“Yesterday, December 7, 1941…”


Sunday, December 7, 1941, was my parents’ twenty-first wedding anniversary, and I had called them that morning from New York City to wish them many more of the same. They were going to church in their hometown of Pittsburgh, as they nearly always did, confident that Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr would reinforce their Presbyterianism in the most amiable manner imaginable. I was never sure how much they liked the idea of my spending a lot of time in New York City; after all, if you were paying someone’s tuition at Yale, you probably thought he should stick to his studies there. But I was pretty well caught up on my work and had come to New York for several days, planning to stay through the weekend. Before leaving New Haven, my classmate Dick Drain and I had written one of our occasional, purportedly humorous “Brothers Grim” columns for the Yale Daily News and had turned in what both of us recognized as a piece of fluff for the Saturday, December 6, issue—a hasty, last-minute effort before Christmas vacation—in which, by pure coincidence, we imagined ourselves during the approaching “reading period” in Honolulu, taking in the sun and fun on Waikiki Beach.

I had been spending more time in New York that fall with my friend Bobs Bray. She was commuting to Sarah Lawrence as a day student; happily, her mother’s apartment had a spare, closet-size bedroom where I was welcome to stay; and I had begun work on my senior thesis, which was to be a history of The New Yorker, and was doing much of the research at the magazine’s office on West Forty-third Street. That Sunday morning we had a late breakfast and sat around reading the paper. After lunch Bobs and I went out for a long walk. Sometime before three o’clock we were strolling down Madison Avenue, several blocks from her mother’s apartment. Suddenly it was very cold, with the sun low in the sky, sinking behind the tall building, and I turned my coat collar against the sharp wind. We passed a soda fountain and decided to have a hot chocolate, and while we sat at the counter the news came over the radio.

As in millions of other homes that night, we talked the hours away, for the first time contemplating a future in which the two of us might be separated for long periods, though we could not admit to the unspoken fear beneath the surface: the possibility that I might go off to war and not come back. Whatever else we may have thought about during that troubled evening, it never occurred to us that what lay ahead would prove to be the great divide for our generation—not only a chasm that would swallow up some of our closest friends but the demarcation line against which we would measure time and change ever afterward, as the Civil War and the First World War marked them off for our great-grandfathers’ and fathers’ generations.

On the Yale campus itself a carol service was in progress in Dwight Hall. A mixed group of students and faculty families raised their voices in the old Advent hymn, joyously singing out “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” at the same time the announcer at the Polo Grounds in New York interrupted the Giants-Dodgers football game with the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

All over the campus students were preparing for Monday classes when the word came, and it sent them rushing from their rooms, spilling out into the streets of New Haven, until two entire blocks on Elm Street were filled with undergraduates, churning about, moving without a destination, a mass of nervous energy seeking release in shouting, singing “Over There,” yelling, “On to Tokyo!” Long after dark they were on the march up Mulhouse Avenue to President Seymour’s house, to serenade with “The Star-Spangled Banner” the aloof, dignified man who had been a delegate to the peace conference in Versailles only twenty-two years before. Seymour was sick in bed and had to dress, and while the students milled around, waiting for him to appear, the secretary of the university led them in singing “Bright College Years,” which nearly everyone regarded mistakenly as the alma mater and which almost no one realized was set to the tune of Germany’s World War I anthem, “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Its sentimental words were as much a product of another generation as the man to whom they were sung, but they had a particular poignancy at this moment, coming from a little band of America’s youth, their hundreds of uplifted faces illuminated by the soft light from the President’s house:

Beneath the fun was a mix of exhilaration and anger that reflected the shock of the day’s news.

Bright college years, with pleasure rife, The shortest, gladdest years of life; How swiftly are ye gliding by! Oh, why doth time so swiftly fly?...

At last the President appeared to address the “Men of Yale,” recalling similar gatherings in 1898 and 1917, reminding them of the university’s tradition of loyalty and service to the nation, telling them how proud he was that they were ready to serve. Seymour was not exactly a spellbinder, but the undergraduates listened politely enough, rewarded him with a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and set off toward the center of town, shouting the rallying cry of so many football weekends: “On to the Taft!” The magic of the moment was gone, and Charles Seymour watched as the darkness swallowed them up.