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Pearl Harbor's aftermath through the eyes of a girl
An Army on my doorstep

My mother came to disturb my play on that lovely, quiet Sunday, almost 70 years ago, to tell me that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

I was quite annoyed. She had clearly gone to some trouble to find me, but I just wanted her to go back inside the house, back to listening to her radio, and not interrupt me again. I had never heard the name Pearl Harbor and had no idea where it was or what it was. And I was mildly amazed that she could think that whatever had happened had anything to do with me.

Things were a bit strange that evening. Both my parents would stare at the radio when they walked past, as if they somehow expected it to speak directly to them. I put on a long face to match my parents' somber countenances, but I still had no sense of personal involvement.

I did ponder, the next day, when I became aware that Pres. Roosevelt was taking the whole matter very seriously. I had learned by then that Pearl Harbor was in Hawaii, a far-distant speck somewhere in the vast Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from my remote corner of the world, Charter Oak, in far northeastern Los Angeles County.

Wars were things that happened on newsreels, battles already old by the time we viewed them at the movie theaters. Wars happened in other places, like Europe, across another vast ocean, the Atlantic.

Our rural community consisted of a few modest homes, a tiny grocery store, and a fourth-class post office clustered around an orange-packing plant on East Covina Boulevard. Surrounded by citrus groves, our horizon was limited. Crowded, congested Los Angeles, where the grandparents and other relatives lived, was a good hour's drive away.

We moved to a different house a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, and apparently there was nothing left in the budget for new curtains. My mother devised a way to hang quilts at the bedroom windows to serve as blackout draperies. As for the rest of the house, well, we'd just turn off the lights and sit in the dark.

My father talked constantly about new automobile tires, but then he was always fretting over something about the car.

Sugar was one of my mother's concerns—nothing new, however. I could remember the previous summer when bag after bag of sugar went into canning and preservation projects.

Family gatherings and holiday celebrations continued to be held at our house, but now all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would squeeze into one vehicle to come to us.

My father began asking, upon each family's departure, whether there was enough gasoline in the tank to get them home. The driver would invariably reply that the travelers would be just fine as long as one of the aunts was willing "to push the last five miles."

One holiday Sunday, we were finishing our meal when the radio broadcast a warning that a full blackout order would be issued by evening. Suddenly agitated, the visiting relatives made hasty preparations to leave. If they started in the next few minutes, they could probably get safely home before nightfall.

My spirits sank. Normally, the women all pitched in and made quick work of putting the food away, clearing the table, washing the dishes, and leaving everything ship-shape. With the departure of our visitors, the entire clean-up task would fall to my mother and me. As soon as the car doors had slammed and the final good-byes were called from the car windows, I skulked off to my room.

The last thing I saw was my father hunkering over the radio. I could hear my mother's footsteps fade away as she went from the dining room to the kitchen, then came back to pause next to my father's chair in the living room. I refrained from starting any project because I expected to be called at any minute to come share part of her chores.

The daylight slowly faded. Eerily, the twilight seemed to go on forever. I sat on the edge of the bed, not remembering where the quilts had been stored and unable to think of anything I could do without turning on the lights. For a long time I remained motionless. In the next room the radio crackled with static. My mother's movements had ceased and I had no idea where she had gone.

The demands of nature finally forced me from my perch. To reach the bathroom I had to go through the kitchen, and there I found my mother at the sink, moonlight flooding in from the row of windows.

"The dishes will have to wait until morning," I remarked.
"I'm almost finished," Mother replied.

Disbelieving, I came closer and could see that the draining rack was stacked with dishes. Her hands in the dishpan, mother was scrubbing a small saucepan. She offered a further observation: "I've been watching what's happening out there on the road."

Curious, I leaned forward to look past her shoulder. The sight that met my eyes was so startling that I rushed to the front of the house for a better view.

The scene on our country road was unlike anything I had ever seen before: Military vehicles, mostly trucks, some pulling gun carriages, all headlights extinguished, had paused in their movement toward Los Angeles. Drivers, some with cigarettes glowing in the dark, remained in the truck cabs, but other men in khaki uniforms that matched the trucks were quietly milling about while they awaited further orders, a long line of machines and men stretching along East Covina Boulevard in both directions as far as the eye could see.

My mind flashed back to the beautiful, calm Sunday my mother had come looking for me to tell me that bombs had been dropped at Pearl Harbor. Now I understood how that unthinkable event had everything to do with me.