When I was living in Tucson during graduate school in the early 1970s, I used to join USS Arizona survivors and others on the campus of the University of Arizona on December 7th to listen to the ringing of the ship's bell hanging in the Student Union's tower. One of the bells of the ill-fated battleship hung there . . . the other at the memorial in Pearl Harbor erected over the sunken hulk of that noble dreadnaught . . . a tomb to the 1,177 sailors who died that Sunday morning 74 years ago today. There were several survivors left back then in Tucson. Only a couple this year. Next year perhaps they will all be gone. History marches on.
I first became aware of Pearl Harbor when I was living in Asheville, North Carolina in the early 1960s. Our neighbors were a lovely elderly couple and they would frequently invite me inside for milk and cookies (they still did that back then). She was always in the kitchen making something, and he would sit in his study in the afternoons reading. His study was floor to ceiling books. It did not register with me then, but how wonderful that room must have been for him . . . a place where he could retreat to read and mediate. Even now I dream of such a place. I would bring my milk and cookies into his study and we would sit there and he would talk to me and ask me what I was learning in school. He had a wonderful old desk covered with books and sheaves of papers. I loved those afternoons we spent together.
I recall two photographs hinged in a frame sitting on one of the bookcases near his desk. I had seen them many times during my visits; two black and white photographs of towheaded boys in white sailor uniforms sitting in front of an American flag. One had a devilish smile and the other only a blank countenance, as if he was staring at something a thousand miles away. I asked my neighbor who these boys were. And they were boys. They wore uniforms, but they were just boys.
My neighbor told me they were his sons and he was very proud of them. He smiled and then fumbled with a book at his desk. I smiled, too. They were handsome boys. “Are they still in the navy?” I asked. He smiled at me again and looked out the window. “No,” he said. “They are both dead.” He was no longer smiling. And neither was I. A sadness fell over that sunlit room full of books.
I did not learn the full story of what happened to my neighbor’s sons until some time later. One son was stationed on the USS Oklahoma and was killed in action on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. His parents, my neighbors, were able to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery. The other son served on the USS Arizona. He died the same day as his brother and is entombed along with 1,176 of his shipmates in the wreck of his ship resting at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.
December 7, 1941 will be a date that will always live in infamy. It may be a dark shadow on most peoples’ calendar, but I will never forget it. Each year on this date I think back to that day in my neighbor’s study when he stared into the distance and told me about his two sons who died so close together and so far away.
This is why I went to listen to the ringing of the ship’s bell in Tucson, thinking back to that hinged frame with two photographs of young boys who will always remain young boys. I was lucky I was able to grow up and have a son of my own. I can’t even imagine the pain of losing one son. But to lose two . . . on the same day? Those photographs of a half century ago haunt me to this day. They will always haunt me. I will always hear that bell ringing each December 7, a day that will forever live in infamy.
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