December 8, sixty-one years later

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

I was five years and eight months old on Pearl Harbor Day. I remember the events of the day as clearly as if I had been an adult. My father took me to the Cathay Tea Garden in downtown Philadelphia to buy take-out chow mein for dinner, a glorious adventure. When we got home, my mother was standing at the front door. “The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor,” she said.

When you’re five years old, your whole being is occupied with figuring out how the world works. What I learned that day is that you can never predict what will happen next, you can be supremely happy one minute and terrified the next. People can be alive one minute and gone in an eye blink.

I had no idea who “the Japs” were, what “bombed” meant, or where Pearl Harbor was, but my mother’s manner left no doubt that what had just happened was a most terrible thing.

The next day my grandfather, in whose house we lived, kept the radio on all day. Thus, I got to hear the President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, address Congress and ask for a declaration of war. (Quaint though this may sound, it’s the way things were done in those days, and the way the US Constitution says they should still be done.)

Listen to this man (it’s audio — there was no video then), how he expresses anger with dignity, how he assures us that he is in charge and that we will prevail.

World War II, as I experienced it, was a time of spiritual greatness in the United States. We had a leader who inspired us to nothing less. He told us to waste nothing, to share what we could, to look out for each other. He told us, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We listened to him, and took pride in our courage.

We didn’t know this until much later, but Franklin Roosevelt drew his spiritual strength from severe difficulty. A victim of polio, he could not walk unaided. He used a wheelchair most of the time. To give a speech, aides would prop him up at the lectern. He ran for president this way, three times, and won each time. We knew he had courage, but we didn’t know how much.

Never since then have these United States been so truly united.  Maybe now, facing the possibility of economic disaster, led by a man whose spiritual strength grows out of a very different set of difficulties, we can become united again.

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One Response to “December 8, sixty-one years later”

  1. I hope so; I am young enough to have never seen this country divided, was a young child in the turmoil of the Vietnam War. I would love to expereince a country united, with great and vigourous discussion about differences. Until you put it into words, I did not realize how deep that longing was in me.

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