Monday, May 27, 2013

Only A Quarter

The creamy silk kimono slipped over my head and slithered down my straight-as-a-stick body. Goose bumps popped out on my arms making me shiver. The fabric was soft, intoxicating. It lapped me up in cool luxury so different from the utilitarian cotton normally worn during the war years. The mirror was hung high on the wall and I had to stand on a chair to see myself. The reflection put a grin on my face.

The kimono was cherry bomb red. Embroidered oriental designs flitted like butterflies over the top and down the sleeves. Black satin frogs attached themselves to the front of the bodice as if marking a territorial lily pond in the silky-smooth fabric.

Only the day before Uncle Jimmy had burst into our house loaded down with presents brought back home from Guam where he had been stationed. His gift to me was the tiny silk kimono that perfectly fit my five-year-old bones.

I was ignorant of the war then raging in the Pacific  and in Europe. I had no way of knowing that more body bags were sent back from overseas than miniature silk kimonos or other souvenirs brought home to kids by those in the military.

To my child's way of thinking, red silk pajamas as light as the breast down of a wren, were much more glamorous than the heavy blackout curtains Mama lowered each time an air raid siren broke through the peace and quiet of home. Softer, too, than the wartime cotton fabrics she sewed to make my dresses. It was more fun to play dress-up than to ride on the handlebars of my brother's skinny black Victory bike.

World War II would be over before the end of that year. Peace treaties would be signed and reconstruction begun on a war-ravaged continent. Even so, young boys in neighborhoods all over the country would keep on playing Army. Strutting ramrod straight, they swung souvenir bayonets taken from dead Japanese soldiers or wore helmets left behind by a dwindling German army.

My silk pajamas however, were kept safe and pristine inside a mahogany chest of drawers. In years to come, they would remind me that beauty can always be found, even in the midst of chaos.

My earliest years were spent listening for air raid sirens; watching Mama count out food rations; wondering who Gabriel Heater was and why he was so angry.

I ate silently because children were seen and not heard back then, while Mama and Daddy spoke quietly of a distant relative who had lost a leg in the war or a neighbor's son who had lost his life.

I watched from my window as my brother and his friends morphed into pint-sized soldiers yelling "Geronimo!" before mowing down the pretend enemy with pretend Tommie Guns.

When the war was over, we watched movies about men who were tortured by the other side, fingernails torn out with rusty pliers, bamboo stakes driven into their ears. Incomprehensible horrors to any sane person.

We cringed into our theater seats during those movies and after going to bed at night, we experienced one nightmare after another, if we slept at all. Even so, the next time a war movie came to town, we went to see it. We stood in line for however long it took, holding a quarter tightly in our sweaty palms, eager to plunk down the cost of learning how to hate.

Twenty-five cents was all it took.

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