(USS Arizona Memorial in Oahu, Hawaii)
Everybody knows about Pearl Harbor. The thing that really fascinated me is that through this tragedy there was this amazing American heroism. ~ Michael Bay
I graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College) in Lynchburg, VA. In my younger adult years, I was active on the board of the Alumnae Association (alumnae is the feminine plural of the usually written word, alumni, which covers both all male or co-ed graduates).
There were board meetings three times a year, if I recall, and I’d fly up to Lynchburg and stay either at a hotel (during the school year) or on campus (during breaks). I loved serving, and I loved meeting and getting to know fellow alumnae from classes dating back to the 1930’s. What great stories they had to share!
What prompted this memory of Pearl Harbor was Fannie Flagg’s new book, “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion”, which my sister gave me for my birthday. I am loving it! It spans eight decades, weaving the story between the 1930’s Wisconsin to modern day Alabama.
Flagg imagines what happened on December 7, 1941 in Pulaski, Wisconsin. I’m sure it was an exact description of what happened all over America on that sad day. Here is a sample:
“Poppa was sitting at the table with his ear to the radio and kept shaking his head in disbelief as he listened to the same report repeated over and over. After a moment, he looked at his wife with a stricken expression on his face. ‘Oh, Linka, we can’t lose America. If we lose America…’ Then his voice cracked and the big strong man, who had always been their tower of strength, put his head down on the table and sobbed. All the girls quickly gathered around their father and hugged him, while his wife stood by, helpless and unable to do anything. She knew he was right. If America was lost, then there was no hope- not only for them, but also for the world.”
(the family were Polish immigrants who had built a successful automotive business in Pulaski, i.e. a gas station)
Connie was my R-MWC friend from those Alumnae Board days in the 1980’s, and it is her story that I am about to share with you. She was from Ohio, and she was a student at R-MWC in the fall of 1941. On that fateful Sunday morning of December 7, the students were preparing for final exams, when Dr. Jack (then the president of R-MWC) called an assembly to share news of the attack. He then canceled all classes and exams and told everyone to GO HOME.
He knew that all trains and other transportation options would soon be monopolized by the military for their purposes, and he wanted his students to get home safely.
So Connie and a fellow Ohioan scrambled to get on an overnight train back home. They had to share a berth (a bed meant for one), but they managed to settle in and sleep head to foot.
Except that Connie had to get up and use the bathroom in the middle of the night. She carefully exited the berth, so as not to awaken her friend, and likewise, carefully entered it when she returned.
The next morning, Connie awakened to discover that she had gotten into the wrong berth, and she was in bed with a strange man! She shrieked and fled, and was absolutely mortified! Later, she said she saw him in the dining car, but couldn’t even raise her eyes to look at him.
I can’t even imagine her shock, but it’s a hilarious story, in retrospect, and the only thing that would have made it better is if they had fallen love and gotten married and lived happily ever after! But no such luck.
My intention of sharing this amusing story is not to make light of this very sad and uncertain time. But rather, I think that sharing the personal stories from this generation is a very important way to weave the tapestry of history and appreciate it and all the brave and patriotic citizens who lived through it.
Postscript: If you have not experienced the USS Arizona Memorial and Visitor Center in Oahu, put it on your bucket list. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more moving experience. On the day we were there, the family of a Pearl Harbor survivor was interring his ashes there; he wanted to be with his shipmates who had died in the attack. Seriously, tears were running down my face…