An age of innocence

Elizabeth K. Miller

August 12, 1991|By Elizabeth K. Miller

THIS SUMMER groups of older men and women have been gathering all around the United States for innumerable and nostalgic 50th high school reunions. Although they didn't know it at the time, the class of 1941 graduated in what Hal Bock, an AP sports writer, calls "America's last summer of innocence."

World events were shaping the future of the Class of '41 when they were still in high school. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany whilethey were sophomores. When they were juniors, Hitler invaded Denmark and the Battle of Britain took place. They sat with their families by the radios and listened to FDR's fireside chats and heard the sound of static obscure the voice of Hitler. While the adults discussed war in Europe, the high school seniors turned their radios to Jack Benny, Fred Allen, the Hermit and the Lucky Strike Hit Parade.

The class of '41 graduated and Germany invaded Greece, Yugoslavia and Russia. The House in Washington voted 203-202 to extend the first American peacetime compulsory military service from a year to 18 months, and the war seemed closer. People talked about National Defense and America as "the great arsenal of democracy."

Nonetheless, before they left for college or for jobs, and before the world changed irretrievably, the graduates planned to make the most of the summer of '41. They went to the movies to see the detectives -- Charlie Chan and Ellery Queen -- or the cowboys -- Gene Autry and William Boyd. They laughed at Andy Hardy, Hope and Crosby in "Road to Zanzibar" and Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator." It was a great year for sports -- 22-year-old Ted Williams batted .406 and Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games. Whirlaway won the Triple Crown, and Joe Louis in the 17th defense of his title knocked out Buddy Baer.

In that "summer of innocence" the closest the Class of '41 got to evil was Hemingway's racy best seller, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" or the smoke from a Viceroy blown out the bedroom window.

Most of the time they listened to their favorite records and danced to jukebox music. Their music was sentimental or silly. They slow-danced as a young band leader, Frank Sinatra, crooned "All or Nothing At All" and "This Love of Mine."

The happy beat of the big bands -- Miller, the Dorseys, Goodman -- came from the jukeboxes and they jitterbugged to "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

When Ish Kabibble lisped "thwee liddle fiddies in an itty bitty pool, boop boop didum, dadum, wadum choo," they sang along. If they could borrow the family car, they went to the lake resorts and the dance halls and crowded near the bandstand to talk to their idols and get their autographs. They danced as though the summer would never end.

The class of '41 had started college and new jobs and was getting ready for Christmas when the news of Pearl harbor came over the radio one Sunday. America declared war on Japan on Dec. 8 and on Germany and Italy on Dec. 11. Life would never be the same. Congress lowered the draft age to 20. The men of the Class of '41 had only a year or two left and they, and some of the women volunteers, would join their older friends in the service. Unfamiliar names came over the radio -- El Alamein, Schweinfurt, Bastogne, Nijmegen, Kwajalein.

On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died and on May 1, Hitler's death was announced. In New Mexico on July 16, they tested the first atomic bomb. When V-E Day (May 8) and V-J Day (August 15) brought the war to an end, 322,188 American soldiers had been killed and 700,000 had been wounded.

Only the generals and the war heroes marched in the city ticker tape parades. The regular troops were discharged by length of service, so after the ships brought them back to America, they came home alone by train or bus. Sometimes they hitchhiked to the small towns and farms. Some had been gone for three or more years. They rejoined their families and quietly went back to their studies, the jobs and marriages that had been interrupted by the war.

The Class of '41 hasn't talked about world events at their reunion -- they've never talked much about their war. The ones who were overseas let Ernie Pyle's newspaper columns about "his boys" and Bill Mauldin's cartoons of Joe and Willie, "the dogfaces," tell their war stories before Hollywood added its glamorized versions. Instead, the class remember absent classmates, teachers, dances, parties, football and basketball scores, plays, funny things that happened -- and, of course, the music.

Members of the class of '41 enjoy their 50th reunions. Why not? 1941 may have been the best time to graduate -- just before the world changed.

Elizabeth K. Miller is a professor of English Emerita at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.

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