My mother, my grandparents, and Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor lapel pinOn a bright Sunday morning 73 years ago, my mother looked out her parents’ kitchen window and saw black smoke rising in the distance.

Then she saw planes soar out of the smoke, and the whole world forever changed.

That morning, my mother watched the attack on Pearl Harbor from her home. She was a child, living across the harbor from the U.S. Navy yard. My grandparents’ house sat on a hill slope, their back yard overlooking the battleships moored in port a few miles away, and on this Sunday morning in December my mother and grandparents, awaiting friends who were coming to take them on a picnic, saw the smoke, heard loud bangs coming from the direction of the harbor, left their breakfast sitting unfinished on the kitchen table, and went outside for a better look.

They heard the planes before seeing them. A whining roar, as if from a million angry mosquitoes, echoed across the hillside, gaining in volume, until the planes appeared as black darts flung across the bright sky. My grandmother remarked how unusual it was to see military maneuvers on a Sunday. My grandfather noticed these planes were unlike any he had seen parked on the airfields.

The planes came closer at incredible speed, and there were more of them each passing moment. It occurred to my grandparents that they should move back closer to the house when one plane, so close now the Rising Sun emblem on its fuselage was clearly visible, wagged its wings on approach to the slope, rolled starboard and with the tip of one wing carried off my grandmother’s clothes line.

My mother recalled seeing the pilot’s face. She said through the decades that given enough artistic talent, she could have drawn it from memory.

Everybody ran back into the house to watch the black smoke and noise intensify across the harbor, and it was at about this point when they saw a bright flash followed by the swelling bubble of an intense shock wave envelop the harbor and race up the hillside to rattle the kitchen windows. The USS Arizona, already critically wounded, burst nearly in two as the ammunition magazine ignited.

USS Arizona explodes during attack on Pearl Harbor

The battleship USS Arizona explodes while berthed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

At that, the event became profoundly personal: What should we do? Where should we go? Neighbors were walking out into the streets crying, shouting, comforting each other, even as the planes continued to zip overhead. My grandfather, who had joined an all-volunteer civilian defense corps a year earlier as tensions heightened between Japan and the United States, expected he would be called to do … something. But no word came; the few phone lines around the island were jammed.

Hours later, a Jeep sped down the street. The military police officer behind the wheel was going around asking every able-bodied male, particularly those who had guns, to meet in the town center for further instructions. My grandfather expressed concern about leaving my grandmother and mother alone. The Jeep driver responded, “Look, we’re expecting an invasion by the Japanese. If you don’t get down to the beach now to try stopping them, we’re all screwed anyway.”

So, my grandfather packed his only gun, a small-caliber pistol, and boarded a truck en route to a long shallow beach a few miles past Honolulu where Japanese landing craft loaded with troops were expected to appear overnight. Dozens of civilians in several trucks made the trip with him, including one man who brought the only weapon at his disposal: a pitchfork.

Upon arrival, the men busied themselves initially by digging shallow trenches and building defensive positions behind rocks and trees. Then they waited, the only sounds coming from the surf, the only light from the moon. And waited.

And waited.

By daybreak, the threat of invasion had subsided, though the intensity wrought from the previous morning never did. My grandparents’ friends who were driving to meet them were found in their car a few blocks away. They had been strafed and killed en route.

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Dec. 7, 1941

Front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 3rd Extra, Dec. 7, 1941. (Photo courtesy University of Hawaii at Manoa Library)

From that day until almost the war’s end, the Hawaiian islands, not yet among the United States, were under U.S. martial law. The rationing and blackouts common on the mainland during this period were many times more constraining in Hawaii because of difficulty protecting the islands’ supply line. And the happiest times of my mother’s childhood ended as the freedom she had to play with friends and roam was curtailed by stringent rules on civilian movement except for essential needs such as school, work and hospital visits.

The onset of war ended my grandfather’s job, servicing the pineapple harvesting equipment owned by Dole foods, as many industries on the islands shuttered during wartime. About a year later, my grandparents and mother left for California, riding a cargo ship under destroyer escort.

There was one humorous moment out of it all. When my grandfather returned from his beach patrol early on the morning after the attack, he went to put his gun away and noticed a box of bullets sitting open on the bedroom dresser. That’s when he remembered …

He had forgotten to load the gun.

(Editor’s note: This post initially appeared on the Posterous blogging platform, which shut down in 2013.)

My mother’s luck

Friday the 13th icon

My mother’s birthday fell on a Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Other people cringed at that; she shrugged it off.

Luck, whether bad or good, she insisted, was a byproduct of preparation. So, she crossed paths with black cats, walked under ladders when convenient, swept broken mirrors into the trash without concern, and never hunted for oddities in a patch of clover.

Her dismissiveness regarding superstition impressed me, emboldened me. I, too, count to thirteen without pausing at twelve.

But I think luck found her anyway, and maybe sought her out. Little else would explain how Japanese fighter planes missed strafing her childhood home near Pearl Harbor, or how she thwarted a black colleague’s likely lynching in Alabama by recognizing the voices from under the white hoods of their assailants and shouting their names, or how a tornado late one night in St. Louis missed her house but flattened the one next door.

Or how my mother managed to carry one child to term after three miscarriages and two warnings from her doctor to not continue trying.

Most of us tend to measure our lives against the final tally of blessings bestowed upon us, whether they are considered gifts or rights. We rely on the certainty of an unsubstantiated, ulterior force at our spiritual helm steering us toward a future greater and richer than we may deserve.

My mother was not so sanguine on these accounts. She possessed faith and a spiritual awareness, yet her favorite phrases were, “God helps those who help themselves,” and, “God is a busy man, and there are people way worse off than you. Work hard to make your own miracles.”

With her, not even blessings were left to chance.

Indeed, she suffered disappointment. Her marriage and health began failing around the same time and for the same reasons: too much alcohol and too little commitment. The frames she bought to hold pictures of grandchildren eventually held other memories. The golden years she aspired to spend in travel went instead toward caring for her own parents, one of whom lived past 100 and the other nearly so.

“Good god, I hope I don’t live that long,” she told me after her own mother’s memorial service.

Soon after, her turn toward mortality began. A long Pacific cruise tested her frailty and put her in the hospital for months. After returning home from that, a few months later, she suffered a heart attack and several small strokes.

At hospice, during one of her few lucid moments, she turned to my uncle who was visiting on her final birthday and asked, “I’m not going to get better, am I?”

He said no.

She sighed and after a long pause said, “That’s fine, that’s fine.”

My mother’s birthday fell on Friday the 13th eleven times in her life. Today would have been the twelfth.

I imagine she’s somewhere shrugging it off.