I was born in lower Manhattan (just a few blocks from where the World Trade Center would later be built) in October of 1931. My earliest memories are of growing up in Forest Hills, an upper middle class, pleasant neighborhood on Long Island. Life was simple, enjoyable, worry-free.
My father was an internist with an office on Park Avenue. He had deep patriotic instincts and was inspired to join the Naval Medical Reserve about the time I was born and was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander. Life took a dramatic change on December 7, 1941. In what seemed like a matter of minutes, Dad received orders to report for active duty early January in the Marine boot training camp on Parris Island, SC. Within days he had to get his new uniform from Brooks Brothers, arrange for another doctor to take over his practice, get ready for Christmas for my sibs and me, and get himself out the door and down Highway 17 to South Carolina. Meanwhile Mother had to pack all her dishes, etc. in barrels in the basement, rent the house and get ready to move my sister and brother and me to follow at the semester break the end of January.
What I remember most that a friend drove us to Pennsylvania Station on a miserable evening with freezing rain to give us a cold send-off. My mother and sister slept on the lower bed of a pullman car while my younger brother and I slept on the upper bunk. But in the morning when I looked out the window, we were in Virginia and the sun was shining. Wow! That afternoon the train arrived at the whistle-stop town of Yemassee, SC where Dad was there to meet us in his trusty 1941 black Dodge sedan. He drove us to our new home on the island. It was a single story affair with a screened porch on two sides where I slept in the warmer weather and listened to the buglers around the island play a nameless tune at 9:00 PM and taps at 10:00.
Although I was only 10, I remember how impressed Dad was when he came home and reported that there was a case of spinal meningitis in a recruit. At that time it was not only highly contagious but essentially untreatable and with a very high mortality rate. No antibiotics then. But there was sulfadiazine and this was given prophylactically to everyone(?). Anyway, Dad was mightily impressed with that seeming miracle of stopping a threatened epidemic in its tracks. I’m sure he well remembered the influenza pandemic beginning in September, 1918 that exploded in a similar military camp in Camp Funston, KS, since he graduated from medical school about the same time.
My mother, who was raised in New York City, used to tell about meeting a friend who would say something like, “Did you hear that Bill died last Tuesday.” And Mother would say, “How could that be? I just saw him a week ago and he looked fine.” It is hard for me to imagine what it was like to live when the possibility of a random strike of lightning could hit you with a rapidly fatal illness like influenza. We can be happy that we live in an age where that does not happen in this country while continuing to remind ourselves that the possibility of a new pandemic hangs over our heads like the Sword of Damocles. Carpe diem! Make every day count.
Image by USMC Archives, Platoon 903, Parris Island, 1942