In Catonsville, knitting took on a new, bloody meaning Dec. 7, 1941, and the changing of three lives

Helen Jean Burn

December 06, 1991|By Helen Jean Burn

THERE WERE six of us in my living room that winter afternoon -- five girls, all juniors at Catonsville High School, and one older woman. She was our Sunday School teacher and had been a missionary. But this wasn't a religious occasion; we met once a week at various homes to chat, have refreshments and knit.

That afternoon we drank tea to soft radio music, nibbled my mother's Scotch shortbread and listened politely while Miss Carr told us about her travels. Her favorite country was Japan, where she and her brother had lived for 20 years. "They are the cleanest people I've ever known," she said. "And they have such a love of beauty! From earliest childhood, their manners are exquisite. Still, they manage to be well-organized and efficient: Their trains always run on time. They are extraordinary people."

For a while we concentrated on the work at hand, our inexperienced fingers struggling with the heavy yarn we'd picked up on the second floor of the Jane Porter Candy Store. We followed the wrinkled typewritten directions for scarves, gloves, socks, watch caps and ski masks, all bound for servicemen. We called it "knittin' for Britain."

The war our allies were fighting seemed no more than a rumor. At 16, you don't keep up with the news. Joan and Nancy Lee talked about their formals; the Christmas dance was two weeks away. Trying not to worry because Bill Bailey hadn't asked me yet, I concentrated on the heel-shaping of a sock and thought about southern California. Since we moved often, my parents made a point of seeing the sights wherever we happened to be. Later I understood that in those times of little money and cheap gasoline, Sunday drives were an economical recreation. At any rate, we visited the beach at Malibu, the mission at San Juan Capistrano and the naval base at San Pedro, where the battleships were open to the public on Sundays.

One day, while we waited our turn to get on the launch that was taking visitors out to an aircraft carrier, I was struck by the sight of metal on the dock, mashed flat, bound with wire, and heaped into immense stacks. When I asked my father what that was, he said, "Scrap iron and steel."

"What's it for?"

He gazed gloomily out across the Pacific. "We're selling it to the ++ Japanese so they can make it into shells and shoot it back at us."

His remark stayed with me because it was not only baffling but out of character. My father never joked when answering my questions. Then he fell silent, and I was left to muse alone over his puzzling remark. On the way home I remember paying closer attention to the workers in the fields along the road. They were always there, Sunday or not, whole families of Japanese with parents, children and elderly relatives, all bent double to weed rows of vegetables. I couldn't imagine them shooting at us.

Not until that other Sunday, eight years later and a continent away, when my friends and I were knittin' for Britain. About 3 that afternoon the music we'd been hearing stopped, and I put down my half-finished sock, wondering whether something was wrong with the radio. After a moment an announcer said the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

We sat stunned while the bulletin finished and the music came back. Miss Carr was pale. "That's impossible," she whispered. ,, "They're the most polite people in the world." Then she gathered her knitting and left.

My friends, puzzled and uneasy, followed. I saw them to the door; they murmured thanks for a nice time, and I said I'd see them tomorrow in school. Back in the living room I gathered the teacups onto a tray and carried it into the kitchen, where my father stood. I said, "Did you hear the news?" When he nodded, I asked, "What does it mean?"

"War. A long, terrible war." He was looking out the window, down the deep back yard that led to the high school field, where each day as I came home I saw boys playing hockey.

I said, "You knew this would happen."

He turned, and I saw tears. He got his coat off the hook by the back door but paused with his hand on the knob. "Everybody knew, but nobody stopped it." He left the house, heading toward the woods where he often walked when he wanted to be alone.

A few weeks later the next issue of our school magazine listed the Catonsville High School boys in military service. There were 87 names, with apologies for the incompleteness of the list at press time.

We girls went on knitting items in khaki and blue. But as I worked, I often found my fingers trembling at the thought that perhaps this scarf or cap was going to be soaked in blood.

Helen Jean Burn writes from Baltimore.

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