Soon after hearing FDR speech, five-year-old would be the man of the family
by Bob Bennett
A five-year-old boy knows it’s December, but he doesn’t know the date. What is important to him is that it is Sunday morning, when radio station WOR airs Uncle Don, who asks all the little kiddies to lay the New York Journal-American comic pages on the living room floor. The boy kneels on the thick wool carpet before the 1941 Zenith console radio, with its wood veneer cabinet impersonating fine furniture, and sings with Don the opening song:
“Hello nephews, nieces too, mothers and daddies how are you! This is Uncle Don, set to go, with a meeting on the radio.”
The boy follows all the funnies – his favorites are the Katzenjammer Kids, Li’l Abner and Prince Valiant — as Uncle Don reads to him.
Yes, that’s the same Uncle Don whose popular weekly program will be permanently mute after he thinks his microphone is dead at the end of one episode and says: “Well, that ought to hold the little bas—-s for another week.”
He doesn’t say that this Sunday, but suddenly he’s temporarily mute. He’s interrupted. The next voice pulls the boy’s parents to the edge of their chairs. It’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and you know what he famously said. World War II has begun.
At 30 years old and the father of three, the boy’s dad won’t have to go to war. He volunteers anyway and becomes a second lieutenant with a direct commission. Why would he go? It’s simple, he says. He wants to kill Adolph Hitler.
Within weeks he is to leave for England. On the morning he will depart he stands beside the boy’s bed then squats, facing him eye to eye. “While I am gone, I will depend on you to take care of your mother and brothers. Now you are the man of the family.”
The war will rage for a third of the boy’s life. A lot will happen to father and son on both sides of the ocean. Hardly any of it is any good. As it will for so many other Americans, the war will disrupt the direction of their lives forever. Eighty-one years later, the “man of the family” will surely recall the morning he read the funnies with Uncle Don.
The author is a former Vermont newspaper editor and Rutland County native.