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Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center Smithsonian “September 11:
Bearing Witness to History”

 
     Story of September 11
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Contributed by: Prof. Sidney H. Kessler
Contributor's location on 9/11: Marlton, N. J. 08053
Contributed on: 10 September 2006

How did you witness history on September 11th?

Pages From My Life: Days of Infamy, by Sid Kessler. It used to be a joke I played on my history classes. Pointing to an unsuspecting student, I would ask in a low baritone reminiscent of the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow: “Where were you on December 7, 1941?” None were alive that day. Laughter was a change of pace from the discussion of the surprise attack. by the Japanese. I would mention that I had lived long enough to become a “primary source” for historic events and relate my personal memories of Pearl Harbor Day and its aftermath. Early one morning, a decade after I retired from Glassboro State College, those thoughts were “long ago and far away.” I walked to the pristine Smith Mountain Lake in Southwest Virginia brushing past golden flowers. The air was as new as a freshly opened bottle of champagne. The sun danced lightly on the water. The Blue Ridge Mountains looked down like royalty at the verdant hills with grazing horses and strutting wild turkeys below. It was almost as if I heard the grass singing. It was a time and place of perfect peace. I was a student in an Elderhostel program, enjoying studies I had denied myself while writing and teaching history. Because of my ancient habit, I could not be late for any class. I retreated indoors reluctantly. David Newton, a retired public health official who was a dark humorist and irrepressible punster, was teaching “Diseases and Epidemics in Human History.” He was interesting and amusing in a strange way. Dennis Crowley, our coordinator, who was usually calm, surged suddenly to the front of the room. “Stop now!” he ordered in his Army Reserve Major’s voice. “I am in the middle of anthrax” David smiled, “and I have only two more diseases to go.” “No! Stop right now!” Dennis shouted. Then Dennis turned to the stunned seniors. “I have an announcement to make. The United States is under attack! The World Trade Center is down! An airplane has crashed into the Pentagon!” These words might have been rolled up and shot out of a rifle. Shock, horror, anxiety and worry followed, but not panic. Someone asked me: “Sid, who is Osama Bin Laden?” I told them. It was September 11, 2001. It was a “Day of Infamy.” My memory clock turned backward. I was 15 years old, standing straight in a high school gym on a cold grey day. Each of the words of President Roosevelt burned into my brains: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked…” At the end of the address asking the Congress for a Declaration of War against Japan, there was silence. We were at war! A few boys applauded. Classes were cancelled. Unidentified airplanes were seen over New York City and we were sent home. School was not safe any more, and no one knew what to do. Radio was the only source of late news. I went from school to Mr. Seltzer’s candy store. It was more than a refuge where I could meet friends. It had a radio. Kids were discussing the events when I arrived. An announcer located Pearl Harbor on the island of “Wahoo” instead of Oahu. Hawaii was an exotic planet. The music of the islands was popular, and everyone had images of girls in hula skirts dancing under cocoanut trees. Ideas of the US Navy came from movies such as “Follow the Fleet” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Germans had been our old anti-Semitic enemies but why was Japan sore at us? For years, our teachers collected coins to help the Japanese children left homeless by the Tokyo earthquake of 1923 when the only structure left standing was the Imperial Hotel built by the American Frank Lloyd Wright. The Japanese were looked upon with condescension. Their toys were junk, their houses were paper, and they all wore glasses. Revenge would be swift we thought. It was not to be.so. On December 11, 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States and now we had to fight on two sides of the world. I was born in March 1926, between world wars. I was weaned on newspapers with black headlines. In 1933 it was the month of FDR’s inauguration. Each year in March Hitler swallowed Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the Low Countries. Our Lend-Lease Act to save Great Britain was enacted in March 1941 and an undeclared naval war with Germany followed. By March 1942, Japan dominated Asia and the Pacific and the Nazis had swallowed France and parts of Russia. March was my birthday month of a grim spring. My world changed rapidly. There was a spirit of “we’re all in this together.” Radio broadcasts began and ended with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. In movie theaters, people stood and sang our national anthem. The “Selective Service” of 1917 was dusted off and the draft was lowered from 21 to 18 years old. To be rejected as “4-F” was a terrible disgrace. In a great reversal of prewar attitudes, military uniforms were popular with the girls “Service flags,” of the old Great War appeared in windows, square emblems bordered in red with a white field and a blue star. A gold star meant death in combat. Patriotic songs from the “war to end all wars” like “Over There” were revived. Block parties were fun and encouraged the purchase of war bonds. Garbage-strewn spaces were magically transformed into community “victory gardens.” I was a “Junior Air Raid Warden.” I wore a white armband, carried a flashlight during blackouts, and looked up at the new night sky and wondered what the stars knew about the future. Seward Park High School joined the fight. We marched around the gym. My math teacher used geometry to help us compute the angle of a dead sniper’s fall from a tree. Mr. Chankin who had been a gendarme in Paris retreated to the cultural glory of Louis Quatorze and would not come out. Heroic efforts were made by Mr. Kohn, my Latin teacher, to make Caesar’s war “Commentaries” contemporary, although the author was murdered in March, 44 B.C.E. When the football team was disbanded I blew my trombone indoors with patriotic fervor for “Stars and Stripes Forever” and other Sousa marches. Most exciting was Mr. Leichtling’s History class where we discussed and debated the origins of the war from the First World War on. “Mama Schrank” my English teacher kept beautiful poetry and Shakespeare alive. It was common for boys to work after school. Some even quit to support their family. As the war ground on, and the draft was certain, some students left school and enlisted. My friend Jerry joined the Coast Guard He was treated like a hero and enjoyed a farewell party and gifts. Another friend, Izzy, was declared “4-F.” He could not bear the shame. I had been a busboy, wire cutter, and shipping clerk I had vague dreams of working, going to college, and then teaching history like Mr. Leichtling after the war. I passed the entrance exam to Brooklyn College to assure admission when I returned from the war enclosing on me. Suddenly, everything changed. I could have college and the army too! There was a new program for high school seniors, the Enlisted Reserve Corps. Once accepted, I could enter college and remain there until age 18. Then I would complete the semester and go on active duty. After basic training I would return to college in the Army Specialized Training Program. I passed all the tests and I enlisted. A problem appeared. I was assigned to Rutgers University at once, but I would have to forgo completing high school. It was a real dilemma: should I skip my senior year to gain college credits, or should I receive my high school diploma first? I asked my mentor, Mr. Leichtling. His advice was: “Sid, you can never rush education. You may be of more use with a diploma. You never know what will happen to you and you owe your parents a graduation.” I took his advice. Later, I got orders to report for a college I never heard of. I complained to “Mama” Schrank. She laughed. “Amherst College! It is one of the most aristocratic colleges in the country!” I was lucky. I was going to college. Active duty was delayed while the war raged on. At graduation I played in the band and won the History and English Medals. Then I reported to the Officer of the Day. My swearing-in ceremony was very solemn. As I swore to uphold the Constitution against all enemies and entered the United States Army I was changed in a way I could not understand. Soon I was on a train, leaving home for the first time, given a sandwich with meat strange to me. It was ham. Even though I was only a seventeen year old reservist, I faced the unknown with the confidence of a grown man. I have seen two “Days of Infamy.” As I did long ago, when I was a “Junior Air Raid Warden,” I look up at the night sky and wonder: What do the stars know about the future? My wife Claire and our children: will they ever see days of peace?


Cite as: Prof. Sidney H. Kessler, Smithsonian Story #7708, The September 11 Digital Archive, 10 September 2006, <http://911digitalarchive.org/smithsonian/details/7708>.
Archival Information: 1570 words, 8828 characters

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