WASHINGTON. — Washington--It has taken place gradually, so when we stop to realize it, it seems impossible: Most Americans alive today don't remember Pearl Harbor. And because they were not here then, or not old enough to remember, they can never have precisely the feeling about America that is shared by those who were.
Never, before or since, have we been so much one country.
On everyone who does remember that December 7 and the 1,346 days that followed, the war left a lasting imprint. That applies to those who fought it, and those who stayed behind. The lives of hundreds of thousands of families and sweethearts were changed forever by the arrival of a telegram from Washington, beginning, ''The War Department regrets to inform you. . . .'' And so, believe me, were the lives of millions of others whose one innocent complaint was that they were too young to go to war.
As a brand-new Boy Scout, I was the perfect receptacle for all the patriotic propaganda of wartime. We still have a 12th-birthday photo of me in the uniform paid for half by my father, half by my lawn-mowing earnings. My mother had already adorned it with the Cobra Patrol emblem and I had already pinned on my Tenderfoot badge.
Often since, I have realized that if I were unlucky enough to have been born in Germany, I would have been just as perfect a recruit for Hitler Youth, probably just as eager to wear swastika armband and shout ''Heil!''
Luck, of course, rather than virtue, is the main thing that sets Americans apart from the rest of the world. Lucky enough to live behind broad oceans, we assumed until that December Sunday that geography would always be our shield. Indeed, it still seemed so, because Pearl Harbor was far away and most of us had never heard of it before.
We, the four of us, were in our '39 Plymouth Special Deluxe, on our way home from visiting Uncle Howard in Durham. We heard && the bulletin on the car radio, and hardly had time to ask Daddy what it meant when a long convoy of olive-drab trucks, cannon and jeeps rolled past going the other way. We thought they were heading for Hawaii to meet the foe; instead they were hurrying back to base from large-scale Carolina maneuvers, the last war games of peacetime.
The next day, in Miss Hattie Mears' history class, we seventh-graders listened to Roosevelt declare war. The next day, and the next and the next, we watched boys just a notch older than ourselves sign up and go away. Months afterward, we gazed up, mouths open, when some of them came back to buzz the old home town, skimming trees and school in their P-38s and A-20As. There is no envy greater than that of an adolescent for the pilot of a high-performance airplane, waving his wings at the ground-bound masses below.
To make up for not enlisting, we pitched in on the home front. We scoured basements for scrap metal, carted hundreds of toy wagonloads of scrap paper, and learned the silhouettes of friendly and enemy aircraft, ready to sound the alarm if raiders should target the Dan River valley. When my cousin C.S. came home on furlough, I grilled him about different planes, and he laughed that I knew more about them than he did. That September, he was killed flying the Hump from India to China.
We took the sentimental songs of the early Forties straight, singing to Dinah Shore's ''I'll Walk Alone;'' Ella Fitzgerald's ''I'm Making Believe,'' with the Ink Spots; Doris Day and Les Brown's ''Sentimental Journey,'' and that special homecoming ballad, ''It's Been a Long, Long Time.''
In any era, it's a long way from age 12 to 15, a trip of confusion and discovery, bravado and insecurity. The consciousness of being just barely too young, of doing all you can but still not enough, was heightened when that trip ran from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day. When the boys came home and knocked us back a rung on the football squad, and walked off with the girls who had just begun tolerating us, we resented it not at all. In effect, we saluted and stepped aside.
To me, those years are worth revisiting not because they were unique, but because 130 million other Americans lived through something very similar, and they haven't forgotten, either. They haven't forgotten the shock, the songs, the sorrows -- or the joy of that night in August 1945, when our world went briefly crazy because the rest of the world had finally returned to sanity.
The only thing to regret about the experience is that so many now living did not share it, so they have never known how it feels for all Americans to be emotionally, unequivocally in something, together to the glorious end.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.