What Is War?
By Bernie Suttle
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Our family heard these words from President Roosevelt as we sat in front of the Philco at home in Monrovia, California.
Dad said, “We’re in it now, it’s war.” He knew all about war. He was in the last one. I have his officer’s hat. He never talked about it. I was eight and war didn’t mean a thing to me.
“There’ll be shortages. I’m buying a hundred pound bag of sugar for mother’s canning and baking before it’s rationed.”
“What’s rationing?” I asked.
“Because of war there’ll be a shortage of lots of things so they’ll limit what we can buy. That’s rationing.”
“Will rationing keep me from getting a bike? Mom, how old do I have to be to get a bike?”
“I don’t know, Son. When you’re big enough to ride it I guess.”
“I can ride Jerry Bride’s Schwinn now.”
“Oh! Your Dad doesn’t want you to have a bike. He says you’ll fall off.”
“ The War “ will just give Dad another excuse for not letting me have a Two-Wheeler. I want a bike more than anything.”
I noticed new things in our town. A small encampment in the park made up of a tent, searchlight, electrical generator, six draft rejects in bad uniforms, and each one of them had a bike. All this was for a World War One surplus Barrage Balloon to defend against low flying aircraft.
The government requisitioned Santa Anita Race track as a concentration camp for our Japanese neighbors. I saw some kids I knew inside the fence between the tarpaper barracks. They were throwing a football back and forth. I wondered how they liked being in there.
“Did they get to keep their bikes?”
Later they shipped the Japs away and the track became, “Camp Santa Anita” with continuous truck convoys and trains bringing in troops and equipment. I treasured a “Johnny Jeep” hat a guy threw to me from an Army truck. I wore it everywhere. Where did they send him to the war?
One night after dinner at the Dillards’ farmhouse I watched my Dad siphon gas from our car into a five-gallon can. I never told anyone about this. The Dillards were allowed only four gallons of gas a month. Dad said they were good people, didn’t drink, smoke, or go to movies. Gas was twenty cents a gallon. They gave Dad five dollars for five Gallons.
“Would now be a good time to mention the bike to Dad? Better not, he’ll just get mad. Wait ‘til later?”
“C’mon, we’re going to the Monrovia Theatre free. Just bring a pound of scrap rubber to get in,” Davenport said one Saturday morning to a group of us kids. Soon a typhoon of pillaging began. Pickings were slim until Kyle showed up with a tire casing enough for 30 admissions. Rolling this godsend he led a procession of happy kids that marched into the theater. Only later did someone discover that the tire that had provided a swing across the wash was missing.
“Mom, what is a ‘Bliss Creek?’”
“Say that again dear. Where did you hear that?”
“On the radio about the War. Germany had a ‘Bliss Creek in Poland.”
“Oh, that’s a ‘Blitz Krieg.’ That’s a battle in German.”
“Do they have bikes in Germany?”
Paul Woods was 19 years old. He lived three houses up from us on Maple Street. His dad worked at the lumberyard. His mom stayed home and canned their apricots. When the war started Paul became a conscientious objector. He wasn’t one before.
“I don’t know what they do but maybe he won’t need his bike.”
While out in our ’37 Plymouth, Dad stopped to pick up a young sailor.
“Hop in back. With the kids.”
“Where you headed?”
“Pasadena. The Pasadena Civic, to a dance there.”
“Always glad to give a service man a ride. You based in ‘Pedro?”
“Not really anywhere ‘til I get a ship. My carrier was sunk by the Japs. It’s on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.”
“You’ve been there?” I asked
“Yep. South Pacific, too. You join the Navy, you go everywhere.”
“Wow! That’s for me. Did you have a bike before the War?”
“Bernhard, Bernhard.” I heard Mrs. Gallagher, the Air Raid Warden’s Dutch wife call over the fence, “Do you think your mother would let us have the wicker stroller that sits unused in your garage? It’s for our son, Chris’s, new baby. I could give you Chris’s old bike. He doesn’t need it now that he’s in the army. Then, Mrs. Gallagher told me that when the Germans invaded her Holland they took all the bikes away from the Dutch.
Even though Mom said she was nosey, she went along with the idea. I was thrilled. I rode the bike with no front tire and a flat rear tire. I was far removed from the deprivation of war but now I knew what war was.
“I want us to win. I want to keep my bike.”