He’s a 14-year-old Jewish kid in the Bronx, infatuated with a girl who attends the nearby Catholic school. Together, they’re helping a sickly old lady by writing the letters that she dictates for her beloved son in the World War II Army. But then, while she’s napping, they read a telegram bearing the worst possible news. They’re afraid to tell her. The letter writing goes on.
My starting place is around the beginning of the war. I mean World War II. Not that I was anywhere near the war, but everyone said we had to prepare in case it did come to the U.S. That’s how lots of us in our apartment building got to take part in Civil Defense. The building is really important because that s where almost all of it happened. It’s a really big building, with many, many apartments. All the grownups who were interested got a Civil Defense assignment, except for the really old people. The older kids could get assignments, too, but not the two kids we called Dummy and Scary. They were old enough, about my age, but you couldn t expect them to handle responsibility. I know you re not supposed to say it, but they were Mental Cases. I was a messenger. I had an official armband that said “Civil Defense Messenger.” I felt pretty important when I wore the armband.
The war actually was very far away, on the other side of the Atlantic in Europe and across the Pacific. Far away from our neighborhood in the Bronx. But everyone said we had to be prepared for getting bombed, just like cities in Europe were getting bombed. At the movies, the newsreels showed big apartment houses with their fronts blown off by bombs. You could see the rooms inside like looking in a dollhouse.
One day, leaflets were put under the door of each apartment in our building. Every family was asked to send someone to a meeting in the lobby. That’s how the building began to get organized for Civil Defense and we got our assignments. That’s important, because that’s how I first got to know Cindy and then got connected to Mrs. Klein.
The lobby was the only place in the building where you could hold a big meeting. Our lobby was really something. When you went in from the street, it was like going into a tomb, like the one we saw when our class took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum downtown. There were lamps on the walls that didn’t give off much light. And there were pictures of mermaids and sea dragons built into the floor, which was always kept shiny and polished by Mr. Lacey, the super for our building. Big paintings of snowy mountains and sailing ships were on the walls. In one corner there was a knight in a suit of armor holding a spear and a shield, except the whole thing was made of plaster or some fake stuff and painted silver to look like shiny metal. Some wise guy once stuck a cigar in the knight’s mouth. But ordinarily, people behaved very well. For the Civil Defense meetings, people brought folding chairs and some brought lamps from their apartments, ordinary lamps like you have in your living room, and plugged them in in the lobby. Without that the meeting would be practically in the dark.
- Daniel S. Greenberg