Stukas Over Indianapolis

“The Stuka was the premiere dive-bomber of the Luftwaffe. . .and became one of the symbols of the Blitzkreig.”
– The Warbirds Resource Group

It began on the roof of the porch at the side of our house at 6129 Winthrop. That’s the perch where I sat to scan the skies for enemy airplanes during World War II. I was a Cub Scout – and later Boy Scout – patriot during the war, collecting scrap paper, scrap metal and tinfoil, raising a Victory Garden in the back yard, buying War Stamps (later called Defense Stamps) in my dime stamp book, buying the 78 RPM records I played on the wind-up Victrola in the basement like “We’ll Heil, Heil, Right in Der Fuhrer’s Face” and “Goodbye Mama, I’m Off to Yokahama,” as my friends and I marched to their tunes and memorized the words.

Besides all that, the most exciting and seemingly “grown-up” activity I engaged in was looking through my binoculars to see if I could spot the outline of a German Stuka, Messerschmidt, or Japanese Zero whose outlines I had faithfully memorized from a manual for air raid wardens. Why did I think the Germans and Japanese would fly right over such coastal cities as New York and Boston, or San Francisco and Los Angeles, to knock out Indianapolis? It was clear as the nose on your face: if the dastardly enemies could knock out Indianapolis, the heart of the heart of the country, they would destroy the morale of America in one deadly blow and win the war.

I had no idea that an instrument regarded as the key weapon in the Allied Victory – the top secret Norden bombsight – was manufactured at The Naval Ordinance Plant in Indianapolis.  According to an article in theweeklyview.net (“The Indianapolis Top Secret That Helped Win WWII”) “Indianapolis was selected because it was centrally located, it was a railroad center, and was far enough inland that it could not easily be bombed by enemy aircraft.” I’m glad that I didn’t learn this until about seventy years after I sat on my porch roof on Winthrop looking for Stukas – the deadly dive-bombers of the Nazis that terrorized civilians as well as Allied troops. It would have knocked the wind out of my patriotic pretensions. It might have even blown away my inspiration for the novel Under The Apple Tree: A WWII Homefront Novel.

A common question asked of writers [in addition to Who’s Your agent?] is “Where do you get the idea for a novel?” The best and clearest answer I can give is the idea for Under The Apple Tree.  I was living in Boston in 1983 when I walked out one morning onto Charles Street (the main drag of Beacon Hill, a neighborhood that was still affordable for non-billionaires back then) and a picture came to my mind. It was the sight of a ten-year old boy sitting on the roof of his house in the Midwest during WWII, looking through a pair of binoculars for the outlines of German and Japanese warplanes. My God, I thought, if I could explain why a boy (who was not mentally deranged) would be occupied in such a way, I’d have a novel! Of course, I would have to think of a story to explain the boy’s activity.  Then – the hard part – I would have to write it.

I was the boy I called “Artie” in the novel, and I would tell the story from his point of view (which I could imagine, since it was my own, during that era.) I was nine years old and a Cub Scout in Den #6, Pack#54 in Indianapolis when I heard that The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, a United States naval base which (like most Americans) I had never heard of until that moment. I heard the news over the radio while I was having a cherry coke in my father’s drugstore (Harbison’s, later Wakefield’s, Drugs) at the corner of 16th and Central. When the announcement was over, I climbed on top of one of the iron-back chairs onto a table (where people sat and talked while they ate and drank, before the age of computers) and I sang “America.”(I liked it better “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and it was a whole lot easier to sing.)

My cousin “Junior” (Clayton E. Ridge, Jr.) who lived next door in our double with my grandma Irene-y, and was the closest thing I had to a brother (I was an only child) enlisted in the Air Force and became a tail gunner on a B-17. He had a girlfriend who went to Broad Ripple, who my mother invited to dinner after Junior was sent overseas, hoping to keep up her morale, in the hope that she would keep up Junior’s morale, by writing him letters and not “sitting under the apple tree” with anyone else but Junior!  How that all worked out I never knew, but I could imagine. And imagine I did, making up the characters of Artie’s older brother “Roy” and his girlfriend Joanne (“Shirley.”)

I didn’t want “Roy” to be a tail-gunner like Junior, which would have revealed a lack of creativity on my part, but I made him a Marine, like a boy who lived down the block, and I sent him to the South Pacific. I never knew or heard of a 4-F guy like poor “Foltz” in my novel, but it always made me cringe when I heard the words to another popular war song “”They’re Either Too Young or Too Old.”

The lyrics were about how the pickings were slim for the girls left at home – the only guys left were either too young or too old, either too grey or too “grassy green:” the best were in the ar-my, what’s left will never harm me. .  Oh my God. Even as a nine-year-old I could imagine what 4F guys – who were deemed physically or mentally unfit for the service – must feel, hearing those words. The “harm” didn’t mean anything about physical abuse, it meant that females would find such a boy or man “harmless,” in the sense of there being no danger of anyone wanting to go out with him,  much less fall in love with him!

So I invented my love triangle by making up the character of poor old “Clarence Foltz” who was 4-F – I even gave him what sounded to me like a crummy name (as I would have called it in “Artie’s” lingo.)  So I had something of a “plot” – now all I had to do was write the novel. That’s always the hard part. It was fun, though, to go to The Boston Public Library, one of the few with “open stacks” which allowed you to leaf through Time and Life magazines from the ‘forties, and copy out passages and quote them as if “Artie” were reading them from those very magazines.

One thing I didn’t have to copy and read anything to remind me about – the amazing spirit of genuine patriotism of the war, that brought our country and its citizens and soldiers closer and more united than we have ever been before or since or probably ever will be again, as our wars become more fragmented and difficult to explain and understand, with questions on every side about their necessity or validity or eventual effect. In those days everything was clear-cut good against evil, as “Artie” expressed it in his own words and feelings:

“In the crisp, clear days of October, America was beautiful, just like in the song. Artie had never been ‘from sea to shining sea,’ nor had he seen “the purple mountain’s majesty” but he knew they were out there, believed in them, and saw every day with his own eyes the beauty of the gentle hills, the creeks and cornfields, the solid old white frame houses and the ancient oaks of Town. He believed in fact, that God had “shed his grace” on this land, that this grace was tangible, visible, in the arch of rainbows over wet fields, the slant of shed sunlight on the sides of old barns. His pride in his country was sustained by the signs of nature and the symbols of men, not only the bright stars and stripes that flew from public buildings and hung from private porches but the comforting, everyday emblems of home: Bob’s Eats, Joe’s Premium, Mail Pouch Tobacco. This was what Roy and all the other boys were fighting to save, preserve, and protect, along with the people who were lucky enough to live in and of it, and all this was sacred, worthy of any sacrifice, including life itself, for without it, life would be hollow and dumb.”

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A Memory of The Emmett Till Murder Trial

I was sent by The Nation magazine to cover the Emmett Till Murder trial in Mississippi in September of 1955. It was the first major “race” story after the Supreme Court Decision banning desegregation in the schools, and reporters from all over the world were there. The trial lasted one week, and it only took the all-white jury an hour and seven minutes to decide the “not guilty” verdict that was a foregone conclusion. Reporters heard later that the reason it took so long was that the jurors had a hard time figuring out how to complete the form that gave their decision to the judge. The last lawyer summed up his case for the defense by announcing his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free.”

The two Anglo-Saxon men charged with murder had come at night to the house of Moses Wright, asking for “the boy from Chicago” who had violated local standards by whistling at a white woman. The body of that boy – fourteen-year-old Emmett Till – was found in the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. I summed up the aftermath of the trial in the first sentence of my story:

“The crowds are gone and this Delta town is back to its silent, solid life that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

Every few months I get an email from a student or scholar asking me some question about that trial of sixty years ago. As one student explained, he was asking me because it seemed I was the only reporter who covered the trial who was still alive. A few days ago I got a query from a professor who is writing about the response of the labor movement to the Till case. He had found a report in the files of the United Packinghouse Workers of America that mentioned one of their delegates who had gone to observe the trial had “shared a meal” with me, and wondered if I had any recollections of it. Sorry to say I did not, but mention of the trial evoked another memory of that week in Sumner, Mississippi.

A crowd was gathered on the lawn outside the courthouse during the trial, and the crowd itself was segregated. There was a Princeton student from Mississippi who was defending his state from the negative attention it was getting in the press. He said the image of Mississippi as an exotic place that seemed full of bizarre characters and dark doings, was merely fictional, expressed in the imaginative writing of William Faulkner, who was born and lived most of his life in the nearby town of Oxford. Lowering his voice, as if to explain the reason for what he felt was the novelist’s distorted vision, the student said “Mr. Faulkner, he drinks a good deal.”

This “explanation” seemed as bizarre as everything that happened that week. In some tragic way that trial seems doomed to be repeated in different guises in different parts of the country, decade after decade, year after year, like a national nightmare from which we can never seem finally to wake.

– Dan Wakefield

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Goodbye Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Pete, Betty…

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When the opening music to the last episode of Mad Men sounded there were tears in my eyes. It wasn’t just the loss of my favorite TV show, but the years I had faithfully followed it since I watched the first one, seven seasons (and eight years) ago, that I saw had slipped away, so fast, as all time passes so much more swiftly the longer we live. When Peggy Olson took her seat as a lowly secretary at the ad agency, I was in Miami, a mere kid of 75, with no idea that I would ever leave and move back to my old hometown of Indianapolis (unexpectedly with a new mitro-valve from a pig!)

For the past year or so, my fellow avid fans of Mad Men debated how the series – and Don Draper, its main man – would end. There was much speculation, inspired by the falling body in the opening credits, that Don would leap from the window of a Manhattan skyscraper. When the opening show of the final two-part season showed Draper downing more drinks (he has already had enough to dispose of his liver) and watching models slink in furs as they posed for his approval, I had a new theory. I foresaw that his (and the show’s) last scene would be a church basement with men and women drinking black coffee out of Styrofoam cups and chain-smoking , as the camera zoomed in on Draper’s face and he spoke the last line of the legendary series: “Hi, I’m Don. I’m an alcoholic.”

I stole that idea from the last line of a terrific mystery novel called Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block, and it was spoken by the private eye of his own series hero, “Matt Scudder,” who’d been struggling with booze like Don Draper. I had the good fortune of meeting Lawrence Block in New York a few years ago, and found he was a Mad Men fan, so I emailed him my prediction for Draper’s end. He responded that his own prediction was that Don would “jump out the window, echoing the falling image from the opening credits.”

Both of us were wrong – and probably millions of others were wrong, too, seduced by the “falling image” that was like an emblem of the show. And Don seemed to be careening toward that very end in the last episode, but he ended up – as he had once before when in need of renewal – in California. Sick and hung over, he crashed on the couch of an old friend whose daughter was on the way to a self-help retreat up the coast in an Esalen-like setting, and she dragged Don along with her.

An early-seventies style hippie self-help retreat was was the last stop in the world I could imagine for the hard-drinking, sharply cynical Don. Oh no, I thought, fearing they might try to convert him to some kind of pop guru, opening a meditation firm on Madison Avenue. I should not have worried. As people talked about the need for love and connection, and a man told of his feeling of never having been seen or heard or appreciated, Draper spontaneously goes and hugs this stranger. The next day he wakes up and, as Jon Hamm, the actor who made “Don Draper” real and unforgettable, explained his take on it in an interview in The New York Times:

“. . .the next day, he [Draper] wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so, this thing comes to him. . .”

“This thing” is the famous coke commercial sung by hundreds of people of all ages, sizes and colors [“the 1971 Coca-Cola ‘Hilltop commercial”], as they boom out the chorus:
 “I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony/ I’d like to buy the world a coke/and keep it company/ That’s the real thing. . .”

Matthew Weiner, the creator/genius behind Mad Men, said in an interview with writer A.M. Homes at The New York Public Library, he thought “Why not end the show with the greatest commercial ever made?”
 It was the greatest ending of a television series I have ever seen.

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* Full disclosure – I led workshops in “Spiritual Autobiography” at Esalen on three occasions in the ‘nineties.
**Further Disclosure: this summer I am leading a workshop in Brown County, Indiana, on “Creating Your Memoir.”  I will sing from a hilltop: “I’d like to teach the world to sing. . .”
(See my Facebook for Details)

Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield