Those were the days

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 17, 2005

During a recent Chuckatuck Ruritan meeting two young women were presented with scholarships by member Bill Whitley, also a member of the Suffolk School Board. He pointed out that 2005 high school graduates know a lot more than &uot;we did.&uot;

It is hard to argue with that, Bill is old enough to be retired and a good number of Virginia Ruritans are in that same boat. He could have said that there is a lot more to know about. When I got my square hat and tassel back in 1943 I couldn’t even turn on a TV, there wasn’t such an animal. The plusses and minuses of credit cards would have been impossible to comprehend with our cash and carry attitude. The &uot;layaway&uot; plan would have been as close as we could come and merchants enforced that concept.

I’ll admit to, then, an ignorance of a multitude of gadgets, concepts, and having a mind that accepted life without them. I guess you could say life was simple then…you worked hard, 99 percent of us, to keep your head out of the water. And that’s the point, we all, everyone, worked hard mostly without complaint.

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The word, leisure, had not been coined. I’m not sure 2005 graduates have bought that idea that you have to earn your way. We don’t let anyone starve anymore; our government now does what neighbors did back then. Over 700 finished high school in Suffolk this year and I really wonder how many of them are actually prepared to face the facts of life. Not the birds and bees fact of life, most of them understand that fully; I mean are they equipped to wrest honest dollars from the huge supply of them in this country, or will they be nothing more than loyal subjects of government who expect and are content with handouts and bailouts throughout life?

There will be those that succeed and become important to their communities welfare. They won’t need welfare, they will be lawyers, bankers, doctors of many stripes, and many will become business owners. It was the same back in the early forties when our nation at war postponed success for millions. But patriotism and dedication was the banner for those who went on. Their parents had survived the worst depression the country has ever seen, war had intervened, but nothing would stop them from achieving their goal. Life is a lot more complicated today and graduates have thousands of choices available to them that can provide a reasonable life style. But are they up to it?

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I’ve been watching &uot;Color of War&uot; on TV lately and I’m beginning to understand that I was part of a world-shaking event. All I knew back in 1943 was that I had been drafted by Uncle Sam and encumbered with clothes and shoes that didn’t fit. I was a Michigan boy and sent to the hellish heat of Alabama in July to learn how to survive and kill. After many months of &uot;honing&uot; as the Army put it, I was on my way to the real thing in foreign countries. I’d heard about these places in geography class and knew nothing more. To say the least they were strange lands and the enemy in uniform was trying to kill us.

But I must tell you that we had little to do with the people in those strange lands; war can be like that. We, our company of Combat Engineers, never really knew where we were. Most of those countries look much alike. Windmills in Holland were easy to spot but the others were just old quaint villages. In the 11 months of combat we never saw a major city and the minor ones were mostly blown apart. When you are but a &uot;company,&uot; 120 boys and a few men, unattached to any larger unit, you are almost isolated, in contact with any other force only by radio.

We were sent, not lead, to do a job up front sometimes, behind the lines sometimes, but never way behind the lines. Build a bridge; pick up mines, blowup things, and clear woods for a hospital or small landing field. Sometimes it was just a platoon of 40 on a mission and you might go many days without seeing another American or Brit. We never knew whether we were losing the war or winning and during the so-called Bulge we only knew we were running, away from the soldiers in green and black. We never heard details of the war going on in the Pacific, just that there was a war.

Our only contact, as I said before, was with a radio, such as they were in 1944, and it merely crackled a good part of the time. We always made sure our radioman was sober, protected as best we could, and healthy. Even our officers were completely dependent upon his ability to &uot;stay in touch.&uot; We had to call to have our dead or wounded picked up, food delivered, and war supplies brought to us ahead of when needed. The roofs of our trucks had colored panels on top and they had to be arranged by radio code each day or run the risk of being bombed or strafed by our own planes. That would have been hell; to be killed before we had a chance to see Color of War on TV and learn what went on all that time we were gone from home and growing up.

Robert Pocklington lives in Suffolk and is a regular News-Herald columnist. Reach him at