1. Life & Culture

James Lee Burke on a boy’s memory of America

Amid the coronavirus epidemic, the author recalls how the nation rallied when World War II and the polio epidemic threatened.
Author James Lee Burke recalls how Americans have faced other national challenges.
Author James Lee Burke recalls how Americans have faced other national challenges. [ James McDavid ]
Published Apr. 3, 2020

Author James Lee Burke is best known for his bestselling books about Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux, crime novels that delve into some of humanity’s darkest impulses. In this essay, Burke, who at age 83 has vivid memories of his childhood during World War II and the polio epidemic, writes about our better angels. The essay first appeared on Burke’s Facebook page and is printed with permission. Burke’s 40th book, and his latest about Robicheaux, A Private Cathedral, will be published by Simon & Schuster on May 26. — Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Hello, everyone. These are depressing times, but I would like to share with you some memories and lessons I always found helpful in dealing with what Gram Parsons called In My Darkest Hour.

I remember how frightened I was when, on December 7, 1941, at 1:15 p.m., a radio music program was interrupted in the little cafe where I was eating Sunday dinner with my parents. A news broadcaster informed everyone the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor. No one moved or spoke, as though they were inside a motion picture film and the projector had frozen the image on the screen. When a child sees fear in the faces of adults, the fear transfers to him like a contagion, magnified many times.

But I learned a quick lesson about the country I was born in. Men and women all over the nation stood in long lines to volunteer for the armed services. Every week President Franklin Roosevelt had one of his Fireside Chats with over 100 million people, assuring us that the only fear we needed to fear was fear itself. Food and gasoline were immediately rationed, but no one complained. My family’s ration book allowed us one small chicken and one small roast a week. It was impossible to buy sugar or butter. In four years I saw only one instance of hoarding. A man down the street was caught with a garage full of canned goods and fined heavily. He also lived the rest of his life in disgrace.

We had other problems as well. My family lived in the polio capital of America. Nobody knew what caused it or the origins of the virus. At age 8 I spent almost one year in bed with perhaps a case of polio or perhaps rheumatic fever or perhaps both. Diagnostic medicine was often based on speculation and was nothing like it is today. But I felt very sick and lived in fear of diseases that had control of my body, but could not be confronted or medicated or even adequately defined.

After I was better, my best friend and I went from house to house towing a red wagon, asking both strangers and our neighbors for their old newspapers, unwanted coat hangers, rubber bands, and bacon grease. We took the newspapers and coat hangers to our local firehouse, where we dumped them inside a red-white-and-blue picket enclosure. The balls of rubber bands were turned in at the grocery store and so were the jars of kitchen grease (the latter was used to make nitroglycerin).

Related: A review of James Lee Burke's "New Iberia Blues."

People dropped rifles, shotguns, and pistols into donation barrels at the biggest sporting goods store in the city so they could be shipped to England in advance of what everyone believed would be a German invasion. (The invasion never happened, but the Brits have never forgotten the gesture.)

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Wake Island and the Philippines fell, and many nights we had air-raid exercises and blackouts. Rumors spread about inflammable (that's the way the word used to be spelled and it still remains the correct spelling) materials that the Japanese sowed in American cities; supposedly they would burst alight when a child picked one up. There were riots on the West Coast, and many innocent American-born Japanese had their businesses and homes vandalized, and eventually many thousands were sent to "internment" camps by FDR, who in so doing besmirched his long history of compassion and decency.

But in those dark days we began to hear names of great heroes who came from humble origins and the kinds of neighborhoods that most Depression-era Americans lived in. Colin Kelly went down in flames attacking the entirety of the Japanese Air Force. Audie Murphy, 5 foot 5, who went to the sixth grade, stayed on top of a burning tank working a 50-caliber with half his hip shot away, thereby saving his whole regiment.

In 1942 American troops were wading onto the sands of Guadalcanal. Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo with B-25s that no one thought could fly from a carrier. At Midway, Navy and Marine fighter pilots sank four Japanese carriers, a solitary event that decided the outcome of the war.

At home, the unity and love of our country was probably like no other time in our history. We knew we were on the side of right, and if we failed, that the light of civilization would die forever.

We're faced now with a situation that bears many similarities to the war years in which I grew up, and for that reason I think we need to remind ourselves of who we are. In 1945 we were the only country in the world in possession of atomic weapons. We could have turned the earth into a slave camp with barbed wire and machine-gun towers. Instead, through the Marshall Plan, we rebuilt the countries of our enemies and turned them into democracies. No country in human history ever acted with such generosity.

There is no mystery to who people are. They are what they do. We are the same people we were when I was pulling the red wagon with my best friend, whose name was Tommy Kroutter. We don't let fear into our hearts; we do not turn on our brother or our sister; we do not shirk sacrifice; we do not compromise our role as the leader of the free world, or as the country whose Constitution is the model for every emerging democracy on earth.

This is still the greatest country in human history; it was, it is, and it will remain so, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Keep the faith, and grin and walk through the cannon smoke. It drives the bad guys crazy. You're the best people in the world.

Best to all of you,