By Arnie Silverman
On Sept. 3, 1939, in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, England and France, allies of the overrun nations declared war on Germany.
That year started out well for me. I managed to get a job as a newsboy. Those were still rough, economic times, and even in D.C. with the burgeoning New Deal hiring, for a 10-year old to get that kind of job was fortunate indeed. Selling both the Washington Post and the Times Herald, I was able to earn $5 – $6 a week. Now, considering that my father was averaging $35-$40 a week as a Met Life debit man, that was not too shabby. Each Saturday I would put my earnings into a Johnson and Johnson first aid tin my mother had given me, and “hide” it in a living room cabinet.
I sold the papers on a corner near our apartment. That corner marked the final stop of the Georgia Avenue trolley car line. I bring this up because in time I became so friendly with the conductors, they often let me handle the hooking and unhooking of the electric cable rod. They were particularly pleased to give me that privilege on cold or rainy mornings when they would refresh themselves with the resources of a saloon that was also on that corner.
Each morning I arrived at the corner no later than 5:45 a.m. because that was when my supervisor would drop off the papers. With the exception of “that” day, he was so punctual you could set the proverbial watch on his arrival. He would drop the bundled editions off, I would drag them to my spot, and then await the morning commuters.
Building slowly, the off-to-work traffic would increase to a steady flow by 6:45 a.m. I had a steady clientele (elitists in those years because they had jobs). While at five cents a copy I was not going to get rich, I sold enough each week to earn the aforementioned fortune. While there were always new buyers, most of my action was with the same people, usually men (remember, this was still the 1930s).
At 8:15, there being no school buses then, I would hurry off to school to beat the 9 a.m. bell. During summer vacation, I could meander home at my leisure, and enjoy the rest of the day. “In the money,” I could have gone to the movies (15 cents), or enjoyed an ice cream soda at Doc Monks on Upshur Street (20 cents), but I chose to save for something special. I did not know what that was yet, but watching the pile of dollar bills and coins increase gave me great satisfaction.
In January and February, when it was particularly cold, the waitresses and the veterans from the nearby Old Soldiers Home in the saloon would invite me in to get warm, and serve me hot, steaming cocoa. While the cold did not bother me then as it does today, I sure did enjoy that hot chocolate. The typically hot, humid and sticky D.C. summer passed quickly, September arrived, and it was back to school. My business remained steady, and with world events becoming increasingly somber, actually improved by a few papers a day. The routine never changed; my savings were filling my first aid tin.
And then it happened. It was Sept. 3. I arrived at my corner at a little before 5:45. At 5:45, then 6:00, 6:15, 6:20, 6:25, my papers had not arrived. To compound my concern and disappointment, people who in the past had ignored or gruffly turned me down now asked me for a paper. I had none to offer. At a little after 6:30 the papers finally arrived. My supervisor apologized, mumbled some instructions, and sped off.
I quickly unbundled the papers, and in 20-minutes was sold out. Pleased and somewhat perplexed, I contemplated heading for school when my supervisor again arrived, handed me another stack of papers, and, agitated, barked, “You gotta yell ‘extra’! You gotta yell ‘extra’! England and France declare war on Germany! Extra! You got it?”
I replied that I had, and at first shyly barked “Extra! Extra! Germany declares war on England!” A customer corrected me, and for the next hour or so I screamed the headline. Earning more than an additional dollar, it was a great revenue day. Because I stayed a little longer, I was late for school, but my teacher accepted my excuse.
As I think about those times from this 75 years later vantage, I believe most Americans believed then that Germany’s quest for European conquest was about to end. Even those with personal memories of 1917, and knowledge of the not so secret aid then President Roosevelt was making available to Britain, could not envision U.S. participation in the conflict on the scale that occurred after 1941. Nor could most envision the remarkable metamorphosis – politically, internationally, socially, economically, demographically – that the nation would undergo. In retrospect, that day can be considered the commencement of not only WW II, but also the turning of the nation into a super power.
Now you see why Sept. 3, 1939, remains a memorable date for me.
Incidentally, that next Saturday when I opened my J & J tin to put my big earnings away, it was empty. I guess some pressing, had-to-be-paid-now bill came up, and like so many families at that time, the folks were a little short. Although disappointed, it did not bother me too much because I always thought I would be repaid. I never was, but as the months went by, it did not matter.
Arnie Silverman is past president of Laguna’s Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter.