It was an evening late in August 1945, in an Air Force barracks in Southern Colorado, about a week before the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. A dozen soldiers, with multiple battle stars on their overseas service ribbons and therefore assured of early discharges, sprawled idly over their rumpled beds (Air Force barracks were never neat), talking or desultorily playing cards, about to be engulfed by the buoyant enthusiasm of another dozen soldiers, who stormed into the room from the early showing of the G.I. movie.
''That picture was GREAT!'' they shouted. ''You guys have gotta go tomorrow night! It's sensational!''
All of us bed-loungers did go. Some of the first-nighters went again, and we were all equally enchanted.
Anyone wise in the ways of soldiers could have told you confidently what sort of film was being touted: one as steamily sexy as the relatively demure standards of 1945 permitted, with Jane Russell or Betty Grable displaying an abundance of creamy skin; if not, then a brutal, blood-soaked prison melodrama featuring Humphrey Bogart or George Raft.
Actually it was nothing of the sort.
The film we saw on those August nights is now almost forgotten. I am told that it has never been put on videotape and is has not to my knowledge ever been shown on TV. Still, it completely ensnared four audiences of far from sentimental G.I.s
The co-stars were the unlikely combination of Margaret O'Brien and Edward G. Robinson. It's title: For Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.
The opening of the film was pastoral and idyllic, so warmly done that one could almost sense the freshness of the dew on the grass. A circus has come to a small country town, and a farmer (Robinson) has brought his small daughter (O'Brien) at dawn to watch the animals being unloaded from the train. No one of course could portray wide-eyed enchantment as touchingly as Margaret O'Brien, and the protective affection that Robinson displayed toward her was readily understandable.
Today, I suppose, incestuous cravings or clandestine sexual abuse would be imputed to Robinson; but in 1945 he was convincingly depicted as kindly, decent and sincere.
His one cause for concern was a touch of mean-spirited selfishness that he had perceived in the girl, a covetousness toward her own possessions, and especially toward a calf she had herself raised and for whose prize-wining future she entertained high hopes. He yearned that she would somehow win through to a more open, generous heart.
After 46 1/2 years I cannot remember the incidents that helped to bring about the hoped-for change, but even after that lapse I shall never forget the final scene.
An elderly couple have suffered a disastrous fire, which in an uninsured countryside has left them not far from destitute. A community meeting of neighboring farmers is convened to contribute enough feed and money and labor to get them started again, but it becomes evident that the trifling contributions offered will be tragically inadequate and the old couple become increasingly despondent until, nearly at the end of the meeting, the little girl comes stoutly to her feet and declares, ''I'll give my calf.''
As those around her realize the magnitude of the gift and the significance to her of the loss of that calf, they are both shamed and inspired and leap to their feet, one after another, to raise the promised contributions to a level which will be of genuine help to recovery from the disaster. The little girl, by the generosity of her example, has rendered a life-giving service to people two generations her senior.
Why did the soldiers react so warmly to that film? It included neither sex nor violence and simply related a kindly story tenderly and without mawkishness.
Let me hazard a guess. It is the fashion now to disparage The American Dream; but I think that one of the finer components of that dream is a conviction that one can change one's life and one's behavior -- that a man or a woman can with courage and resolution become warmer and more generous and more friendly. That, I think, was the message those inspirited soldiers, so soon to resume their civilian lives, carried back with them through the barren streets of the La Junta, Colorado, Army Air Base.
Robert L. Taylor writes from Timonium.