V-J, 1945

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On a foggy Saturday morning in the last summer of World War II, a B-25 bomber smashed into the seventy-ninth floor of the Empire State Building, killing the crew and eleven civilians, mostly young office workers. As an undergraduate at Columbia, just turned eighteen, it seemed to me that this catastrophe on my doorstep was almost more momentous than the daily news of the war we were wrapping up in the Pacific. Even the announcement a week later of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed muted by comparison. (It took many months for the implications of the A-bomb to be fully absorbed by most people.)

In the days between the dropping of the bombs and the surrender of Japan, an artist friend and I—city youths who had never been far from New York on our own before—traveled by Greyhound bus to a small town on the Maine coast. The eleven-hour, overnight trip seemed extraordinarily daring to us. Looking back, I suppose that carefree journey by two penny-pinching adolescents was what the war was about. Our armies in Europe and Asia had given us the privilege of painting watercolors, in wartime, on the edge of a safe and secure continent. Although W. H. Auden had not yet written that “without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand,” his words wouldn’t have been surprising to us. But our overwhelming feeling was a deep content to be alive at the moment when the unspeakable horrors of the war seemed to be at an end. My only worldly worry, as I recall, was how to keep the blowing beach sand from ruining the washes of sky blue I was bravely laying down with my brush.

About noon on August 14,1 took a long walk up the beach toward Kennebunkport. I was alone and began to sing out passages of the Jupiter symphony. Can this be true? Yes, at home that year I had been playing a record of it over and over again ever since one of my professors had casually named it the greatest of all such works. Now, on the beach, I was astonished and overjoyed that I could sing a symphony, that anyone could sing a symphony. It was like discovering that I was fluent in a language I’d never studied—and about as likely. Tripping along—happy fool that I was—I heard a roaring sound that began to drown me out. It grew louder and louder, but I could not identify the source. It must be a plane, but there was nothing in the sky. As the roar grew even louder and closer, I froze, sank to my knees, and in one instant of terror saw not above me but headed down the beach directly toward me a pair of Navy Hellcats, almost at ground level, buzzing the beach towns in celebration of the great victory.

That evening the volunteer firemen of Ogunquit rounded up every crate and scrap of wood not nailed down; they trucked the stuff down to the beach and built a pile as big as a battleship. No official word had gone out, but the whole town came to watch. When darkness fell, the enormous pyre was lit, and a storm of flame, smoke, and sparks funneled into the cool summer night. From where my friend and I stood enthralled, shivering in the breeze off the sea, we could see similar fires rimming the horizon all the way up the coast—as if every hamlet in America knew it was time to hang out a lantern.