On my way to the front door of my Brooklyn apartment, I glanced at the picture perched on top of the Steinway grand piano and smiled. In the photograph, my brother-in-law Bernie looked handsome and determined in his Air Force uniform, resplendent with lieutenant's bars. By this time, he had become a captain, stationed in France. I loved the story of how he got there. My father did not.
My parents were greatly relieved when Bernie was sent to Iceland by the Air Force in 1942, shortly after marrying Naomi. There, he could wait out the war, safely out of harm's way, and come back to us alive and in one piece. You cannot imagine my father's consternation when we got that V-mail, in which Bernie explained that he had "volunteered" to go to Europe! He said that he wanted to be in on the invasion.
"How could he do that?" my father sputtered. "With a pregnant wife, he volunteers to go into the thick of the war!"
I had a different reaction. It was one of intense admiration. Bernie was my hero. With both of my brothers-in-law in the armed forces, and my father working as a lathe operator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I felt the war very deeply. In the spring of 1945, when I was 12 years old, I anxiously scanned the newspapers, looking at the war maps, seeing with relief that the central, black splotch of evil, representing the Nazi territory, was shrinking almost daily as Gen. Patton's tank corps raced across Germany.
On a bright sunny April day, crisp, clear, with just a few fluffy white clouds, I stepped out of my apartment, ran down one flight of worn marble stairs and pushed through the heavy wrought iron grill front door of the apartment house. I sauntered down the familiar street, heading for the Brooklyn Museum. I must have walked that street thousands of times before, but something was different this time. There was a commotion in the street. That was unusual. It was normally quiet. What with gas rationing, there was very little traffic.
People were coming out of their houses, gathering in clusters. In one, right in front of the grocery store across the street from me, there was an earnest discussion going on, with a good deal of excited talk and gesticulations. It was clear to me that something of importance had occurred.
"What's happening?" I asked a passerby.
"President Roosevelt is dead!" the man said gravely.
The words hit me like a physical blow. Roosevelt dead? Impossible! My father had recounted to me how Roosevelt had brought our country out of the Depression. We had depended on him to guide us through this awful war.
The Great Depression was the worst thing that had ever happened to my family. They had many stories of our previous opulent lifestyle, with the mansion in Jamaica Estates, the chauffeur-driven Lincoln Continental and our two drug stores.
My parents never got over the loss of their wealth. It must have been particularly hard for my father, a handsome and impressive man, to go from such a high station to sweeping the floors of another man's business in just a few years. Still, he felt lucky during the war, when he became a relatively well-paid lathe operator.
What will we do without Roosevelt? It seemed to me that my world had ended. I wandered the streets in a daze, agitated, worried, not knowing where to go or what to do. Clouds still moved across the sky. The Earth remained solid under my feet. People still walked the streets.
A woman, with her hair up in curlers and wearing a floral print apron, came out of a house into her neat, trellised garden and called to me.
"President Roosevelt's dead!" I blurted out.
"Thank God!" she said.
I was stunned. Some people were even happy at this dreadful news. There were Americans who actually hated Roosevelt. A terrible agitation began to shake me. I could hardly breathe. It felt as though a boulder was pressing down on my chest. I desperately wanted to be away from all adults -- I hated them.
Without knowing how I got there, I found myself in Prospect Park. The immense park, larger and wilder than Manhattan's Central Park, was my ultimate refuge when the world got too confusing for meto bear.
I headed for a remote and impenetrable area, a place I called "the Maze." I had stumbled upon it the first time by forcing my way through heavy brambles, and found myself in something that seemed to me like an abandoned and ruined Mayan city, overrun by thick green jungle. There were many steps and terraces, and even a statue. No adult could reach me there. The many scratches I had received on my arms and legs as I forced my way through the thorns attested to how hard it would be for a full-grown person to get through.
As safe as I felt in the in the leafy, humid greenness of the Maze, this time my wanderings had brought me no relief. I was in turmoil.
After a while I became aware that the sky was growing darker. The wind had picked up, and rattled the bushes. It even swayed the big trees surrounding the Maze. I looked up and saw giant dark clouds gathering above me. Rain was coming, so I headed home. When I reached the broad expanse of Eastern Parkway, the storm broke loose in all its fury -- sheets of rain came down, soaking me, and I ran. Almost out of breath, I ducked into a deeply recessed entranceway between two stores on Washington Avenue.
Standing there, dripping wet and shivering, I gradually became aware that I was not the only person in that dark place. A thin, wizened, old black man also stood there in that dimness. Lightning zigzagged across the darkened sky. The rain came down, pelting the street so hard that each raindrop looked like a miniature geyser. We both looked up into the rain, aware of each other's presence, but not acknowledging it. I could see the creases in the old man's face, periodically lit by the lightning as we watched the potent display.
As we continued to gaze upwards, suddenly the old man spoke, seemingly to no one: "Thunder and lightning when a great man dies!"
In that instant I felt a great burden lifted from my chest. A soothing calm came over me. We continued watching the storm, but we did not speak a word to each other.
Just as suddenly as the storm had come, it was gone. The rain stopped, the sun came out and the streets, covered with water, glistened. The world smelled moist and new. We both stepped out from the doorway and went our own ways.
Ken Fischman lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.
Publication date: 04/07/05