During The War, We Were One People

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I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. When I was a kid in New York City, you could have looked high and low trying to find someone who thought of himself as Italian-American, German-American, or whatever-American. You’d have had no luck. None at all. We were all just Americans.

And yet the odd thing was that when we talked, it was quite common for us to say that Benny Batiglia was Italian, or Bobby Hein was German, or Roy Osterberg was Norwegian.

You see we were largely a city of immigrants, and children of immigrants.

In New York during the ’30s, just about everybody was from somewhere. People came over on the boat with no more than a few dollars in their pockets, and so they began looking for work the minute they landed, right there in the city.

But if you had looked at anyone in our neighborhood and told him he was not as American as someone else, you’d have had a fight on your hands. We were all different, but we were all the same — Americans. And doggone proud of it too, in a quiet sort of way.

Proof of that came after the bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor. There isn’t much civilians can do when war is suddenly thrust upon them, but our feelings were plain enough.

Old Mister Hisner up the street had a small flagpole in his front yard.

Previously he had only flown a small flag on days like the 4th of July and Memorial Day. But after Pearl Harbor the flag went up at dawn every day. And soon the flagpole sported a beautiful six-foot flag that fluttered in the lightest breeze.

We kids took to going over there and helping old Mister Hisner, who had previously been the neighborhood grouch, raise and lower the flag. It became a regular daily ceremony and he spent a lot of time teaching us the history of the flag, how to handle it properly, and the courtesies regarding it.

Turned out he was an old World War I veteran. We kind’ve liked him after that.

I don’t remember much about the beginning of the war, about us losing the Philippines and Guam, the fall of Java, Hong Kong, and Singapore, the British retreat across the underbelly of Asia, the Japanese Imperial Army hammering at the gates of India.

What I do remember is Petey Dissarro, Roy Osterberg, Lloyd and Herbie Hein, and my brother Billy disappearing one by one, and Petey coming home in a Marine uniform and showing us how he could pop all the buttons off his shirt.

And Lindy Dissarro, his younger brother, named after Lindbergh, volunteering that same day. And Ray Shirley, a black auto mechanic who was Billy’s best friend, and a really religious guy, volunteering to go as a medic.

And the songs. Oh, yeah! All those songs! The kids in the neighborhood knew — and sang! — the marching songs of every branch, and sub-branch, of every service, right on down to the Coast Guard and the Field Artillery.

“Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail as the caissons go rolling along ...”

We didn’t know what a caisson was, but we sure wanted them to keep on rolling.

You should have seen our front stoops on collection days!

I suppose I better take a minute to explain what a stoop is. Our houses had cellars that were half above ground and half below ground, and so a low, wide set of stairs ran up to the door. We called the stairs the “front stoop,” and I learned in school that stoop was a Dutch word, left over from the days when New York was New Amsterdam, before the British came in and took it.

Anyway, you should have seen the front stoops along our block whenever the government had a “collection day.” Collection days were days when critically short war materials were collected up and sent off to factories.

At the start of the war we had a very critical shortage of aluminum to build planes. As a result, there was a special aluminum scrap drive and all the kids on our block walked for miles knocking on doors and begging for old pots and pans.

And folks up and down our block dug up every bit of aluminum they could find around the house too.

Up and down our block those front stoops were just piled high with pots, and pans, and measuring cups, and this, and that. Some of that stuff was brand new too. And some of it looked expensive. But when the government — our government! — said it needed aluminum to fight the war, people just searched out every scrap of it in the house. I can remember Mom grumbling all the way through the war that she had given away the only really big stirring spoon she had. But she always added, “I’m glad I did though.”

Brass too, and copper, were very short at the beginning of the war until the copper mines caught up. We kids scoured the whole of Staten Island for brass and copper until you couldn’t find a thing made of either of them no matter how hard you looked.

And tin. Tin came from far away places, some of them behind enemy lines and others in South America. In the first six months of the war, German submarines sank over 400 cargo ships along our East Coast, in the Caribbean, and off South America. That’s a lot of ships. And a lot of good men. Tin was desperately short.

Tin had a lot of civilian uses. A pack of cigarettes had a paper outer liner and a tinfoil inner liner. Toothpaste came in tin tubes. Tin cans were called tin cans because they were lined with a tin wash, which these days is plastic.

Into the streets the kids went, scouring curbs for discarded cigarette packs. The kids on my block rolled the tinfoil we found into one huge ball. It was over six inches in diameter.

Then we began on tin cans. We went around knocking on doors and telling housewives we needed them to save all their empty tin cans. And the tops too. Then we collected them up once or twice a week, cut out the bottoms, put the tops and bottoms inside the cans, stamped them flat, and turned in wagonload after wagonload of them for months on end.

Yes, there we were. German kids. Italian kids. Polish kids. English kids. Black and white and yellow kids.

But mostly just plain old ordinary American kids.

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