News of the War by Robert Edgers
We heard the news on the radio in the back room of the store. It was time for a short break. The floors had been swept, the shelves of goods dusted, the morning customers served and things made ready for the afternoon “rush” when the mail came in. You see, the Sylvan store was also the Fox Island Post Office.
I was 15 and working there was my first “go-to-work-all-day job.” Like all my friends, there had always been chores at home. And previously, berry picking had provided pop and ice cream cone money. Plus, a couple of years earlier I had delivered papers in town as a “Seattle Times Carrier-Salesman.” But this was something else. And it paid 35 cents an hour!
By and large, we were pretty isolated from World War II. Sylvan is on an island that is far from large, something like two miles wide and six miles long. We had no telephones and an 18-car ferry connected us to the world. That, and the radio. This first island in Puget Sound south of the Tacoma Narrows was not exactly the center of things, but most of us liked it that way.
For the past four years we had been living with the impacts of the war. Pearl Harbor was a shock and we worried it was not all that far away, in the Pacific Ocean. Early in the war, when the Japanese bombed the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, youngsters like me wondered when we might get hit, here in the Pacific Northwest. When teachers gave us instructions of what to do during an air raid drill, you can be sure we did exactly as we were told. Recently, the war in Europe had ended, but we were still at war with Japan. There had just been some huge bombs dropped on them and we had heard maybe those big bombs would bring us victory.
Working in the store made it clear to me that the war had made many goods scarce and much of what was available was rationed. We had to keep track of ration stamps and tokens as well as dollars and cents. And which of the best customers got the hard-to-get items like Kleenex was up to Anne, wife of the store’s owner, Rob. Fresh fruit and vegetables were on a first-come, first-served basis. People with “B” and “C” cards were the more regular customers at the gas pump. We had to look up on a chart how much their total dollar sale was, at 18 ½ cents a gallon.
Suddenly, on the radio in the back room, we heard the war was over. Over, really over! As the radio reporters told us more and more, it was clear it was time to tell the rest of our little world in and around Sylvan and Fox Island what had happened.
There was a place to park cars next to the store, then an open space, and then the Fox Island Congregational Church. The church had been built in the early 1900s and was modeled after the steepled churches the Sylvan settlers had left behind in Iowa. I ran out the front door of the store, took the four stairs down to the road in one leap, turned right and dashed to the church. Up the front stairs of the church I flew, turned the doorknob and found the door wouldn’t open. Oh no! It was either locked or stuck, but with a couple of more tries, I was in.
The church bell was only rung for services, for weddings, and as a fire alarm. The bell had a beautiful sound. I had been told silver had been added to it, to make it even clearer and richer and was cast extra-thick to give it a better tone and more resonance. I was sure, on this beautiful August day in 1945, people would think it was making a more beautiful sound than ever. We were hoping and praying this horrible war would be over and that beautiful sound would be telling us, yes it is true.
I unlooped the heavy bell rope from the wall peg, reached high on the rope as I had seen Reverend Amos do and pulled down hard -- all the way to the floor. Nothing. I could hear the bell turning on its axis way up there in the steeple, but there was no sound of the bell. Then the rope started moving back up through my hands and as I grabbed on for the upward ride, the bell clapper struck the bell as it finally had turned far enough to be struck. For as long as I had strength, I pulled the rope down as far as I could, let it fly part of the way back up and rode it to the top of its cycle. Over and over again. What a sound. What a joy. People who heard it had to know what this is all about. That it must be the end of the war. It is a feeling I will never forget.
When I got back to the store, hot and tired, Anne said: “Bobby, you really rang that bell!” I answered: “We had to be sure everyone knows the war is over. The war is over!” As we smilingly hugged each other, both of us had tears in our eyes. Tears of joy.
Written for the 60th anniversary of VJ Day, August 14, 2005
N.B. Several friends, after reading the recollections above, shared their feelings and stories.
"Thanks for your story about the end of WW II. It’s amazing how some events from our youth stand out in our memories as if they happened just yesterday. I was working at Graybar Electric, which at the time was on King Street, one block off of First Avenue in Seattle. When the news reached us we left work and discovered that the streets of downtown were crowded with people shouting, crying, hugging, and kissing. Cars and busses didn’t move for some time. What a joyous time!"--Lee P.
"Thanks for the note. To our kids, that date is like the Civil War is to us. To us and our parents, it was one of the most important events of our lives and it was yesterday." -- Ed J.
"Ed’s right, and for a little kid like me, it was a magical time. (But it wasn’t fun for older people in the service or with sons in the service.) My dad, who was 4 F and too old to enlist, had a huge Victory garden, practically a whole city lot [in Yakima]. We fed most of the neighborhood. We raised chickens behind the garage, my sister would bring her horse home and keep it overnight in the garage [with] 2 dogs, 1 cat and a bunch of Banty chicks. This was right in the middle of a nice residential neighborhood -- the neighbors loved us!!?? [During the war years] my parents and the families of my mother’s five other sisters would host back yard parties for Army guys stationed at the Yakima Firing Center, training for Africa, Sicily and Italy. Most of them were killed later.
"Each summer before Labor Day, we’d drive from Yakima to Long Beach for our annual vacation, in the ’39 Pontiac, with lousy tires, and siphoned gas (my dad would get the gas from the tractor tanks -- otherwise we couldn’t go.) “How much farther, daddy?” was the appeal from the back seat every few miles!
"We always stayed at the same place, The Breakers. I can remember standing on the beach with him looking out to the West, and him saying, “Japan is out there.” We had to use blackout shades every night. My sister, my cousin and I would walk to the little movie theatre in downtown Long Beach, usually seeing some horror movie like Boris Karloff in The Mummy Returns, and then have to walk back in the dark along the sand dunes to the cabin. They delighted in running ahead and hiding on me and then scaring the hell out of me!! Ah, those were the days!" --Stan K.