I’ve always wondered what happened to Bill Gruber. It’s unlikely he’s still alive – that much I’m pretty sure about. More than that, I can only imagine, and I’ve done so many times. He came to my mind again last evening.
During dinner and for an hour or so after, Ann and I listened teary-eyed to songs from World War II. Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, Tony Martin, Vera Lynn, and others wove a spell of grateful sad remembering with “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “White Cliffs of Dover,” “We’ll Meet Again.”
One afternoon during the war, my grandfather, Big Daddy, had a chance meeting with a young soldier outside the Muskogee bus station and brought him home for dinner. He was on leave from nearby Fort Gruber. He stayed the night on a pallet on the living room floor. At breakfast, he said something that was part of my family’s storytelling ever after. “Oh, ma,” he said to my grandmother, “I’m not very hungry this morning. Three eggs will be enough.” Later, Big Daddy took him back to the bus station.
I’m sure he had a name when he was with us, but before long, he became Bill Gruber.
I’ve given him any number of identities. He has been a farm boy just out of high school, a fraternity boy from some college in the Midwest, a bank teller from Little Rock. Did he storm the beach on D Day, work as a truck driver, fire a machine gun from a B -17’s ball turret? Did he make it home safely? Did he become a gold star in a window somewhere? Did he spend months in a VA hospital like the one in Muskogee? I wish we who knew him for a few hours before he went on his way had kept up with him.
Depression-era babies like me are beginning to die off, and that is changing the country. If you experienced the war as a child, with its scrap-paper drives, tinfoil collecting, blackouts, rationing, aunts and mothers going to work in men’s jobs, uncles and fathers putting on uniforms, complete absorption with news from the front, and willingness to sacrifice to help out the Bill Grubers – if that was your childhood – you see things in a different way from those to whom the war is just history.
We depression-era babies lived in a time of national unity. It seems especially so, of course, if you experienced it as a white Protestant. Then as now, the nation was terribly divided, but we privileged ones hardly noticed. Even as everyone pitched in to win the war, minorities were legally and socially discriminated against. The nation was shamefully slow to help Jewish refugees. There were war profiteers and anti-war voices. No doubt some Americans distrusted and resented government. But looking back on those times from the divided America of today, the America of World War II seems unfathomably closer to the democratic vision.
The Nazi threat was existential, but we agreed that it had to be stopped., and after a period of reluctance, America joined the effort to do that. Today we face multiple threats, each equal to or greater than the Nazis – geopolitical conflict between nuclear powers, environmental degradation that may end all human life, and organized attempts by our fellow citizens to break down fundamental institutions of self-government. But instead of war bonds and victory gardens, our response is insurrection and all that goes with it. We don’t even agree on the nature of reality.
It’s little wonder those World War II songs are so moving.