Monday, September 17, 2007

MY FIRST WAR -- Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 3, Part 2

Among other pointless wartime activities organized by Roosevelt’s government was airplane spotting. In a big clearing at the Blitchton crossroads, next to the white-painted wooden store that my father and his brother had built many years before, an official tower was erected. When you climbed the pine ladder and stepped onto the timber-supported platform your feet were at about the level of the store’s roof. From this frightening height, near tree top level, protected by railings and shaded by a high roof, you could see the sky all around.

Local civilians took turns manning the tower. Gramma (Daddy’s mother), as the matriarch of the community, was in charge of the whole operation, or at least I thought she was. During her watch she would sit, thin and straight, in gold-rimmed glasses, in her longish flower-print country dress, on a folding chair with binoculars around her neck and a log book and binder of aircraft silhouettes next to her on a little table.

She would shell blackeyed peas into a colander in her lap as she scanned the bright Florida sky for a miraculous materialization of Messerschmitts. When occasionally a plane would drone lazily into sight, and she would look at it through the binoculars and make a note in the log book. If the intruder had shown the profile of an enemy plane she would have made a phone call, but I'm sure she never made a phone call; all enemy planes were hopelessly separated from Blitchton by broad oceans and thousands of miles.

Unlike aircraft, German submarines could and did reach Florida, sinking merchant ships within sight of the beach. Sometimes members of the U-boat crews surreptitiously came ashore — for sightseeing purposes rather than to spy, but espionage stories abounded, as did tales that this or that pair of men who at some store or other had bought a bottle of milk and ice cream, or Coca Colas and a newspaper, were from German submarines. It was said that when a certain German submarine was disabled off the central Florida coast , a copy of the morning paper was on board.

When our dog, Nippy, who was almost a cocker spaniel, came whining slowly home one morning with blood on his black and white coat from what appeared to be a bullet wound in his neck skin, Daddy concluded that German spies had shot him. Why would German spies shoot a cocker spaniel? Because during his nightly ramblings Nippy found them spying in our neighborhood, and he started barking, and they shot him to shut him up. Luckily Nippy recovered. That German inflicted wound to a member of our family was the closest the war ever touched us personally.

A daily feature – several times a day, in fact -- during that period was Daddy listening to the war news on the radio. Those were protected moments with which nothing must interfere. “The war news is coming on,” meant keep quiet and stay out of the way. The correspondents and commentators would talk about this front and the other front, attacks, counterattacks and retreats by the enemy or strategic regroupings by the Americans, while Daddy listened intently and I waited for something more interesting to come on.

Once I asked him, “Will they still have news programs when the war is over?”

He laughed and answered, “Sure they will.”

“But what could they have on them? All the news is about the war.”

When we were not listening to the radio in the evening, Daddy would sit and read the newspaper. We had the Jacksonville 'Times Union' delivered in the morning and the much slimmer 'Gainesville Sun' in the afternoon. There was no television yet, and I don’t recall that we ever played phonograph records. In comparison with the audiovisual overload of evenings in later years it is hard for me to imagine now how everybody passed the time between our 6:30 supper and bedtime. Maybe that’s one reason I took to reading in such a big way.

During those war years (and in subsequent years as well) we never went out to eat except at the sedate Primrose Grill for a rare Sunday lunch, and I can recall only one time that we had company except when relatives came from Ocala on holidays. That was when a college friend of Daddy’s who had become a preacher was in Gainesville overnight to speak at the Baptist church. He and his wife ate at our dining room table, and we children listened in awe to the sonorous tones of this great man, about whose importance we’d been duly informed. He was by far the most prestigious person we had ever met. All I can remember is that he was very serious, and that he said he would not eat any bread before he preached. When I asked him why, he said something about digestion and Mother changed the subject.

The question returns to nag me, what in the world did everyone do in the evenings? As I recall, unless the radio was on, which it often was, the livingroom was very quiet. It was so quiet that what I remember best is the slight squeaking sound that Daddy absentmindedly made as his fingers rubbed the pages of the newspaper together while he absorbed column after column of war news. Occasionally he might comment.

“They have this new bum” — he pronounced “bomb” “bum” — “They have this new bum that’ll destroy a whole block. They call it a blockbuster.” He shook his head. “One bum that blows up all the houses in a block. Isn’t that terrible? But we have to do it.”

Mother might be looking at a different part of the newspaper, or a magazine like "Life" or "Colliers" or "The Saturday Evening Post.: I, of course, was usually reading, often up in my own room, although I might play with my metal toy soldiers on the livingroom floor, or get involved in a children’s board or card game with my mother and brothers. Mostly, though, I just remember how quiet and uneventful the evenings were — somewhat representative of our entire family history, where nothing big or unusual or dramatic ever happened, and during which I cannot recall my parents ever having a fight or raising their voices at one another.

One momentous night Mother and Daddy woke my brothers and me up before dawn and told us they wanted us to be able to remember an historic occasion.

Sirens were sounding outside in the Gainesville darkness. It was D Day. The invasion of Europe from England was taking place. We clustered around the radio and heard excited reports spoken from the decks of ships, the sounds of explosions and screaming airplane engines in the background. And then, none too sure what we had just experienced, we three boys went back to our beds.

I recall much more clearly a night when we were roused from sleep and brought out into the front yard to see one of the greatest meteor showers ever. It was definitely much more impressive than any I have ever seen since. Scarcely a second went by that at least one shooting star did not highlight the tracery of our pine trees and palm fronds. Often multiple streaks of fire illuminated the sky at the same time, illuminating our lawn. I wish I knew what year and month that was.

Another memorable wartime episode came on another night, but this time very early in the evening, before dinner as I recall. I was in the livingroom when I heard shouts in the dark street outside, that street whose thick pavement of pine needles normally muffled the sounds of passersby.

“Extra! Extra!”

We went to the front door, and in the dusk we could see two boys with bags of newspapers slung on their shoulders coming down either side of Fletcher Terrace.

“Extra! President Roosevelt dies! President Roosevelt is dead! Extra!”

We bought a "Gainesville Sun", and there were those gigantic black headlines one sees only in wartime taking up at least a third of the front page, and a big picture of F.D.R. In my family this was news to be treated with mixed emotions. Although Roosevelt was a Democrat, and nobody in the south, including my parents, could even have imagined voting Republican, he was considered by my father to have been the promoter of useless, ruinous, socialist schemes designed to end a Depression which would soon have ended itself through natural causes. Roosevelt, he said, had made government too big and too powerful, and had piled tormenting paperwork on county agents and others. Eleanor Roosevelt was worse than Franklin, even to the point of trying to upset the delicate balance between white and black in the South. At the same time, my parents were too nice and too Christian to express pleasure about anybody’s death, especially at the height of a war in which this president had been touted as a patriotic symbol. There was a somber air in our house as those old enough to read pored over the freshly ink-impregnated newsprint.

One time in our back yard, several children discussed the puzzling question, “How do wars start?”

I came up with the inspired answer: Two people started fighting, and just as on the school grounds everybody would run to watch. Then the friends of the two fighters began fighting on each side, and their friends joined in, until finally the battle grew so big that it was a war, with thousands of people fighting on each side.

“Then millions of people.”

“And then a trillion.”

“Then a million trillion.

“A million trillion trillion. . .”

“There aren’t that many people in the world!”

“Yes there are.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know.”

“No you don’t.”

“Hey, we might be starting a war right here!”

It was an exciting thought, but it didn’t develop. What did come out of that discussion was the idea that a war might have three or four groups fighting one another simultaneously. After I had learned a little more about history, in a moment of illumination I realized that none of the wars I knew about involved more than two sides. Why was that?

I do not remember the day in 1945 that Germany surrendered, but Japan’s surrender a few months later takes me to the place where we heard that news — Lake Weir – which in turn takes me to that small area of the planet outside Gainesville which completed my world.

(To be continued in Chapter 4.)

Copyright 2005 by Fleming Lee


  1. "miraculous materialization of Messerschmitts." ;-)

    Remembering your childhood questions is a really good, and honest, device. It connects with the reader, in this case me.

  2. and did you think some of the home front stuff was a little dippy at the time?

  3. Marc, I've always remembered those childhood questions vividly, especially, "But what would they have on the news if there was no war?"

    Did I think some of the home front stuff was a little dippy at the time, when I was 10-12? I'm not sure. But I wasn't a patriot; I remember thinking that the Germans in the "war movies" were more impressive than the gum-chewing, slang-spouting Americans, and I thought that the newsreels of Nazi rallies were a lot more thrilling than FDR's speeches. I hope I'll begin to remember more about my thoughts overall. Maybe if I write a sidebar post about "war movies" something will come back.

    Thanks, Marc!

  4. I always enjoy your sense of humor, Fleming. I can finally tell this is not going to be one of those murder mysteries, unless, of course, you manage to explain Hitler showing up at Lake Weir.

  5. Thanks, Lara! It amazes me to learn that somebody is reading this.