It was Armistice Day when I first learned of it, and it will always be Armistice Day in my mind. The two sides stopped shooting at each other at 11 o’clock on the morning of November 11, 1918. Eleven eleven, at eleven.
That sounded nifty to a grade-school kid who thought war was just a sort of big rock fight between a bunch of people who were mad at each other. Just an adult version of our neighborhood rock fights when we kids would start to spat and then sort ourselves into opposing ranks and throw foundry clinkers at each other from a hittable distance, but not too hittable, until somebody finally took one in the chest or the head hard enough to shake the exhuberance out of us.
The grown-ups were having a couple of rock fights then in a place called Europe and another place called The Pacific Theater. Why it was called a theater puzzled me; maybe it was like a big kind of stage show?
Thinking back to that earlier war, my grandparents’ war, I always thought it was strange that they turned the serious business of killing into a kind of game back then in World War I, with a time clock that ran out at a certain hour on a certain day. If they wanted to quit the fight, because somebody had taken a too-hard hit, why didn’t they just quit instead of waiting for some signal, like the Marion waterworks whistle that blew at noon, one and five, except on Sundays? But if they wanted to do that with war, it was neat that they made it a little numerical game, eleven eleven eleven.
At the time I learned of it, as a six- or seven-year-old, I guessed the number pattern probably came from the same sort of thinking by government leaders who named it World War “one” — like they knew there would eventually be a World War “two” (although with official-looking Roman numerals when written).
War was just something that happened, I supposed. We knew about a few others — the Revolutionary War, the “French and indian” war, the “war between the states”, the “Spanish-American” war — but they were mere names. America had wars every few years; that was just normal, so there was nothing very odd about numbering wars.
We called it Poppy Day, too. Almost every dad who went out to work, or mom to the shopping districts, came back home wearing a poppy. Nobody had poppies when they left the house; everyone had them when they returned. Downtown, around the square, and at the streetcar stops along the way, there were dozens of people — almost all women, but occasionally some guy in a wheelchair — on the sidewalk corners selling poppies.
Most of our teachers were wearing poppies, but not us kids. We used our money to buy “war bonds” instead of poppies — a dime at a time in the little cardboard books on which we had written our names, that our school principal’s office managed for us. When our book was full of 100 dimes, it would go home with us, to be turned in at the bank for a fancy certificate called a $10 “liberty bond”. They told us the money would be used to build ships and planes and tanks to bring liberty to Europe and The Pacific Theater, and then we could get our money back later after the war was won.
We kids didn’t doubt that “we” would win. “We” was “the Allies”, and we were fighting “the Axis” — the ugly Krauts, the Jerries, with their angry eyes and mustaches in the funny papers (comics, we call them today) and the Japs, the dirty Nips, with their big buck teeth and bloody swords.
Two guys from my neighborhood, just three houses down, were over in Europe with the Army Air Corps. Bob, the big brother, was a B-17 co-pilot. Kid brother Kenny was a tailgunner, which we thought was a pretty neat thing until we learned how scary it was to be lying back there in the tail, all alone in the freezing cold watching the Messerschmitts come blazing up to kill you.
We kids in the neighborhood — and we were numerous — loved to play war games, running around pointing our toy guns and vocalizing our idea of gunfire sounds. Not comic-book “kapow”; much better than that.
“Japs and Germans” we called our war games. A lot of us wanted to be the Germans at times (very cool helmets), but nobody wanted to be the Japs. I think it was the buck teeth.
Then one day they told us the Germans had surrendered, quit fighting, and Hitler was dead, and our prisoners of war and the people in the “concentration camps” (whatever that was) were rescued. I went out to our 1940 Oldsmobile, parked on Washington Street, and honked the horn for a while until Dad came out and said we’d better quit to save the battery.
And not long after that we got word that a big secret weapon, an “atomic bomb”, had been used on Japan and scared them so bad they surrendered immediately. So I went out and honked the horn again, for a longer time.
And Bob and Kenny came home, and Mom quit work at the wire factory and had my red-headed baby sister the week we were wearing poppies from Armistice Day, supposed to be remembering that other war, that Number One, but still carrying ration books from this Number Two that had just ended.
And it seemed like such a short time passed and we were talking about a looming Number Three and Joe Stalin and Russia. Then we got what some of the politicians wanted, another war, and they didn’t bother with a number, they just put a country’s name on that one and 50,000 American soldiers died, and then another country-named one after that and another 50,000, and then another, and on and on and we’re still buying poppies.
They don’t call it Armistice Day anymore in North America. The Canadians call it Remembrance Day. Americans call it Veterans Day because Congress decreed it so, not long after we stopped numbering the wars.
At least, there’s more candor in not calling it Armistice Day. Given the history of the last 75 years, and the way we grown-ups have come to think and behave, no one any longer really believes in armistice, anyway.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower