That Day

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Historians struggle to find a pattern in the facts they gather about how men have lived. Individuals struggle too, not so much for an understanding of the broad scheme of things but simply to come to terms with the impersonal forces and events they can’t get out of the way of. History as personal experience is the theme of next month’s issue, when, on the occasion of the magazine’s thirty-fifth anniversary, we’ll be publishing an array of recollections by eminent writers of their brushes with—or wallopings by—history.

Meanwhile, Richard Ketchum’s story in this issue about the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack on Americans during and immediately after the raid reminds me of my own brush with history that December day in 1941. Like everyone of my generation, I will never forget where I was when the news came: I had been sprawling on the living-room rug listening to a broadcast of the New York Philharmonic. When the announcer interrupted, I remember walking to the window and peering out to see if there was any enemy air activity in the neighborhood. There wasn’t. The next day was much more vivid. I was in the high school cafeteria at lunchtime, sharing a table with five or six of my classmates, when the teacher who had the unenviable job of monitoring the room sprang up on a chair and blew a whistle. He announced that President Roosevelt had just asked Congress to declare war on Japan. The teacher told us that we would now have great responsibilities thrust upon us and that he himself, a reserve officer, would be leaving in a few weeks to go on active duty. Just like a movie. We, who had always thought of history as happening in a textbook or, at the very least, far far away, now knew we were part of it.

My sophomore classmates and I were just a hairsbreadth too young to suffer unduly in the war, although other members of the school were wounded or killed in the four years that followed. And one of my classmates, who had left school earlier that year, would have a story to tell unlike anyone else’s. He was our freshman class president, Richard Tobita, who played the violin like an angel. His family had packed up and returned to Japan with him the previous June. Some ten years later we recognized each other on the Broadway subway. As we rode uptown he told me the ultimate version of What I Did on My Summer Vacation. His family had lived in Tokyo at first. In 1944, when the Americans began to bomb regularly, he and his schoolmates were evacuated to the countryside. After the Japanese surrender he worked for the Allied military government; now he was back to pursue his violin studies at Juilliard. Throughout the war he was well disguised racially as a Japanese—but, as he told me, his American sensibility permitted him a freedom of observation and attitude that would have horrified the Imperial government. We laughed together at the miracle of it all.

For Dick Ketchum the sense that something very big was going to happen to him and his Yale classmates was immediate and scary. Ketchum tells the story beautifully in this issue, evoking the long shadow of coming events with quiet passion.

Byron Dobell