Thursday, October 16, 2008

MEMOIR: Waiting to go to war

I graduated from high school in January 1942, one month after the Pearl Harbor attack. I was 17 years old.

Military conscription had been enacted nearly two years earlier, probably because of Washington's expectation that the U.S. would inevitably be drawn into the war in Europe. As I recall, the draft age was then 21.

As the nation now formally entered the war, I assumed that the draft age would eventually be reduced. I considered enlisting in the armed forces, as a couple of my friends had done. At age 17, however, this would have required my parents' approval. But this wasn't a realistic option for me. I was an only child with an anxiety-prone mother who would not have approved.

I decided to enter college and study to become a journalist, my longtime ambition, until I was inevitably drafted. My father was unemployed during my last high school semester, and I decided to attend college at night while working full-time. I had intended to apply to City College of New York, a tuition-free municipal institution.

But I learned that CCNY offered only a handful of journalism courses, and none were available in night school. Actually, my academic record in high school was average, and thus my acceptance by this highly selective college was uncertain.

I therefore applied to New York University, a private school which had a formal journalism program that offered evening courses. Strangely, the journalism department was located in the university's School of Commerce.

If I had known that my much of my subsequent career would be in business journalism, I would have taken advantage of the school's excellent finance and accounting courses. But my initial goal was to become a sports reporter or foreign correspondent, and the business courses held no interest for me.

Fortunately, when I entered NYU's night school, I already had a full-time job. During the summer before my senior high school semester, I had gone to work as a delivery boy for Goldsmith Bros., then the nation's largest office supplies retailer, located near Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. My pay was $12 weekly, a princely sum for a kid my age. Goldsmith's went out of business in the early 1950s after an ill-fated attempt to expand into an uptown department store.

After I returned to school when the summer ended, I was promoted to shipping clerk. As a senior, I had been assigned to the school's morning session.Classes ended at 1 p.m., which enabled me to have a quick lunch at home before taking the long subway ride downtown. My work hours were from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week.

When I graduated from high school and started my night-time college studies, I was promoted to salesman. I was assigned to the loose-leaf binder department. My wage was now $16 a week, plus commission on sales of both the loose-leaf binders and other office products.

The demands of the job and my school work left little time for a social life. At school, however, I became the associate editor of the evening section of the college's weekly newspaper. The vacancy occurred when the previous editor--and many other students--left for induction into the armed forces.

After about three months selling office supplies, it became obvious that the job was doing nothing to polish my credentials as an aspiring journalist. I decided that I needed a job where I would at least be in the company of professional writers.

I found a job that did bring me closer to such a working environment. I became an office boy in the New York City publicity department of RKO-Radio Pictures, the Hollywood movie company. The office was in a tall building attached to the Radio City Music Hall.

The sixth floor of the building led to the upper reaches of Radio City. One of the perks of the job was the freedom to watch the rehearsals of the famed Rockette precision dancers during my lunch time. But the highlight of my RKO career was to deliver a bottle of whiskey to movie star Lucille Ball's hotel suite. My humble contact with movie stars and press agents, however, was clearly no more professionally satisfying than selling office supplies.

In October 1942, I finally obtained a job that at least exposed me intimately to the work of professional writers. I was hired by the U.S. Office of War Information as an "under-clerk"--Federal civil service jargon for an office boy. The annual salary was $1,260, the lowest civil service pay level.

The OWI was the government's propaganda agency during World War II. It was headquartered in Washington, D.C., but I was employed in its Overseas Operations Branch, which was based at West 57th Street and Broadway in Manhattan.

From there, radio broadcasts were beamed to European countries, reporting the American version of how the war was faring. The branch also produced propaganda material, often personally distributed in German-occupied territory by staffers who mysteriously vanished from the office for months at a time to perform their hazardous underground missions.

Our office was staffed by dozens of seasoned writers, many of them celebrities like the branch's director, Robert Sherwood, the famed Broadway playwright and Presidential speech writer. I became his personal office boy, pulling dispatches for him from the wire service news tickers and performing other personal tasks. It was an exhilarating atmosphere for an aspiring young journalist.

I even had my own desk and typewriter, where in spare moments I would handle college home work assignments. It was a far better setting to do school home work than the wide window sill in my parents' bedroom, my normal site for such assignments.

I turned 18 in November 1942. That month the draft age was officially reduced to 18, requiring me to register at my neighborhood draft board in the Bronx. A few weeks later, I was instructed to report to an Army recruitment center in Manhattan for a physical exam.

The examination was conducted on an assembly-line basis, as the recruits moved from one medical specialist to another. When I reached a medical officer who was presumably a psychiatrist, I was astonished when he asked me: "Would you sleep with your mother?" When I quickly said no, that evidently demonstrated that I was mentally sound as well as being in physical good health.

I was classified 1-A, which meant that I would soon be inducted. In January 1943, I completed my first college semester. The question now was whether to register for the spring semester, not knowing when the Army would order me for induction.

I did register for the new semester, again hoping to squeeze in as many college credits as possible before my Army induction. As the months passed, I watched my friends leaving home for the Army while I had heard nothing. I accused my mother of tearing up my induction notice. She never allowed me to forget my accusation.

I was finally ordered to report for induction on April 14, 1943. My records show that the OWI offered me a "furlough for military service" and stated that I "be paid through 5-1/4 hours, March 29, 1943." My last day of work was actually March 20. In typical bureaucratic language, my official separation document notes that I "am to be on LWOP through COB."

I can translate "leave without pay." But I never found out what "COB" is.

I was given a farewell party on my last day at work. My boss Robert Sherwood, who was rarely seen without a pipe his mouth, gave me one as a going-away gift. I had never smoked either cigarettes or a pipe before.

Now I was ready to go to war.

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Blogger Peggy said...

I love it when you write your memoirs.

Your mother must have been worried sick.

Thursday, October 16, 2008 11:22:00 PM  
Blogger Sylvia K said...

Another wonderful story! It was worth staying up for. I remember the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, I was eight years old and my family and I had gone to the opening of a new radio station, the first news to come across the wire was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I was too young to really understand what it meant, but somehow I knew that something was very wrong. It was the beginning of a lot of changes in my life. Thanks, as always for a wonderful story.

Friday, October 17, 2008 12:42:00 AM  
Blogger Lydia said...

Oh, this was a fascinating post. I loved reading about your early New York years and tried to visualize what it must have been like in those times. (My husband and I were married in 1995 at the Municipal Building there.)

Your waiting-to-go-to-war period was really something! Thanks so much for sharing this. I've tried hard to come up with an idea for COB but the OWI's code remains safe.

Friday, October 17, 2008 3:58:00 AM  
Blogger Lydia said...

p.s. I found this site with acronyms for COB. Your choice!

Friday, October 17, 2008 4:00:00 AM  
Blogger Darlene said...

Wow! What a prodigious memory you have. I am impressed.

I, too, love your stories because they bring back memories of those times for me when we were young and full of hope.

Friday, October 17, 2008 1:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When in hell are you going to write about your war? At 86, I can't wait forever for you to catch up with me and MY book, "Unknown Soldiers: Reliving World War II in Europe." (Just out at last, thank God!)

Joe Garland, author
Gloucester, MA

Friday, October 17, 2008 1:38:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

I enjoy all your posts but especially the ones about your past. You seem to have total recall about those days.

Question? How did you know you had the talent to become a writer?
It is obvious that you do have this talent but at what age did it dawn on you that writing would be your chosen profession?

Monday, October 20, 2008 2:27:00 PM  
Blogger Tracy said...

What a great memoir! I stumbled onto your blog from Mrs. G's blog "Derfwad Manor"...what a treat to discover your blog, and what a life you've lived!

Sunday, October 26, 2008 11:56:00 PM  

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