Once Before A Time by George Merrill


In three  days, we will mark the 74th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy. For me, this was once before a time.

I discovered an old book recently in an early attic store. The book, The New Yorker War Album, was published in 1942 as the war was beginning. The book presented a compilation of cartoons by cartoonists like Whitney Darrow Jr., Peter Arno and Charles Adams, familiar names to readers even today.

In viewing the cartoons, I felt I was uncovering artifacts in an archaeological dig. Here was evidence of how people once lived, what they cared about seventy-six years ago. I was eleven then. My father left in ’42 with the Army – first to Britain, then to Belgium and finally he entered Aachen near the end of the war. As a boy, living in the safety of America’s homeland and feeling the intense excitement of the troop movements in and out of New York Harbor, the war was a lark. I imagined it as thrilling adventure in which the nobility and invincibility of our fathers and brothers were defeating America’s enemies.

Shortly after my father left for Europe, my mother and I wallpapered my room. The paper was a war mural, with ships, tanks, and planes engaged in the business of war. The war ships pitched in the waves, their canons trailing smoke from discharging munitions. Tanks barreled over hilly terrain. An American plane soared upward leaving in its wake an enemy fighter—a Stuka—with smoke trailing from its fuselage as it spiraled downward to the earth. Curiously, there were no soldiers pictured in any of the scenes, but only the industrial material of war performing its tasks of killing— lots of iron, but no blood. The scenes were stirring. They fed my imagination daily about the glory of battle.

America was righteous and ready.

Among the cartoons in the book, we see a roller coaster half completed, the track ending abruptly high in midair. Construction projects begun as war broke out were soon abandoned.

While our fathers and brothers fought at the front, all the kids in my neighborhood made war on one another at one such site we called the iron mines. Behind our home, houses under construction ended for the duration.

Workers left behind half dug trenches for basements and large plywood boards used for forming cement. Decommissioned bulldozers, emitting the pungent remains of diesel fuel, were scattered around the site. The digging had unearthed chunks of iron ore. From the trenches and plywood boards, we constructed covered bunkers. We hurled iron ore missiles (grenades) at our enemies, who were the kids in the other trenches. Bulldozers were our tanks. I made a charge for safety behind a bulldozer while lobbing my rock grenade. I was hit on the head by an enemy grenade. I bled furiously and ran home crying. My war ended when my sister came to the site warning all the combatants that we were really going to get it from our parents for throwing rocks. Would that ending a war were that easy. Except for parental constraints, I would have done battle again for the thrill of being at the killing fields of the iron mines. “Men grow tired of sleep, love, singing and dancing sooner than war,” Homer observed darkly.

The cartoons witnessed to the feeling that this was our war, America’s war. The nation was invested in it. The sense of ownership and common cause was palpable. The draft was mandatory, but then young men in droves often lied about age just to enlist and to fight. The cartoon images reflected the sense of high adventure and solidarity. Patriotism was heart-felt.

The cartoons pointed to another phenomenon; the war effort demanded sacrifices from the civilian population. Today’s wars don’t. Today, Americans have it both ways; guns and butter.

A shop keeper in one cartoon urges a little girl: “Better stock up on jelly beans.” Mutual sacrifice for a common good was shared. I remember bubble gum was not available from ’42 until ’45.  Good humored grousing about sacrifice was a part of the national conversation. From references to ration books, and to the limited availability of cooking oil, sugar, butter, gasoline, meat, candy and chocolate, although hardly draconian restrictions, forced unwelcomed changes to life styles. What we once took for granted became precious commodities. The recurring symbol for this phenomenon was the automobile tire. In one cartoon, we see a man skulking furtively holding auto tires. He’d just swiped them from another car. Returning to his own car, he sees his tires have been stolen. In another image, a man at a filling station says, “A gallon will do.” The inference – not only is gas scarce, but he only has a mile or so left on his tire’s tread and that will be it.

One cartoon sketches a parade, the kind we might see on the Fourth of July or Veterans Day. Old vets with canes sit curbside in wheel chairs and civilians wave flags as the marchers pass. The parade extends for several blocks. Instead of cadres of soldiers and military hardware, the parade consists entirely of civilian groups contributing to the war effort: there are Girl Scouts, aircraft observers, motor corps (women mechanics) air raid wardens, nurse’s aides, Boy Scouts, and civil defense volunteers.

Horney young sailors and soldiers are pictured lamenting the unavailability of women. Whitney Darrow sketches a scene in which we see a room full of middle-aged club women assembled, wearing flowered dresses, hats and gloves. All are seated. Two stand at the rostrum, while one introduces the other: “Miss Whitehead is here to tell us how we can amuse sailors.”

As more American soldiers arrived in England to fight, the Brits had mixed feelings about our presence, expressed in the popular quip: “Over sexed, over paid, and over here.” Americans quickly countered the Brits: “Underpaid, under sexed and under Eisenhower.”

In several cartoons, signs of women’s changing roles in the industrial era appear. Two little girls are standing by a car being repaired. They watch as a woman lying on a dolly works on it. One child says to the other. “When you grow up do you want to be a grease monkey like your mom?” Another prescient cartoon tells the same story in another way: a young woman is struggling to choose between getting her M.A. or learn spot welding.

Writer Frederick Buechner once coined a phrase, “Once before a time.” It’s a way to measure our lives prior to some dramatic event that changes it.

Once before a time, I saw war as a glorious adventure. Once upon a time, my father returned from the war in 1945 a broken man.  Then once after a time, I began to grasp the devastation of war.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.


Letters to Editor

  1. Jon Powers says:

    Dear Mr. Merrill: If you can, please tell us about your father.


    Jon Powers

  2. Julie Heikes says:

    Beautiful, as always, George. I second Jon Powers request, if you feel you can.

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