One Boy's War

Memories of a 1940s Baltimore childhood from Charles Osgood.


May 02, 2004

On January 2, 1942, two weeks before I turned nine, the Japanese took Manila and I sadly had to pin a tiny Japanese flag to the big map I had mounted on my bedroom wall. It would be June 4, the date of America's great victory in the Battle of Midway, before I could happily pin up an American flag.

That wall map of a boy whose name was then Charlie Wood hung above a windup Victrola phonograph, a small rocking chair, and my pictures of Babe Ruth and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those two men are mentioned in the proper order, because Roosevelt wasn't from Baltimore.

Nine-year-old boys today, to whom a Victrola would mean either nothing or Victrola's Secret, hang pictures of celebrities on their walls; but mine held Great Britain, North Africa, and the Marshall Islands, places I learned about from the front pages of the newspapers that I delivered. I didn't have Kobe Bryant, I had Kobe, Japan.

Although memory has a built-in sugarcoater, and childhood is seen through the cotton candy of time, I have always been certain that there was a genuine sweetness to the days when I was nine years old and the country was united in winning the last good war, if there could have been such a thing.

In January of 1942, not only Manila had fallen, but Bataan and Singapore too; London was being bombed nightly; and America had half a navy and an army as strong as Peru's. Things looked hopeless or even worse, but only to those who weren't as mindlessly happy as I was. Not for a moment since December 7 had I expected America to lose the war: I made Donald Duck seem like a pessimist.

And the miracle of that time was that I was hardly a lonely optimist: Millions of Americans were singing "Let's Remember Pearl Harbor" and "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along." And Americans were sustaining their morale with other songs that were calls not to battle but to smile, singing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me," "The Hut Sut Song," and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," which put you in Baltimore.

In that Baltimore, the Orioles flew lower than today's baseball birds because the team was just Triple A. There were white wooden houses with big front porches, and grand white stoops that had been famous for a hundred years, and a theater called the Hippodrome that had both films and the nation's last vaudeville shows for twenty-five cents, and the homes of H. L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe, and an edifice poetically called the Bromo-Seltzer Tower, the only American monument that involved indigestion. In Manhattan, a college boy met his date under the Biltmore clock; in Baltimore, he met her under the fizz.

And there was milk delivered in bottles and mail delivered twice a day and a boy named Charlie Wood delivering the Baltimore Sun and the Saturday Evening Post, flinging the Sun up to the old white porches like a basketball forward making a perfect feed. I wasn't considered an athlete at nine because no varsity played my sport: the newsprint drive-by on a flying Schwinn.

It was while making those newspaper deliveries, trying to miss the bushes and hit the porch, that I first learned the importance of accuracy in journalism. I always felt good and wanted to stay alive so I could keep feeling that way, not that death was ever real to me: Every nine-year-old is immortal. And so, I merrily sang about wishing I were dead, never pondering the meaning of those loony lyrics.

I simply knew that I felt in those days happy to be alive and living in a city where a trolley could take me to the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, one of two amusement parks right in the city. The roller coaster at Gwynn Oak was where I swooped down in my own space shuttle and looked for German saboteurs who might have been trying to sneak into the Baltimore harbor. Of course the Germans would want to come to Baltimore, which had more Germanic people than the Sudetenland. None of them, however, yearned for reunion with the Fatherland.

When I was looking down on that city from the top of the coaster's highest hill, I was taking for granted the easy enchantment of an America that was posing for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post, an America captured on film by MGM. In fact, many movies about the forties opened with my life: a scene into which a boy on a bike comes riding and tossing newspapers up to porches, where people were learning words like blitzkrieg, Bushido, Vichy, and Guadalcanal.

That boy was often Mickey Rooney, wondering if he could meet Judy Garland at the malt shop to talk about putting on a show. Although evil was on the march all over the world, the America celebrated in the films of 1942 was still an innocent place, where malt had nothing to do with beer and a show didn't need corporate underwriting. It needed only Mickey's and Judy's allowances, an empty barn, and a cast that was paid in milk shakes.

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