|The tree house in the fork of the old
Chinaberry was a formidable fortress. It was the secret headquarters of
the “American Eagles.” A club founded with several of my neighborhood chums
to defend the USA against the evil Axis powers. Our arsenal included two
Red Ryder bb-guns; a pair of Tom Mix pearl-handled cap pistols with leather
studded holsters, Babe Ruth baseball bats, a bone handle jack-knife and
three homemade slingshots.
Entrance to the fort was gained via
a knotted rope ladder hanging from the main branch. It was frayed and chewed
off about three feet above the ground where my pups Eleanor and Franklin
[our family were Democrats] had released their frustrations. Unable to
climb the rope to be with the gang they would leap in the air, grab the
first knot and swing back and forth in the breeze Tarzan fashion until
their jaws tired.
A small Fourth of July parade flag fluttered
from the patchy rooftop. Menacing “skull and crossbones” donned the rough
plank door. For three eleven year olds, it was an awesome structure - a
marvel of high-rise construction ingenuity. To other family members it
was a lumberyard in the sky. To my staunch German grandmother it was an
eyesore that was barely tolerated.
That first weekend in December 1941
was absolutely perfect. Christmas was only a few weeks away. There were
hints of a new bike for my paper route and the war news from Europe was
very exciting to adventurous backyard warriors. Further, we had taken a
trip to the small Orlando airport that Saturday in Uncle’s big black Willys
to see for the first time, several “potbellied” twin-engine bombers flown
in as part of the rapid build up of the Army Airbase under construction.
When we arrived, the Douglas bombers
were tied down in a grassy dairy pasture adjoining the airport. Their notable
features were the tall tail rudders adorned with bright horizontal red
and white stripes. White stars with red bull’s eyes marked the wings and
fuselage. The sun glistening off their brightly polished aluminum skin
lighted the area with reverberating rays.
An encampment of olive colored tents
nestled in long neat rows was pitched nearby. Soldiers hurried about performing
their various duties. Sentries wearing “Smoky Bear” hats, khaki leggings
and shouldering Springfield rifles, paced back and forth in stiff military
precision between the planes and the curious local onlookers.
People had gathered along the newly
installed perimeter chain-link fence to see for the first time the ongoing
military activities. Some brought picnic baskets and settled in the adjoining
woods to enjoy the unusual festivities. An indescribable aura of gayety
and excitement filled the air - a major change from the mundane tempo of
life people had endured during the Depression of the previous ten years.
We boys found an open space along the
fence line and pressed our faces deep into the wire to gain the best view
possible. My heart pounded with wonder at the magnificent sight of the
shinny warplanes and soldiers in uniform. For me, that warm late autumn
afternoon of long ago was very special... the very best of times. As events
developed, it would be a historical weekend, which would remain deeply
etched in my mind for the remainder of my life.
On Sunday among the boughs of the Chinaberry
tree, a secret ceremony was conducted. Inspired by the previous day's journey,
we sat in a circle and took a secret oath. Pricking our fingers, we each
swore to fight all spies and saboteurs: blood-brothers forever!
As “Eagles” we would vigilantly scan
the skies for invading aircraft. Keen eyed, I knew the silhouettes of every
airplane from Ford Tri-motors, Curtis P-40s and Spitfires to German ME-109s.
I could easily spot a speck in the sky miles away using two empty toilet
paper tubes bound together with rubber bands for binoculars. Each sighting
was neatly recorded in a school notebook using our cherished Lone Ranger
Decoder Rings recently obtained from the Merita Bread Company for ten cents
and a bread label.
We chattered into the afternoon, arguing
over which military service was best. Each vowing to join as soon as we
were old enough to enlist. My pals having seen the bombers wanted to join
the Army Air Corps. Since my father and uncle had served in the Navy, I
wanted to be a sailor. I had visions of sailing the seas on a mighty battleship
or flying a sleek fighter from the deck of an aircraft carrier. I was childishly
disappointed that there was no Navy installations nearby that we could
visit, as we had the new Air Base.
To show my loyalty as a future Bluejacket,
I had cut pictures of naval ships and planes from magazines and newspapers
and pasted them all over the tree house walls. This of course annoyed my
prospective Air Corps buddies. I also had two prized “Commander Winslow
of the Navy,” Big-Little books stashed in the corner with the stack of
Captain Marvel comic books we had accumulated. The sounds of distant aircraft
would bring us to “Battle Stations”! We would scurry out on the limb to
identify it; followed by an official entry in the Eagles’ note book. It
was all so very exciting!
Suddenly, a shrill shout from the back
porch got our attention. Grandmother’s voice always got our attention!
With hands shading her eyes from the late afternoon sun she anxiously motioned
to us, “Boys! Boys! Come down quickly, the Japanese have bombed our bases
and ships in Hawaii! The news is coming in over the radio! Hurry! Hurry
down! And Edward, you get in the house this minute, you boys run home to
your parents! This is very serious. We are probably now at war!” Screaming,
“WAR, WAR, WAR,” the Chinaberry commandos scattered in all directions.
When I ran into the house, the family
was gathered around the big mahogany cabinet radio that dominated a corner
of the living room. The strange shinning “green-eye” on the Zenith dial
had always intrigued me, seemingly watching my every move. As I entered
the room, the eye now even more sinister, followed me as I dropped to the
parlor rug to listen to the news and play with my metal pursuit plane.
Was the green thing on the radio dial a special spy-device? Had some German
or Japanese agent seeking information on our secret Eagles organization
I made several strafing passes at the
evil eye with my trusty fighter. With wet puckered lips I sprayed the radio
with, “rata-tat-tat, rata-tat-tat.” This immediately irritated the elders
and I was shushed with the famous Granny chop to the back of the head.
This brought my strafing runs to a halt, immediately grounding my aircraft.
At this point, let me dispel an ancient belief, “Judo” did not originate
in the Orient. My dear sweet grandmother developed the moves as a tool
to gain the attention of her obedient, loving and well mannered grandson!
I sat silently watching the adults,
who in stunned disbelief rocked nervously or paced about the room as fragmented
news accounts of the carnage came over the air. At times, in unison they
would lean in toward the radio as static flared or the reception faded
in an effort to hear every word that was broadcast on that infamous Sunday.
It was a day that would forever change an entire nation and the world.
As evening turned to night, I fell asleep
on the oval rug in front of the radio still clutching the toy plane I had
so gallantly flown against the evil and cowardly Japanese. As I lay in
fretful slumber, the green-eye, static, news reports, grandmother's squeaky
rocker and boyish perceived images of the horrors of Pearl Harbor reverberated
through my youthful dreams; my prized Red Ryder air-rifle and Woolworth
tin helmet lay close by my side.