A stray Tabasco ray of winter morning sun filtered through the window. It did not stop on my updrawn bedsheet but zinged on through to my face. I knew it must be time to wake up, but the only reveille sound was the muted burbling of my mom’s coffee percolating on the one-burner hot plate. The aroma was pleasing. On my cot next to the window, I stretched, wiggled my toes, and opened my eyes. In a sleepy voice, I asked, “Mommy, is anybody up yet?”
If our landlady had not yet gotten the newspaper off the front porch, we were welcome to read it first. It was Sunday, and I wanted to see the funny paper, particularly the “Katzenjammer Kids,” a cartoon about the troubles of two funny-talking little boys. It was unimaginable that this was to be their final episode.
We three, my parents and I, were tenants in the converted one-room side porch of Mrs. Callahan’s pleasant white frame house in the St. Elmo section of Columbus. We were allowed to use what had been the maid’s bathroom, out and across the back porch. Our cooking and eating were confined to the spacious kitchen in the main house, where we took turns. Mrs. Callahan, a nice gray-haired widow who shared the house with her old-maid sister, had rented us the room, not from financial necessity but a sense of patriotic duty.
Columbus and Fort Benning were boom towns, overflowing with people. New troops were added daily as the Army expanded as rapidly as possible. The government had neither the time nor money to make provisions for families. Wives and children were on their own or best left back at home or on the farm. As a small boy, I knew that our little family had moved into the middle of all this activity because of some terrible people called Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Their evil caricatures were commonplace in widely circulated propaganda. I was well aware that the swastika was the emblem of this evil.
This was to be a special Sunday. Besides our customary attendance at the First Baptist Church, we were to test drive a new car. My father, particularly, had shown his enthusiasm for the proposed new acquisition. A fellow church member, the Packard dealer, had suggested that my folks swap their old bottle-green Buick after the service and test drive the new Packard Eight. “Ask the man who owns one,” my Army daddy quoted from the sales brochure. “Windstream styling,” he ranted on. “Packards are in great demand. Some people say production might stop any day now that the company is also making engines for war planes and PT boats.” A new car like this certainly sounded exotic and desirable to a kindergartner.
Between my excitement over seeing the new auto and my Sunday-go-to-meeting starched collar, I was nearly exhausted by the end of the preaching. My impatience was soon rewarded. Outside the stately white-columned church just across the red brick street was parked the brand-new Packard. It shone in the noon Georgia sun like a mirror. The sleek, two-door coupe was painted a soft, two-tone gray. Suddenly, as we circled this beautiful car, my attention was riveted by a stunning hood ornament. A supine, long-haired, gauze-clad nymph pointed outstretched arms forward into an imaginary gale. Looking suitably windswept, she held a diminutive automobile wheel. The sculpture was elegant, all in spotless chromium and almost supernatural.
The rolling hills of south Georgia seemed to smooth out beneath this rakish set of wheels. We could not have been any more cheerful if we had a magic flying carpet. By the time we entered the valley of the Chattahoochee River, the highway was deserted, with only the occasional punctuation of a whitewashed farmhouse or a sun-bleached barn. At a wide place in the road, we pulled the Packard over and got out to admire it once more from afar.
We were in no rush to return home because on Sunday we were last in the kitchen and would have to wait anyhow before Mother could fry our traditional chicken and make mashed potatoes. “Earl, Jack, look!” exclaimed my mother, pointing just above where the windshield was divided by a chrome strip. A shiny antenna extended back across the roof, laid back sort of like ears on a running dog. “A radio!” Radios in cars were the exception in those days, so this was an unexpected and unexperienced luxury. With a new reason to be excited, I was loaded into the middle of the taupe wool front seats. Outside, my soldier father took my mom in his arms. Her blonde hair looked shiny like the chrome. After a kiss, he said, “Cissy-P, I’m going to buy this Packard for you.” We all cheered and soon were homeward bound with the newly found radio loudly entertaining us. We spun the dial and enjoyed a few minutes on each station we could tune in.
Suddenly the music stopped. An announcer started talking in a deep voice as serious and grave as the preacher at church. “Surprise attack . . . Pearl Harbor . . . Japs” were the words I will never forget. After the long announcement was over, we turned the radio off. Our exhilaration was gone, our smiles erased. My parents exchanged some conversation. I particularly remember my mother exclaiming something like “suck-egg-mule,” which I guessed was a naughty word, the only one I had ever heard her say. I knew something very, very bad had happened. I crawled over into the back of the new Packard. On my knees, I stared out the side window. The kudzu green and Georgia red clay seemed duller than before. Dusty pine trees whizzed by, but I was no longer interested in searching for a small one with a Christmas shape. We were silent as we drove into the outskirts of Columbus on the way to our rented room. My appetite for the fried chicken drumsticks (or handle bones as I called them) of after-church Sunday dinner was gone. The majestic new Packard was parked comfortably at the curb of our white, wooden home.
My dad opened the door to let us out. He was in his army uniform, as always in those days. It was a handsome outfit called “pinks and greens,” although the fabric was neither pink nor green. At the waist was a wide, highly polished, brown leather belt with a strap over one shoulder. On his chest, I can still see the expert marksman badge with rifle, pistol and carbine tabs hinged on his collar, the gold and silver insignias sparkling in the sunlight. His elegant brown shoes were polished like mirrors on the toes. This young new captain from Kentucky smiled and walked ahead to open the door to our little room. He was a good daddy, and I loved him.
It was cold that unforgettable sunny Sunday winter afternoon in 1941. Sun flickered down through the few remaining red and yellow leaves in the big trees, speckling the unraked front yard with pools of shadows and light. I grasped my mother’s hand and consciously had to resist the urge to suck my thumb. Five is too old for that, I knew. I was a big boy. With a tremor in my voice, I asked, “Mommy, will Daddy have to go away?” For a moment, she just stood there, silent, squeezing my hand. Then she looked down at me with a mother’s look. With a note of sadness, she said, “Yes, son, Daddy will have to go away.”
Jack May is a 1958 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in the 82nd Airborne as a paratrooper for three years.