Kids who grew up during World War II are patriotic in a way that few others can understand. We came of age when people gave up privilege and bigotry to fight together for a higher cause. World War II was wholly engaging, a shared emotional roller coaster, fought with idealistic fervor to make the world more fair and equal than it had ever been before.
A government we respected administered the equality we shared. Life for the poor got better during the war. Jobs were so scarce sound trucks roamed the streets, pleading for workers. Wages were fixed, so employers offered vacation time, pensions, and health insurance to keep good workers. Wartime output demanded overtime, and blue-collar workers did well. Salaried workers (like my father) lost ground. And the rich actually paid high taxes (94% at the top). But most people agreed that sacrifices were necessary for the national good — “for the duration of the war,” most people added.
Resources were rationed to make sure poor people got their fair share. We were allowed three gallons of gasoline a week. We used government issued coupons to buy tires, bicycles, gasoline, fuel oil and kerosene, stoves, rubber boots, shoes, sugar, coffee, processed foods, meats, canned fish, cheese, canned milk, all fats and typewriters. Production of most consumer goods was banned during the war. Cars, new housing, vacuum cleaners, toys and kitchen appliances disappeared from shelves. Industry focused on building our war equipment. Appliances were built to last forever. Toys and bicycles were handed down and we learned how to fix them ourselves.
Voluntary, patriotic contributions to the social good were the norm, not the exception. Hollywood led the way, with well-publicized efforts by young starlets dancing with enlisted men or stripping off their stockings to contribute to the war effort. We all washed our cans, squashed them flat and set them out for recycling along with newspapers. Regular drives, encouraged by radio and movie announcements, sent us kids scurrying to find every scrap of rubber, tin, lumber, copper or steel. In the fall we gathered bags of wild milkweed pods for military pillows.
Parting with some old possessions destined for the scrap heap was bitter sweet. I mourned the loss but treasured the feeling of being needed, like the chores I was required to do at home on a daily basis.
The sense of being part of something bigger than myself came most vividly when working in our victory garden. Twenty million Americans put in victory gardens during World War II. They grew nine to ten million tons of food, half the vegetables and fruits that we ate during World War II. Most of the Victory Gardens were in cities. Chemical fertilizers did not yet exist, so our gardens were organic and few of us have ever tasted better fruits and vegetables than what we got during the war years.
All these activities were encouraged and frequently subsidized by our government, which we thought of as a friend, helping us through tough times. Occasional blackouts, which gave me a chance to eat corn on the cob with my fingers, suggested tangible threats. I was trained from infancy to believe that by pulling for the general good we all helped keep each other safe and secure.