This isn’t what I had planned to post today, but I forgot that today is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The following is a historical fiction piece I wrote for one of my clients a few years ago, to appear in a 10th grade language arts book. Technically, I don’t own it anymore, they do, but I’m putting it up here and they can cease and desist me if they want. It’s got nothing to do with the usual subject matter of this blog, and it’s really long, so you can skip it if you want.
It was early December, coming on Christmas, but not quite yet, and a Sunday. We went to church that morning like always, Mama, Daddy, Dexter, and me. After church, people crowded around Dexter, because he was a little bit famous. Whenever there was a game on Saturday night, people always wanted to talk about it on Sunday. They said the same things: “That was some game you played last night, boy.” And “We’re so proud of you.” And “Louisiana State will be getting a great player next year.” He would be going to college on a basketball scholarship, the first person in our family to attend college.
On this December Sunday, however, people crowded around me. I must have answered the question two dozen times: “What happened to you, Rosemary?” And two dozen times, I answered: “My horse tripped and dumped me off, and I broke my ankle.” I was on crutches for the first time in my life, and I felt about as graceful as a cow. But part of me liked being able to get out of Dexter’s shadow for once, to be somebody other than the star player’s little sister.
Dexter and Daddy helped get me into the car, the big old ’31 Model A Ford that was the only car I could remember us having, and we headed for Aunt Esther’s house. It was her turn to make Sunday dinner. Mama and her sisters, Esther and Ruth, traded off making Sunday dinners. Each one of the sisters had her specialty. Mama could roast a turkey that would be fit for President Roosevelt himself. My uncle Raymond raised beef cattle, so Ruth’s dinners always featured a giant roast, with gallons of brown gravy for the mashed potatoes. But Aunt Esther’s dinners were the best. You could smell her cooking from half-a-mile away, and today it smelled like ham and beans and biscuits and apple pie.
On any other Sunday, I would have helped the women finish making the dinner, but I wasn’t much good on my crutches. I also couldn’t help wrangle the younger cousins who were playing in the dooryard. So that day, I sat in the parlor and listened to the men talking. It was regular man talk, the same as it was every week, about the price of crops and the weather, about football—and about the war. England and France had been fighting the Germans in Europe for over two years, and everybody wondered how long the United States could stay out of it. They had started drafting young men into the army a year before. Uncle Evans had said, “You don’t buy a gun if you don’t think you’ll need it, and they wouldn’t be drafting soldiers if they weren’t planning to fight.” And sure enough, his son, my cousin Elston, was one of the first boys in the parish who had to go. He was stationed at some army base in Texas now.
After Sunday dinner, after the apple pie and the coffee were finished, the women took up the dishes and the men went outside. Since I couldn’t help, I hopped into the parlor. Dexter was already in there with our cousin Robby, and they were fiddling with the radio. When they found a football game, they were happy as could be.
Robby was the same age as Dexter, but where Dexter got athletic talent, Robby got brains. He was smart enough to go to college out East, a place like Harvard or Princeton. Uncle Evans wanted him to be an engineer. Aunt Esther thought he should be a doctor. He told me once that he wanted to be a writer, but he knew Evans and Esther would never stand for that. So he decided to wait and see. “When it’s time, I’ll know what to do,” he said. I hoped that whatever he did, he would stay close to home, because he was my favorite boy cousin, the only one who didn’t treat girl cousins like they were bugs to be swatted away, or targets for teasing.
I was drowsy after the big dinner. The sound of the announcer describing the football game was like a lullaby. I was deep enough to dream, something crazy about horses and biscuits, when Robby’s voice awakened me. “Dexter! You’ve got to hear this!” Robby turned up the sound on the radio.
A newscaster’s voice came on. “We interrupt this program to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press. Flash! Washington announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”
That was all there was. Dexter asked, “Where’s Pearl Harbor?”
“Hawaii, I think,” Robby replied. “Did he say the Japanese attacked it? Japan attacked us?”
We had heard about the Japanese and what they had done in China, and we knew they were taking over islands in the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, we had been more concerned with what was going on in Europe. The United States was helping the British resist the Germans, and we guessed that if our boys had to fight, it would be there. Who saw a war in the Pacific coming first?
I struggled up on my crutches and went to the kitchen to tell Mama and my aunts. The look on Esther’s face was like somebody had chopped open the floor under her feet, and she was about to plunge into the basement. She dropped her dishtowel and ran outside to tell the men. There was a general thumping of feet, but no words, as everybody piled into the parlor to listen to the radio. For the next couple of hours, we waited for news bulletins, hoping to learn more. Many American ships had been sunk, and planes had been destroyed on the ground. Soldiers had died. We listened, but there wasn’t much talking, although I heard Aunt Ruth, who would cry at the slightest little thing, blowing her nose every now and then.
As night fell, Aunt Esther tried to call Cousin Elston at the army base, but the phone lines were jammed, and she couldn’t get through. She knew what Pearl Harbor meant for Elston, and for all of us.
So did Dexter and Robby, young men about to turn 18 years old. It was time, and they knew what to do.