In retrospect, I find it shocking that, during World War II, Americans submitted without resistance to a kind of government-imposed serfdom that transformed our habits and our hearts.  We have always prided ourselves on being independent, rebellious, even irreverent in the face of authority.  In our mythology, we celebrate the defiant eccentric, the rebel, the nut in the Frank Capra movie who thumbs his nose at Edward Arnold and sticks out his tongue at supercilious old ladies.

Indeed, we believed in those years that the Germans were a servile people who longed for an authoritative “father figure” to tell them how to behave and what to think.  First the Kaiser.  Then Hitler.  The pattern was clear.

Albert Speer—who wrote a highly significant history of Hitler’s Germany (Inside the Third Reich)—became the Nazi Party’s chief architect and later the minister for armaments production.  In the latter capacity, he advised the Führer to halt the production of goods for civilian consumption and divert the entire economy to the manufacture of weapons—rifles, tanks, planes.  The all-powerful dictator—who could send millions to the ovens with a few strokes of his pen—trembled at such an audacious suggestion.

If he did that, he told Speer, he would lose the affection of the people.  Thus did Nazi Germany continue to produce Volks­wagens (the “people’s cars”) and other consumer goods, while the Wehrmacht Heer, the Kriegsmarine, the Luftwaffe, and the Waffen-SS increasingly fought without sufficient weaponry.  Had the war continued for a few more years, they might have been defending the Fatherland with clubs and slingshots, while their mothers and sisters tooled down the Autobahn in new VWs.  Eventually, when it was too late, Hitler acquiesced to Speer’s pleadings.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in the World’s Greatest Democracy, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—who was subject to dismissal every four years—immediately commandeered the auto industry.  In his 1942 State of the Union Address, delivered a month after Pearl Harbor, he announced that the nation would produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, and 20,000 anti-aircraft guns.  No dissent permitted, he told Congress: “Let no man say it cannot be done.”

Indeed, he called in the leaders of the automobile industry and ordered them to do it.  When they left the briefing, they thought they’d still be allowed to manufacture automobiles for sale to the American people.  But by April, the government had banned the production and sale of cars for private use.  A new American auto didn’t roll off the assembly line until 1946.  (In addition, Washington halted all highway construction and rationed tires, gasoline, and fuel oil.)

However, the folks in Detroit had plenty of work.  Chrysler made tanks.  General Motors built engines and various kinds of vehicles—as well as bombs, artillery shells, fuses, navigation equipment, machine guns, and anti-aircraft weaponry.  Ford produced planes.  Following the dictates of its government, the industry more than doubled its production capacity.  In fact, instead of 60,000 planes, automakers turned out some 229,600.  Historians often attribute the victory of the Allies to the rapid and total mobilization of U.S industry.  Few waste ink challenging the president’s constitutional authority to do what he did.  None, to my knowledge, ask the tougher question: Between Hitler and Roosevelt, which was the absolute dictator and which considered himself subordinate to the will of the people?

We all played bridge in those days—women, married couples, even teenagers.  I still find it strange that almost no one plays today, except aficionados and the very old, their liver-spotted claws trembling as they gather in the tricks.  The bridge columns by Culbertson and Goren have disappeared from the newspapers, replaced by Jumbles and other mind games.  Words like finesse no longer have a context to give them full meaning.  Card tables with fold-up legs are now highly collectible.

My mother played quite well, as did several of her friends; and two or three times a week, they’d have lunch at one house or another and play bridge until five o’clock, time for husbands to come home.  The women took their card games seriously, and confined their small talk to lunch breaks and the time it took to shuffle the cards.  None of them listened to Ma Perkins or Pepper Young’s Family.  They would have considered soap operas a waste of good bridge time.

One muggy afternoon in mid-July, four of them were playing on our side porch, all wearing sandals and cotton shorts and shirts, while underneath the card table a floor fan churned the air but gave little relief from the heat, which every year settled on the town in June like a wet shroud and hung there until the first week in September.  No one had air conditioning, not in 1943.

Sitting at the table were my mother, Rosebud Floyd, Emma Jane Albritton, and Erle Saxe.  Emma Jane and Erle were inseparable, though Erle, in her 60’s, was some 15 years older.  They were both witty and laughed a lot.  Emma Jane, who was married to a judge, was known to have a sharp tongue—a quality that Erle appreciated, without feeling its finely honed edge on the thick of her thumb.  Having Emma Jane for a friend was like having a tiger for a pet.  You never knew when a sudden burst of wildness would cost you an arm.

Emma Jane had two sons, Tommy and Charles, both in uniform.  Tommy—a great big lout with a goofy smile—was in the Navy.  He was Emma Jane and Paul’s natural son and was an odd one.  Some people thought he was retarded, but he got a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago, then worked in a night bakery for the rest of his life.  When he got off at 2 a.m., he went to a nearby strip joint and watched girls take off their clothes.  Charles—whom they adopted to be a brother for Tommy—was better looking, normal, and socially poised.  I don’t think Emma Jane quite forgave him for that.

Erle was married to an architect, several years her junior, a vain owl with a prissy black mustache.  She was the boss’s daughter, and my father always said Albert married her to secure a partnership.  His nickname for her was “The Weevil.”

She was a small, homely woman with a wrinkled face and mouse-brown hair; but she was clever.  She cooked Egg Foo Yung when few people in town had ever eaten Chinese food.  She decoupaged cigar boxes and gave them as Christmas presents.  Her victory garden was featured in the local newspaper.  She made her own clothes.  She read every new book reviewed by The New Yorker and could locate Luxembourg and Burma on a world map.

“I’ll bid one heart,” said Rosebud, flicking a fly from her damp forehead.

Emma Jane stared at her hand for a long moment, then said, “Pass.”

Erle raised her eyebrows and quickly bid two spades.

My mother passed.  After going into Blackwood, Erle got the bid at six spades—a small slam.  Rosebud arranged the dummy for all to see, and excused herself to go to the bathroom, while Erle began to play the hand.  She quickly lost one trick, and had to run a finesse to make the bid.  As Rosebud came back on the porch, Emma Jane took Erle’s queen with her king and set the contract.

Erle turned to her in mock anger and said, “You Hitlerite!”

What happened next defies comprehension.  Emma Jane snarled, flung herself across the table, and fastened her hands on Erle’s throat.

“Nobody calls me that!” she shrieked.  “Nobody!”

Erle tried to speak, but she could only make gurgling sounds.  She turned red, then purple, and her eyes began to bulge.  Suddenly the table collapsed under the weight of the two, and still Emma Jane clutched the offending throat, growling like an animal.

Both Mother and Rosebud screamed.

“Stop it!”  “Let Go!”

But Emma Jane clearly intended to hang on until sundown.

Ola heard the noise and came rushing from the kitchen.  By then, both Mother and Rosebud were trying to pry Emma Jane’s fingers loose.  Ola, a huge woman, grabbed Emma Jane around the waist and hauled her into the air.  At that point, Emma Jane let go of Erle, who lay on the table, sputtering and gasping, not quite certain if she would ever breathe again.

When Ola released her, Emma Jane turned to my mother and shouted, “I’d kill anybody who called me that!  Anybody!”

Erle, lying on her back, eyes brimming with tears, whispered, “It was a joke.”

“A joke!  Is that your idea of a joke, you foul-mouthed . . . ?”  She grabbed up her purse, jerked open the frail screen door, and slammed it behind her.  Meanwhile my mother and Rosebud were helping Erle to her feet.  She was clutching her throat and weeping.

“It was a joke,” she kept on saying.  “A joke.”

“Of course it was,” my mother said.

“Anyone would have known that,” Rosebud said.

They led her into the living room and made her lie down on the sofa.  Ola brought her a glass filled with ice.

“Here, Miz Saxe,” she said.  “Something cool will help that throat.”

“Thank you so very much,” she whispered and patted Ola on the arm.  Both of them knew the pat was for something more than the ice.

“It was only a joke,” Erle said in a slightly stronger voice.

Shortly after the episode at the bridge table, Albert Saxe, in his middle 40’s, wangled a captaincy with the Corps of Engineers and went to Washington, where he designed bridges to replace the ones our boys were blowing up in Europe.  There he met a younger woman whose husband had been killed in the Far East.  Uniforms were a strong aphrodisiac during the war years, and Albert’s covered a multitude of imperfections.  After two months of frantic lovemaking, he proposed.  On his first leave, he asked Erle for a divorce.  She agreed, probably figuring she’d been fortunate enough to have held such a fine-looking man for 20-odd years.

She moved out of their well-appointed architect’s house and into a room downtown, near the Florida Theater.  My mother went to see her, and even invited her to play bridge; but she said she felt too tired to get dressed.  Besides, she added, the cards had begun to blur.  She went to the doctor, and he told her she was having a hard time handling the two breakups, the one with her close friend, the other with her husband.

“It’s perfectly natural,” he said.  “Have a drink or two every afternoon.  Exercise.  Eat.  Try to regain some of that weight you’ve lost.  You’ll feel better, I promise you.”

So she tried.

When the landlady finally used a key to get into the room, Erle had been dead for two or three days.  An autopsy revealed she had lapsed into a diabetic coma.

After the war, Albert, with his much-younger wife, came back to our town to practice architecture.  Like many civilians who became officers, he was too swollen with pride to surrender completely the role of savior-swashbuckler.  So after he had moved back into the architect’s house, the first thing he did was buy a new mailbox and paint major saxe on it.

He wasn’t the only one, but he was the one we knew.  Bandel Linn, whose cartoons occasionally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, had served in the Army as well.  When he saw what Albert had done, he painted his name and rank on his mailbox: corporal bandel linn.  Shortly thereafter, Albert got a new mailbox that read simply saxe.