coupons, and to purchase an item you had to give the clerk ration stamps along with your money. Chocolate was not available at all, but there was a kind of artificial chocolate, and we hated it. Sugar was replaced by something called saccharine and it tasted terrible.

Throughout the war my mother helped in a special way. She bought English money at the bank and sent it along with bundles of tea, flour and clothes to England. She sent these bundles even though we had very little. 

Black rollup shades covered our windows; this stopped German planes from seeing the light and bombing our home. It was my job to carefully roll the shades down so no light could be seen outside our house. Sometimes, when the shade did not completely cover the window, a light might be seen from the road, and a man with a white helmet and a flashlight knocked on our door and warned us that the Germans might see the light. So we pulled the shade down or adjusted it.

Many years later, I would learn that German submarines operating along the outer banks of North Carolina did indeed use the lights on the shore to outline the ships that they were busy sinking. Seems the U.S. government was afraid people would be frightened if they were told the truth, so lights were left on and ships continued to be sunk in what was known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

German submarines were active off the Long Island coast, too, and landed spies at Amagansett, about 80 miles from my home, in an operation called Pastorius. These spies were to spread terror by blowing up power stations, factories, railroad centers and Jewish-owned businesses. But they were caught and two of them were quietly electrocuted in Washington, D.C., and two received long prison sentences.

War games and war toys dominated my childhood. In the vacant lot next to my house we dug trenches and built forts of dirt. We chose sides. One side Germans, and the other Americans; nobody wanted to be the Japanese. Combat was joined by throwing clumps of dirt at one another and firing a toy rifle or pistol at the enemy and proclaiming loudly “you’re dead,” then arguing about it. Sometimes we had great arguments over who killed whom. Creative dying was encouraged. When you got shot, you didn’t just drop straight down. You did a pirouette and slumped into a trench or jumped up and died in mid-air before slumping to the ground with a gurgling moan.

We were also paratroopers. Parachutes, improvised from sheets or umbrellas enabled us to jump from trees or off garage roofs into the enemy lines. Sometimes we tied towels around our necks as makeshift capes and were transformed into Superman or Batman.

On Christmas day we admired one another’s new rifles and pistols, including cap pistols that exploded with a crack and made smoke. Sometimes war gave way to cowboys and Indians. Our war acting and cowboy acting were enriched on Saturday morning at the movies where the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers chased bad guys across the silver screen. We watched newsreels of the war in Europe and the Pacific right along with the cowboy movies and cartoons. During the week, our love for cowboys was reinforced on the radio by the Lone Ranger and Tom Mix. 

World War II was my childhood. Historically, the flat Hempstead plain left behind by the glacier thousands of years ago was ideal both for training troops during the Revolutionary War and landing planes during World War II. Throughout the war, planes screamed over my house to land at Mitchel Field, a nearby airbase. Later, when I worked for General Motors, I would learn that these planes, manufactured in Michigan, flew from Willow Run Airport in Michigan to Mitchel Field and landed to refuel on their way to Europe.

As I lay in my bed in the wee hours of the morning, I heard the whining engines as the planes took off on their missions. Some planes didn’t make it and crashed in our neighborhood. A fighter plane plowed into Mason Hall at Hofstra College, killing the pilot in the same building in which I would one day study the Bible as a college student. The plane left a gaping, smoke-ringed hole in the building, and for a while, I had a small metal souvenir from the crash.

Another day I looked up to see a pilot bail out of a plane high over my house. His plane continued on and crashed into a house about two miles away, killing two children in a dentist’s family. The mother received a letter of apology from Mrs. Roosevelt. I saw other planes crash into a local cemetery and a restaurant.

I remember the sounds of war too; taps drifting in from the base in the evening and the spirited reveille played in the early morning by a distant trumpet.

My granddaughter wakes me from my reverie by gently removing the can from my hand and placing it in a recycle bin. As she drops the can she says, "You know, Pop Pop, recycling is very important to save our planet."

Jim McGrath

Dr. Jim McGrath is retired professor emeritus of physiology at Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

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