Sunday, May 03, 2009

Radio Memories: Days Of Victory

Every Sunday we try to make time for some Radio Memories, half-forgotten echoes from the dearly departed art form known as radio drama, the “theater of the mind”. The idea for this week's post arrived in an unexpected way...

A few days ago, I couldn't help myself from eavesdropping on some young people as they talked about an older relative, perhaps a grandfather. "His life changed forever when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 11 1941”, one said earnestly. I smiled at her mixing up the old December date with a grim one from September 2001, but the smile was short-lived as it occured to me how much of her short life had been lived under the shadow of the War on terror.

She would have been so young that awful morning over 7 years ago when the world watched the unforgettable sight of planes slamming in to buildings. Conceivably, she may no longer remember what it’s like to live in a Sept 10 world; for her generation, the world may seem to have always been at war. As hard as it is for us, at our age, to imagine returning to a world at peace (such as it was, anyway), what must such change mean to the young..?

These thoughts led me to look for clues in another war fought a few generations before, one that did seem to have an ending, for the children who lived in its shadow. One day in 1945, their world changed, for the better, and the war's climax brought a sense of concluding relief as palpable as was it’s horrifying beginning.

May we and our children one day experience our own version of a VE-Day..?

Monday morning on May 7, 1945, anyone listening to the radio would have heard a succinct bulletin interrupt their usual programs with the urgent news that Germany had surrendered to the Allies, the US, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, “no strings attached”. As it turned out, this was an unauthorized leak: while German forces had surrendered this time (unlike the false, premature reports broadcast the week before), the Allies intended to announce the news only after the surrender was to be formalized the following day. A curious game of words ensued for the rest of that Monday, as no government officials stepped forward to confirm the morning broadcast, forcing the nation into an awkward celebratory limbo.

The next day, May 8th, President Truman woke up from his first night actually spent in the White House since the passing of President Roosevelt three weeks before, and took to the radio airwaves at 9:00 AM to make the news official: there was now Victory in Europe. The announcement must have had a special significance for the new President, since that day, May 8th, also happened to be… Truman’s 61st birthday. His speech was followed by a re-broadcast of the short-wave message delivered by his counterpart in Great Britain, Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

As we approach VE-Day’s anniversary next week, I thought it would be helpful to offer a forty-minute compilation of four separate radio broadcasts that, together, may hopefully put ourselves into the place of those who were learning of the kind of good news we struggle to keep faith in, in our own time.

I’m book-ending a child’s view of VE-Day with the broadcasts that the “grown-ups” would have heard announcing the curtain call for the War in Europe. First, we’ll hear the initial, unauthorized Monday morning broadcast that the war in Europe had come to an end. Then, two children’s adventure programs, broadcast late afternoon Tuesday, on VE Day itself. Finally, the forementioned speeches by President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill.

The two children’s series are the serialized adventures of movie cowboy Tom Mix, in Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, and the radio adaptation of Milton Caniff’s action-packed comic strip Terry and the Pirates. Both were daily 15-minute broadcasts, Monday through Friday. For the most part such shows were broadcast live in those days, allowing for some last-minute script rewrites should events warrant them…as that day’s war news surely did.

As part of the closing commercial for Ralston cereal, Tom Mix tries to put the day’s confusing events into perspective for his young faithful listeners:

“You know, a lot of you Straight Shooters can hardly remember when there wasn’t a war goin’ on. You’ve grown up with words like “commando”, and “ration stamps”, and “V-Mail”. Now today, somethin’ big has happened. Germany, Hitler’s Germany, has surrendered.
But all of you Straight Shooters know that this thing called “war” isn’t nearly over. It means that the folks in your family are going to have to keep right on at their war jobs, and every one of us will have to keep workin’ and fightin’ until there isn’t any war left, anywhere in the world.
Someday this old world is goin’ to belong to you boys and girls. But it’s up to all of us to pitch in now, and make it the kind of a world worth havin’.”

In digesting the possibility of peace in our time, maybe we should take a cue from Tom, and envision one bite-sized morcel at a time, rather than a sudden, transcendent gorging. Change is best understood as it is often experienced: slowly, as a series of "middles" more than a climactic ending. As Time magazine described it that fateful week:

[F]or ordinary people, the war in Europe ended—not when they heard the hoarse voice of the radio, nor when they saw paper blizzards falling between skyscrapers, nor even when they ate their first food in freedom—but slowly and silently, by degrees, somewhere in each man's heart.

Previous Radio Memories posts:

You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock

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