World War II surprised most Americans, who, in those days, paid less attention to the rest of the world than they do today.  In our town, World War I was a dissolving memory, kept alive by the sale of paper poppies and the sight of a few leftover casualties who crept along Main Street, dragging a limp leg or nursing a curled arm.  I knew only two.

Finley Kemp was a hunchback whose spine had been crushed by a spent shell that struck him as he ran across a smoking field in France.  By day he was a real-estate agent in a dying market; by night one of the several town drunks.

Our next-door neighbor, Gale Henneberg, sat on his front porch, rocking furiously, gasping for air to support his increasingly fragile life.  His lungs had been blistered by mustard gas.  One day I asked him how it had felt.  “Wonderful,” he rasped, “wonderful,” and his laugh turned into a coughing fit.

These two were among the odds and ends of an increasingly irrelevant past.  Our hearts went out to them, not so much for the service they’d rendered as for the high visibility of their suffering.

However, like other towns, we celebrated Armistice Day each November 11 by holding a ceremony, ours at Five Points.  In order to swell an ever-dwindling crowd of adults, children from the three elementary schools were hauled downtown in banged-up yellow buses and positioned around the flagpole that formed an island where five badly paved streets converged.  Fifteen or so Legionnaires, wearing orange caps trimmed in blue, would form a depleted platoon and listen to a prayer and a speech as the merciless chill seeped through our clothes and into our bones.  Every year the speaker talked about the dead, and we listened instead to the whip of the wind as it tore around buildings.  Our hearts were stones in our chests.

Standing with my schoolmates from Southside Elementary School, I’d eye the rifles that four of the Legionnaires held at order arms.  I always prayed they wouldn’t fire a salute after the speech was over; but, as the town clock that hung on the bank building struck eleven, they’d always hoist the rifles to their shoulders and squeeze off three rounds, while I stuck my fingers in my ears.  When the last strains of “Taps” had wavered and died, we piled into the buses and rode back to school, rowdier than usual.

Then, before we knew it, we were in the middle of yet another World War, the second in less than 25 years.  I remember Granny calling to me from her bedroom window as I perched in the loquat tree, pretending to be a gorilla or some such thing.  I was eleven years old, and life was still fantasy, interrupted by meals, homework, and the gray reality of Granny, who lived with us and whose sole mission was to ruin our lives.

“The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!” she hollered.

“The who?”

“The Japanese.”


“The man on the radio says it means we’ll go to war.”

I was no longer a gorilla.  War suddenly became Sunday’s great adventure.  It would be like a Florida hurricane.  You got out of school.  You went with your father to the hardware store to get a Sterno stove and candles.  You filled up the bathtub with water.  You listened to the radio for updates from Grady Norton of the Miami Weather Bureau.  And you watched the trees whip and swirl in the rising wind.

Nothing ever really happened.  The lights and radio went out.  You lit the candles.  And when the sound of the wind became as familiar as silence, you fell asleep.  The next day you went outside in sheer sunshine and cleared the lawn of small branches, pine cones, and an occasional dead bird.  In a couple of days, no one could tell a hurricane had passed your way.  Or so it seemed during those years.  A few days of war, I reasoned, could be just as exciting and just as irrelevant.

I swung down out of the loquat tree, and started running across the vacant lot toward Oswald Whitaker’s house to see if he’d heard the good news.