How many people today remember the seven days in December 1941 when a week forever changed the world?
I was 11 years old on that Sunday, December 7th, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and launched a wide offensive in the Pacific. Everyone was stunned and became glued to the radio.
The following day, the U.S. declared war on Japan.
On December 11th, Hitler’s forces declared war on the U.S. and hours later, Congress officially declared war on Germany.
In one week’s time, my youthful ambitions were dashed. Rumors fueled fears about enemy invasions and that “spies” were everywhere. Preparations for war were reinforced by Civil Air Defense measures that called for local Air Raid Wardens, blackout curtains on windows, and exercises for going to designated underground “shelters,” which in a rural area were few and far between in North Dakota (N.D.).
Reminiscing, I recounted a few vignettes of a few little episodes in a big war. When my older brother went off to war as a Navy “SeaBee” with a Marine Division in the South Pacific, we placed a “blue star” banner in our front window, indicating a family member was in the military. A neighbor family displayed a gold star flag for their son being killed in action.
The old Atwater Kent radio, in a way, filled the empty place by the table of my absent brother, listening to Norwegian reports out of London via the BBC of Canada and to CBS war correspondent, Eric Sevareid. He was born in my home county. My mother Olga knew his mother Clara from Ladies Aid get-togethers.
The food rationing put me in charge of the “victory garden” for vegetables and managing a flimsy chicken coop, where I feed six hens and collected eggs for the table. But I refused to butcher the roosters, which was a practice done on the farms, from the 12 chickens that I raised from an incubator.
The gasoline restrictions kept most people close to home, unless they supported the war effort in some way with their vehicles, such as farmers raising crops and ranchers producing meat for food.
At age 12, I joined the Boy Scouts and progressively participated in patriotic community events as flag carriers, as most of the men of military age were at war and many families moved to the West Coast to join the war-production industries.
Then one day, they all came back, changed people, some with multiple wounds of war and a few with a new world view of leadership and life beyond the farms’ horizons.
It was a long war in my memory. My brother returned safely, but “scarred” from his exposure to the horrors of war. He didn’t talk about it – only about camaraderie.
His first Christmas at home after the war, he didn’t want to go anywhere, Noise bothered him. Quiet made him feel insecure. He stayed up late, sometimes into the wee hours.
One place was a comfort to him – the coffee counter at the local café, actually any café where guys were telling stories and laughter ensued. Jokes topped the menu. He felt that he belonged in this group.
He got a job with a rural telephone company. He liked the challenge of climbing the telephone poles, using pointed hooks that fit on his high boots, a heavy tool belt around his waist, and leaning back with a safety belt to fix the wires and then drive away in a mechanized truck with a logo on the door, which he did for several years.
One August, when I was leaving for my junior year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, I convinced him to go with me, to finish his degree and find a new career, as everyone had advised him to do for some time. He packed his bags, jumped in the car, and drove the 800 miles without stopping, except for coffee breaks. In that drive, we established a new kind of brotherhood.
His life changed. He found a circle of friends, met his future wife, finished his BA, and went on for a graduate degree in Social Work. He became an executive director of a regional mental health center, and later before retirement served as a research social worker at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Today, my brother’s experience is called “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome” (PTSD).
For me, after serving 27 years in Military Service in the Army Medical Service Corps, I am now an older-than-ordinary student at the University of North Dakota (UND), auditing courses with the new generation of recent returnees from Afghanistan and Iearning first hand about some of the struggles of today’s veterans to adjust back to civilian life as students.
Even though there are a multitude of outreach services available to returning veterans today, I wonder where veteran students on campus “go for coffee,” gather for camaraderie in a set-aside place – for solitude or laughter – and exchange stories that only they fully comprehend.
I wonder what this Christmas will be like for a percentage of them with lingering memories of war.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 13, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.