September 26, 2006

Life in the forties, a little of this and a little of that.

A supposedly insignificant event came at the end of the thirties and ushered in the forties. On October 30, 1938, Halloween eve, Americans were scared out of their wits thinking that alien beings had landed in New Jersey. Orson Wells presented a Halloween special, War of the Worlds, and many Americans who did not have the program tuned in at the very beginning thought it was actually happening. Everything eventually got straightened out. It wasn’t men from Mars. What it did do is make Orson Wells a bigger star than he already was, and cemented radio as a powerful medium.

Radio as a medium was born on that night. It became a huge influence on everyone’s life. It influenced what we ate, what we drove, what we took for pain. But it couldn’t relieve the pain of the world war that was to begin soon after the new decade began. What it could do and what it did was become the medium that became a member of the family and kept everyone up to date on the events that enfolded.

Two movies served as bookends for the end of the thirties through the middle of the forties. GRAPES OF WRATH, a great movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and the patriarch of the Carradine family, father John. I’ve watched it several times and each time it is like the first time all over again. It chronicled the great depression, (was that phrase the first oxymoron of note?) A time when the country collapsed financially. It lasted so long and was so severe that it took a new president and his government programs combined with a world war to get the United States out of it. The actual timeline of the depression was 1929 when the stock market collapsed until 1941 when the Second World War officially began.

The bookend at the other end was the movie THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, a movie that told of the fighting men returning from the war and the troubles with re-adjustment. It was an outstanding movie with Fredric March, Myrna Loy and a double amputee straight from that war, Harold Russell. The depression was over and the world was saved from Fascism and the future looked bright as far ahead as you could see.

Saturday morning, it’s time for the kiddie show if you’re of a certain age in the forties. The local movie theater for twenty cents as I remember presented movies designed for young kids. The current favorites: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Red Ryder, Wild Bill Eliot and many more excited us. There was always a serial that I don’t ever remember ending. Maybe they never did end.

Fibber McGee, despite all the urgings of his always suffering, but loving wife Molly never did clean out his closet. It was a joke that never got old when he’d open it up with Molly in the background yelling, don’t McGee, Don’t open that closet.

The battle of Midway early on in the war was a miraculous achievement, achieved by the USA breaking the Japanese code and knowing what their plans were. It was a victory nevertheless, one we badly needed. It dealt the Japanese Navy a mortal blow from which they never fully recovered and allowed the US more time to catch up building new ships.

The radio show THE LONE RANGER was one of the most popular radio shows of the days and most of the kids wouldn’t have missed it for anything. In 1941 Earl Graser, who portrayed the ranger was killed in an automobile accident and the show slipped a new ranger, by the name of Brace Beemer into the role and no one knew.

Professional baseball was not untouched by the war, and many of the stars signed up to do what they knew were their duty. Among the stars who gave up two, three, four years of their careers and never griped about it were: Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio.

I remember getting a new bicycle for Christmas during the forties, and on a day when the sun had a little warmth to it, and the snow was starting to melt away, I had to try out my new bike in the slushy streets. I didn’t know how to ride a two-wheeler. My dad held the bike up as I got on and he held the bike up from the back and I started out. I remember yelling ‘hang on’ to my dad, but when I looked back he was standing back close to where we started and I was riding it by myself. I’ll bet this scenario has a familiar ring to a lot of you. I wasn’t able to have any deep thoughts at that age, but I guess that was a big moment and certainly one of the first breaking aways of many to come.

When the men went away to war, women stepped into their jobs at the plants as they were converted to defense plants. Americas war production so out produced the axis powers that it was just a matter of time until the supply lines were filled with every conceivable war product and it was just a matter of time before the enemies were overwhelmed. In 1943, the United States manufactured 29,500 tanks, more in 1 year than Germany produced in the entire war from 1939 to 1945. In all, the United States manufactured 88,430 tanks during World War II versus 24,050 in Germany.

The United States government started a rationing program during World War II; families could buy only so much gas, sugar, meat, and other goods. By rationing food in this way, the government could make sure that adequate supplies of food would be available for the war effort. Families started planting garden plots to provide vegetables for their tables. They were popularly called Victory Gardens.

The war continued until 1945. The end was accomplished by the dropping of the atomic bomb, thus beginning a moral dilemma, of the rights and wrongs of the event, that continues to today. Other wars have been fought since and indeed we are involved in another today. But the bravery of those involved in that war, of any war, is hard to comprehend. The final scorecard is of course in, and that war WWII produced more deaths than any other war to date. Dead in that war was 62 million people, broken down it was 25 million military and 37 million civilians. That figure when I saw it stunned me, 37 million civilians.

The soldiers came home and the baby boom was created. They were able to take advantage of the new GI Bill to go to school or to use as a down payment on a new house. New housing was scarce so was born new housing developments all around the country. New cars were available, and rationing was of course over. Women could buy nylon stockings.

In 1946 the first computer ENIAC, was unveiled, built by John Mauckly and Presper Eckert.

In 1947 William Shockley invented the transistor at Bell Labs.

In 1949 Mao seized power in China.

It was an historic decade that many people thought brought an end to wars. But we were all to see that another war was just around the corner in a little country called Korea. We never learn do we?

© jim kittelberger 2006

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