HISTORY – Blackout

Seventy-six years ago exactly, on the day I sit writing this, a man parked his pickup on the side of an unpaved road in the utter darkness of a new moon, no light visible anywhere in the world, and contemplated the appalling, impenetrable mystery of the fate of the world.

Some two weeks before, his country had been divided- watching the war unfold in Europe, there were those who felt the United States should be in it, to support her allies and to hold the line on Hitler’s Germany, and still others, outspoken in their determination that America should not be drawn into another war over there. But in ninety minutes on a Sunday morning not quite two weeks before, an attack literally out of the clear blue sky had unified the country. Quoth the Boerne Star in the aftermath of the assault that would change the world, that had instantly changed the world: “Though the nation was startled it was suddenly united. From former ‘isolationist’ leaders and newspapers came pledges of support to the government in dealing with an unprovoked attack upon the United States.”  Now the isolationists and the interventionists were agreed in their fury and their determination to win this war they hadn’t asked for.

The man climbed out of his truck to look around him. In every direction, everywhere his eyes could pick out any feature of the landscape, the world was altogether without light. No twinkle in the window of a far-off farmhouse betrayed its existence, not a sudden beam of the headlights of a car as it flashed around a bend in the hills. This perfect darkness was no strange thing to the man, who’d spent his whole life out here on the place, most of it before they’d had electricity laid on, so the absolute blackness was familiar to him. And this particular night in the middle of December wasn’t, strictly speaking, totally dark in the way that the man knew it could get in the country under a cloudy, moonless sky. This was a night as clear as the one on which Jesus was born, or so the man imagined: in his mind he’d always seen Mary and Joseph with their baby in a crèche that looked just like the one in the middle of his Oma’s Weihnachten table, with the angels gathered above the little family in a sky so clear and starry you could hear the rustle of their wings. And tonight, this sky was so clear that you could see every star in the expanse of heaven, the smear of other firmaments; the crunch of the man’s foot on the caleche road carried in the still, clear, dark, dark night like the sound of an armor-piercing bomb hitting the deck of a battleship.

He thought about the last war, which had been, supposedly, the war to end all wars, and he gave a mirthless kind of laugh at the irony of it and the irony of everything, really. The man had believed it, too, about that  being the last war- believed that the sheer, horrific destruction, the brutal waste of that first world war, would give pause to the nations and the people all over the world who’d been caught up in it, that there would be a ghastly taking of stock in the aftermath and then they would realize that this was not the way, that this could not be allowed to happen again, that this, this horror- this wasn’t the way to solve political disputes, or anything. Whole generations of young men around the world- in the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, in England, in France, in Belgium- had been wiped out in the bloody, brutal killing fields; many millions of young women had no husbands and all those children who would never be born; all those lives that had been left to wither away in the shivering, sweltering, rotting hell of the trenches- no! Never again! President Woodrow Wilson argued that the first world war would make the world safe for democracy- that with the defeat of German militarism the world would see that militarism had no place anymore, and that in drawing up a new world map after the war, they could eliminate the need for war; they’d created the League of Nations and now the whole world could work together to prevent war! It was a lovely vision.

And yet here he stood on a road five miles from Boerne, practicing blackout procedure, making sure that no stray light from a car or a house could be used to point the way to an enemy bomber.

There were some twelve-hundred souls living in Boerne that December, 1941, and another thirty-eight hundred in Kendall County, from Comfort to Welfare, Kendalia to Kreutzberg, from Walnut Grove to Wasp Creek and Boerne to Bergheim. There were still cedar choppers living along the Guadalupe near Ammann’s Crossing, the remnants of families who’d been displaced after the Civil War- the town of Schiller was still a going concern, with a school and a church and an official dot on the map. The Boerne High School senior class, which would graduate, God willing, the following May, had fourteen members. Many of the boys would enlist the day after graduation.

The war which began on a Sunday morning a week and a half prior to the night on which the man stood under the starry sky scanning the dark world for any telltale flicker of light- that war, a scant generation after the war that was supposed to render warfare pointless, would change the universe for the man, for the little town five miles away, for every soul, in fact, alive at that moment all over the world, and down to generations yet unborn. The good guys would win, of course. The Germans, who’d flaunted their disdain for the Treaty of Versailles and dared the rest of the world to do something about it, who’d begun their planned takeover of the world by marching into Poland on the first of September, 1939, and who would go on to create an unfathomably horrific scheme to eliminate an entire race of people, would in the end be beaten into a cringing surrender. And the Japanese, who delivered that deadly, underhanded attack one morning in December, would be brought to its knees by the double blow from a weapon of such ghastly power that it resembled nothing so much as the fevered nightmare of a madman. There is no mystery anymore, no spoiler alert necessary, no tensing up and gripping of the edge of your chair as you listen to the story, hoping that good will prevail. Good did prevail. We won. The outcome of the Second World War has long been a matter of history.

But on the night of that first blackout drill in Boerne, everything still hung in the balance. The man charged with parking his truck on this spot and keeping watch by night could no more see ahead to the end of this war than the natives of this land could look into the eyes of the Europeans they welcomed and foretell their own doom. What the man thought, what secret presentiments of the future might have torn at his gut, what white-hot anger might burn in his core, what soul-deep terrors may have dogged him, we can never know. Maybe he didn’t even know, maybe he was just uneasy, maybe he was all bluster, all tough-guy the hell with ‘em, they  messed with the wrong sons a bitches, but somewhere in there was fear for the unknowable future, at the dark black curtain that had fallen not only over his hometown that brittle-clear December night, but between everything that he knew and whatever was to come of it all.

I was born nineteen years and a handful of days after the A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, an event about which US President Harry Truman had warned Japan to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”  I was the last of the Baby Boomers, that generation born after World War II in the flush of prosperity and hopefulness that broke out after the war. Whether the US and her allies would win the war, would the German Luftwaffe bomb San Antonio like it had barraged London the previous year in the Battle of Britain when the debt was run up to so few from so many- would Japan launch a submarine attack on the Gulf Coast, would the ammunition depot at Camp Stanley draw enemy fire, would we all end up speaking German?- those have never been questions that I’ve had to ask, that I’ve had to fear, because by the time I was born the war was over and who had won and who’d lost were facts already recorded in the world’s textbooks. By then there were already a thousand books written about every aspect of WWII, and my dad had surely read at least half of them before the sweltering September evening in 1964 that my soon-to-be-mom had to be coaxed, threatened, and begged into the car for the trip to the hospital because she was determined to finish her episode of Ozzie & Harriet before she went off to bear her first child. That first evening after my birth, before I was twenty-four hours old, The Munsters premiered on television for the first time. The Merry Pranksters were turning on, tuning in and dropping acid in California, the Beatles were invading America and LBJ was getting us into a whole ‘nother mess in southeast Asia- and no one was worrying about whether the Allies would win because we already had won and all that was over a long time ago. By the time I became aware of the world in which I lived there was a cold war to worry about, the Cuban missile crisis had scared the memory of WWII off the front pages of our collective minds and there was a wall in Berlin, separating a whole new Us from Them. Walter Kronkite talked every night in our living room about gorilla warfare in the jungle. A couple of photographs: the South Vietnam police chief in the split second before he blew a man’s brains out and one of a little girl running naked down a road in the landscape of a nightmare, all those bereft, wailing children running through hell, through literal fire and brimstone, those images had already seeped into my marrow, into the very innermost core of me, and had already begun their work shaping the adult that I would become. Ragged men with joyless eyes in wheelchairs and army surplus jackets, missing limbs, looking gobsmacked, lost, confused, at sea, began to be everywhere, and I knew that the gorillas attacking in the jungle had everything to do with this, but I didn’t know what, I didn’t know if it could reach out and touch me, my family. World War II was done and over, a thousand years ago, and all the misery in the world now dwelt in the jungles of southeast Asia and in the victims of the gorillas who brought it home with them.

It was all history to me, as done and finished as Noah and his ark. Nobody wondered if the earth would ever be dry again and whether the boat would ever land- we knew how the story ended. And World War II- that may as well be a Bible story too. We knew how that ended too.

And so, occasionally, it comes to me with a sense of surprise that for an interminably long time, people actually lived in fear and in a constant state of panic and unease, not knowing whether their world would hold or whether they might be dead tomorrow- that the conclusion of WWII wasn’t always a done deal.   It was not always, it wasn’t ever, a foregone conclusion that the US and her allies would win- the people who lived through that war didn’t know, couldn’t know, that the good guys would win and that all would be restored and the nations of the world would survive. It seems like stating the obvious, now, and of course it is- while the war was ongoing, nobody knew who would win yet. But I think that what I forget is what it must have felt like to live with all the doubt and fear and terror and pain, with the everyday immediacy of life in a country at war. What must it have felt like for a man standing on a road five miles outside of his hometown in a blackout drill, planning and preparing for a contingency so preposterous, so wildly outside of everything he’d ever known, at the very beginning of a war that would come to involve almost every living soul on the planet?

This was the first test of the blackout procedure, a statewide mandate, and remember, this was a mere eleven days after the attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, exactly a week after Germany and Italy, in honor of the terms of the Axis Treaty, declared war on the United States. The people of Boerne, including the man stationed outside of town, never thought their hometown itself was in any danger of attack; in fact, Major DK Lansing of the Home Defense Guard said as much in a letter published in that same issue of the Boerne Star: writing of a theoretical enemy pilot, Lansing states: “He is not going to unload his bombs over any isolated farm group, he is not going to bomb the small hamlets or cities, unless he should mistake them for his target, or unless he drops a few just as a reminder to the citizens that he is overhead. BUT,” he goes on, “your lights, if he can spot them will act as directing fingers toward his objective.”  What they all had in mind, ultimately, were “the Army Posts, the Ammunition Depots, [and] the Flying Fields around San Antonio,” which were, according to Major Lansing’s open letter, “definite and important objectives, long ago marked for destruction by those with whom we are at War.”

In 1941, all the San Antonio army and air bases were already well-established, including Fort Sam, Kelly, Randolph, Brooks and even Lackland, on which construction had begun some six months before, and Camps Bullis and Stanley closer to Boerne, and were important military posts. From the moment each one of them heard the news of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, every person who had attained the age of reason in San Antonio and in towns fifty miles away in every direction, must have been agonizingly aware of the military importance of San Antonio. Our man stationed on the road outside of Boerne would’ve been keenly aware as well. He thought of the description in the paper, of the lights carelessly left burning in farmhouses and cars on the road being fingers pointing the way to all those military posts, and his mind dwelt again on the comforting assurance implicit in that part about the bomber pilot not wasting his cargo on tiny hamlets like Boerne. But another thought crept up on him uninvited, right behind the first, and reminded him that Pearl Harbor had been torn apart in the clear, broad daylight, almost insolently- and no blackout could have prevented it. And the man thought- again, achingly- of his own fifteen year-old son, of a perfectly ordinary day that past autumn when the man had been startled at the sudden recognition of how grown-up his boy had become. The size of his hands on the steering wheel of the tractor. He thought of recruitment offices with lines ten and twelve blocks long, forced to stay open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, to accommodate the crush of enlistees. He thought of all the town boys and the farmboys, too, and all their big hands, all of them mad as hell, willing to pad their age, to swear to whatever necessary in order to get into this war and pay the bastards back. And then the man quickly turned off the damn thought, quick, like a jerk to the short chain attached to the light bulb in the front room, because it hurt him, it actually caused his shoulders to snap forward as if to protect his chest from a physical blow.

He bent down into the open door of his pickup and dove under the steering wheel, close to the gas and brake pedals on the floor, and carefully struck a match to light a smoke. He knew the rules backwards and forwards- all any of them had been doing since the afternoon of December 7th was learning rules, planning strategies, showing up to meetings, and when they weren’t doing that they were talking about it, bullshitting about what was gonna happen next, what the enemies were gonna do, how the Americans were gonna win, how they were gonna slap those dirty bastards all the way back to the Stone Age by God. The man knew no matches were to be struck in the open, no cigars, cigarettes or pipes out of doors, so as he straightened back out to his full height he kept his other hand cupped round the glow of the ember, exhaled the smoke out his nostrils. Took another drag, held it a little longer, blew the smoke out on a long sigh.

His place was out here, half a mile away as the crow flies- that’s why he’d volunteered for this particular post. If it was daytime right now his house would be visible from this part of the road, just below on a piece of high ground before the land swept down to the creek. If the world wasn’t pitch dark you could place it by the light in the front room, throwing its spotlight across the front yard. Kendall County was also due to check the searchlights, too, same as the blackout drill, to be ready in case they needed to identify any unknown aircraft at night. That contingency was bizarre to the man- imagine in Boerne, Texas, using a searchlight beam, suddenly ablaze in the night sky, to light up a flock of German Messerschmitts on their way to San Antonio. The thought of it instantly turned the man’s belly to liquid, and then to ice, and then his brain offered up Major Lansing’s statement as a measure of comfort: “he is not going to bomb the small hamlets or cities”. But the man’s brain giveth and then tooketh away, because there was a codicil, and it’d bothered the man from the first reading in spite of his efforts to ignore it: “…unless he drops a few just as a reminder to the citizens that he is overhead…”   It reminded the man of something, someone, though he couldn’t put his finger on a name- but he KNEW this guy they were talking about. He KNEW this guy, who would complete whatever mission they gave him to the letter, but who would also find a sort of sublime satisfaction in letting go a couple of bombs on an unsuspecting village, an outlying farmhouse or a barn, even…now who was it? He’d enjoy it, this fella he was thinking of, he’d like the feel of letting go that lethal cargo and seeing the pattern of destruction below- but what reminded the man so much of this other fella he was thinking of was the image of him up there in the cockpit savoring his ability, if he so chose, his power. This guy wouldn’t be a murderer in the ordinary course of his life, but a chance opportunity to play God from 25,000 feet, was different. The man, on the side of the road leaning on his truck, he could picture the eyes of that enemy pilot who didn’t actually exist, he could sit in this other guy’s body at the control panels of his plane and could see the world laid out below, even though the man had never been in a plane in his life. But he could see what a man like that would see, he could feel the pull of temptation, to pass like a cloud overhead but leave one massive, random work of devastation in your wake, for no other reason than that you can. The man from Boerne saw as clearly as if it were noonday, the picture of his own farmhouse half a mile away, his wife turning from the stove to smile up at him when he came in the back door, his daughters sitting at the table with braids in their hair, his boy who’d grown so suddenly man-like. He saw his own mother stirring a pot on the same stove when he himself was a little boy, and he felt his love and reverence and the familiarity for his house and his family as something knitted in with his bones and muscles in the process of his creation. This town with all of her twelve hundred people, the stores where his family traded, the creek below his house, an enemy plane disappearing toward the horizon, the shadowy spectre of a man with the power of life and death who’d come to MY country and attacked MY people- His hands clenched and a choking hatred rose in him, a sort of primal state of defensiveness and love and fury.

This was war, and it would get worse, in 1942 and ‘43 the news would be bad, very bad, and the whole, evil plan for the wholesale annihilation of a race of people would enter it’s era of greatest efficiency. The people of Boerne would make the transition from sleepy village to efficient wartime community with very little difficulty, and the Red Cross, the Lion’s Club, the City government, would all make sure the citizens were doing their part. The iron fence around the old courthouse disappeared into the war effort; new emergency quarters were built next to the swimming pool, which would later become the Grange library, which would eventually move next door to the City Hall on Blanco Street and then on to the Dienger building and finally to a brand-new home on the site of the old St Mary’s Sanitorium. Woodrow Whitworth, US Navy, would become the first Boerne casualty of the war, captured by the Japanese in May 1942 and only released after the end of the war in September 1945. He was held in a POW camp near Nagasaki, from where he heard and saw the atomic bomb that ended the war. Boerne would never be the target of an air raid, although ten young men from Kendall County lost their lives in the war; they were Calvin Behr, Otto Eichholz, Pascual Guerrero, Clarence Korth, Isaac Menchaca, Richard Neff, Louis Strube, Candelario Trevino, Ralph Weaver, and Hillmar Zoeller. The good guys prevailed; we won. The Great Depression was over, America came home from war and started having babies, we entered a brand-new war, the Cold War, and forgot all about those vaunted freedoms we talked about so much during World War II, which had hung in the balance, when Communist hysteria broke out and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joseph McCarthy instituted a witch hunt in which the civil rights of any American they accused were trampled underfoot.

There was no war to end all wars- there may be no such thing. Man has been waging war since time began, and as long as we continue to support leaders who see no moral quandary in throwing the lives of poor men and women at the enemy like a handful of gravel while they and their own children sit safely at home, the best and brightest of each successive generation of Americans will be sacrificed at the altars of greed and hatred. I find that I’m able to imagine a world without war. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one; and my God, I do hope, I pray that someday you will join us.

That whole night, under the new moon, the man didn’t see one light except for the glow of his cigarette and the reflected shine from the billions of stars overhead. At one point he folded himself back up and wedged himself under the steering wheel again so he could strike a match and get a look at his watch, when he discovered it was time to get on home. His truck starting on that brittly cold night sounded like the din of a thousand bombs in the silence, but the man knew that was a wild exaggeration, and that the sound of war, if and when it came to Boerne, Texas, would be very, very different. He switched on his headlights and they made a cone of brightness in the blackness of the night.  “The light shines in the darkness,” he thought, “and the darkness has not overcome it.”  What was that from? he wondered. He sat for a moment, his truck rumbling, and stared without conscious thought into the beam of light, and after a little bit he put the truck in gear and headed off down the road. There was still a lotta work to be done.


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