When we were cleaning out closets last week, we opened a box and found an old yellowed program from an “Alumni Revue” presented at what was then West Chester State Teachers’ College, dated May 22, 1943. My mother-in-law was one of the student soloists performing piano selections by Liszt and Chopin. A typical Saturday afternoon recital where I suspect the attendees were dressed in suits and ties and proper dresses and hats. Across the bottom is written, “NOTICE: If the Air Raid signal is sounded during the program, please REMAIN SEATED.”
I simply cannot imagine what it must have been like living at a time when you didn’t know if or when an air raid siren was going to sound. To have black-out curtains hanging in your windows. To have civilians manning towers along the nearby mid-Atlantic coast, searching for submarines. No cell phone warnings, no break-ins of network programming or that ominous fanfare NBC plays which makes you immediately drop what you’re doing and race over to the TV to find out where the latest catastrophe has occurred. No, just a simple “Please remain seated” and we’ll tell you what to do if we’re about to be bombed. Otherwise, enjoy the concert. Matter of fact. Fiercely calm. In today’s vernacular, “We’ve got this.”
We also discovered an album of pictures of my father-in-law’s war days. Blurry black and white shots of him squinting into the sun wearing a safari hat with his uniform, taken while he was stationed in Egypt, the pyramids visible in the background. He was trained as a meteorologist, so he never saw combat, but like so many of his peers, was a long way from his family’s farm.
Most of us have not lived with the threat of enemy aggression on our own soil. The wars of recent generations have been fought on the other side of the world. Korea and Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—bloody horrors in far-away jungles and deserts but not on our doorstep. No Pearl Harbors. No war bonds and rationing and air raid warnings on concert programs.
But that program and collection of faded pictures unexpectedly discovered on a mid-winter afternoon gave us a glimpse into what was the everyday reality for our parents and grandparents. A father in uniform standing in front of the pyramids. A mother blissfully playing her Chopin etude while someone scans the skies over Philadelphia, Pennsylvania looking for German Luftwaffe to appear on the horizon. Powerful reminders of just how spoiled we are, how comfortable and secure a life we are privileged to live, thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before us.
In “Darkest Hour,” the current movie about Winston Churchill, there is a scene where Churchill rides the Underground in London and asks the commoners on the train to help him decide whether to fight or negotiate with Hitler at the onset of World War II. The passengers, astonished at seeing their prime minister riding public transportation, jump up from their seats, and respond with a vehement yes, that they are willing to fight and sacrifice and do whatever it takes. The movie makes me wonder, even these almost 80 years later, where we would be today if men like Churchill hadn’t taken a stand and the rest of us hadn’t set aside our differences and joined forces to support those leaders, who despite their imperfections, were men of integrity and vision. Who agonized over doing what was best for their country.
God forbid, we should ever be threatened again because I worry about how we would respond. We are so busy clamoring for attention for our own agendas, so focused on “me, too” in the general sense that we’ve lost touch with “us”. The cacophony of our voices is so loud we can’t hear each other. I doubt that it would be prudent for any of our current world leaders to escape their security team and hop on public transportation to chat with the masses, but if one of them did, I am afraid we would remain seated, headphones in our ears, eyes glued to our phones, oblivious to what is happening around us.