Last year, when I watched the televised drama of the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, memories were brought to life.
I remembered our national complacency before the attack and the hysteria afterward.
A grizzled veteran choked up as he described the knocking sounds made by men trapped in the capsized battleship Oklahoma and I wept, too, because I also had heard that story at the time.
Who would have thought of such horrors in the happy days before Pearl Harbor, the fall of 1941?
I was a student at the University of California, Berkeley and much too busy with fun and football games to think about the world. In November, a weak Cal team upset Stanford.
My roommates and I, with hundreds of ecstatic Cal fans, began victory dances and conga lines that continued on the special train that carried us back from Palo Alto. Dozens of us tore through the halls of our apartment building.
The Japanese battle fleet even then was on its way.
FINAL EXAMS were to begin on Monday, Dec. 8. My roommates and I were trying to study that Sunday when we heard a clamor. The boys next door were shouting that Pearl Harbor was under attack. We laid aside our books thinking finals would be canceled. But they weren't. Somebody said later that student performance that week was the lowest since the university opened.
Who could study with so much panic?
When I took the train home for the holidays, the coffee machine blew up with a roar in the crowded dining car.
"The Japs!" people were screaming.
We hit the floor in the broken glass and coffee. No one was injured and embarrassment turned into conviviality. There was no Japanese attack but confusion persisted.
My roommates and I, in response to a call for volunteers, went to a stadium in Oakland. Hundreds of women were organized into marching formations and did squads-right and squads-left several nights a week until the authorities realized no one wanted an army of female ambulance drivers.
The spring semester was depressing. I couldn't study and couldn't endure the news of Allied defeats. I took a job as lab assistant at Shell Development in Emeryville.
When seven women reported to work that June day, we were met at the gate by reporters and photographers because we were the first women hired by the chemical industry. One of them was Joan Stern, whose husband had been an engineer serving below-decks on the Oklahoma.
We heard Joan's story as we gathered at our own table in the cafeteria, how she had waited on the dock for 10 days while rescue workers cut through the ship's compartments and brought out the living and the dead. We wept to hear that on the 10th day she was told not to wait any longer, that her husband's compartment was flooded.
A FEW DAYS later, Joan began to talk about the naval victory at Midway.
I made the mistake of saying I couldn't bear to hear war news.
Joan stood up and spoke in anger. "What kind of American are you? What do you think I had to face! My husband died for people like you -- people who can't stand to face bad news! How will you ever care enough to want to win?"
THE PLANT NURSE came over to our table and took Joan home. Of course, I was ashamed. Next day we apologized to each other and we remained friends.
Eventually, Joan married her husband's best friend. Then I lost track of her.
Actually the humiliation changed my attitudes and my life. I began to keep up with the war news, good or bad. Eventually I became so interested in everything that I turned into a community activist. I thank Joan for the lesson, for not looking away from suffering and despair.