The Seniors Who Never Were

By Riley McDavid Riley McDavid

It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon in December at our home in Bangor, Maine. We had all been to church. My dad was reading the Sunday Portland Press Herald, my mom was starting to cook a huge mid-afternoon meal and I was playing with a train on the living room floor. Then a radio announcer said something about Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor.  It was a mystery to me — living in Northern New England I didn’t know anything about Japan or the Japanese, and I had no clue what or where Pearl Harbor was.

I remember my mom asking, “Does that mean we’re at war?”

I don’t remember my dad’s words but he seemed to say that, yes, we were at war, whatever that was, and whatever it was, wasn’t good.

For the next three-and-one-half years — some of the most formative years in my life — I grew up learning more and more about the war.  It was front page in the Bangor Daily News every day that I can recall.  On Saturdays at the Park Theater my friends and I regularly saw newsreels of battles in Europe and the Pacific. We had blackout drills, food and gas rationing, and we saved fat drippings from the food mom cooked.  That’s right, fat drippings.  We put them in cans the size of today’s coffee cans and took them to the butcher where some government functionary collected them. Housewives were reminded that glycerin, made from waste fats and greases, was one of the most critical materials needed for the war effort. Three pounds of fat could provide enough glycerin to make a pound of gunpowder.  Nearly 350 pounds of fat were needed to fire one shell from a 12-inch Naval gun. So we saved fat.

Bangor was home to Dow Army Airfield, which was a jumping off point for service personnel going to the European Theater of Operations. We knew some of them — I caddied for a few at Penobscot Valley Country Club in nearby Orono. My cousins, the four Allen sisters, each married a soldier or an airman.  All who married into the Allen family survived World War 2 (and the subsequent Korean and Vietnam wars),  but hundreds of others who flew to Europe from Dow never returned. We had constant reminders of this.  One was the report of Maine’s war dead in the Bangor Daily News. Another was the sad emblem hanging from some living room windows around town — a single gold star in the middle of a simple flag signifying that a child from that family had been killed in action. Sadder still: a window with two gold stars.

The fellow who personified World War II to me was Walter Czbulski (or Cybulski or some such spelling). Walter, who was from Ohio, was a military policeman at Dow’s main gate.  When I was ten and the war was in its last year, he showed me around the base on one of his days off. Walter was, in today’s parlance, a cool guy. Eventually I believe he too got shipped off to Europe. I have no idea whatever happened to him.

On the night of January 26, 1945, when the temperature dipped to eleven degrees below zero, Bangor’s Penobscot Exchange Hotel burned. Firemen poured thousands of gallons of water on the structure, and the next morning what remained was a glorious five-story ice sculpture. The government sent in dozens of German POWs who set about chopping the ice bit by bit. My dad took me down to see them, and across the barricade hundreds of gawkers gathered to see what Germans looked like — we had been heavily propagandized. It felt really strange to be looking at the enemy. To this day I remember the look one of them gave as he stopped — no emotion really, but not too far from fear. Did he have a family back there? Had they been bombed out maybe?

A few months before the war ended I discovered the wonderful prose of war correspondent Ernie Pyle.  Pyle didn’t write big picture narratives of troop movements and battalions storming enemy positions.  He wrote intimate stories about individual guys in the trenches.  Then in April of 1945, not long after I had adopted him as my own, Japanese machine gun fire took his life on a small island off Okinawa. Of all the deaths that occurred in the war, his was the most personal to me.

In August of 1945 our second great war came to a sudden end.  That evening my dad once again took me down to a square not far from the Penobscot Exchange. The streets of downtown Bangor (population only about 29,500) were absolutely jammed with jubilant civilians and servicemen and women. The subsequent pictures in the Bangor Daily News looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

According to the U.S. Military History Institute, just over 1.3 million Americans have died fighting our wars. The Civil War was the deadliest in our history — more than 623,000 killed on both sides. World War I: 116,708; World War 2: 407,316; Korea: 36,914; Vietnam: 58,169.  And as of this past December, 5,853 in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Normally in this blog we celebrate the lives and accomplishments of seniors. But this Memorial Day week we look in the other direction and honor all those who never got to be seniors because they died at a young age in our wars.  Theirs are lives forever unfinished — weddings that never took place, infants they never got to hold, graduation ceremonies for their kids that they never got to attend. They died young so that we could live out our senior years in freedom.

Tags: , , , ,

One Response to “The Seniors Who Never Were”

  1. admin says:

    We owe a lot to our service men and women.