Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering a False Alarm

Sixty years before September 11, 2001, on December 9, 1941 there was a false air raid warning in New York City. It was two days after Pearl Harbor. In some places schools were closed and children sent home. I distinctly remember the event although reported details vary from my recollection. Some accounts say that children were sent home around noon. I recall being interrupted by an air raid warden on the way to school and told to return home. But the years encroach and memories are suspect.

Apparently on the same day, one of our great local writers, Jimmy Cannon, was stationed in Fort Dix and wrote about the event in a piece that later appeared in The Sergeant Says by Jimmy Cannon, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 1943.

I remembered the Cannon piece when September 11 occurred and I think about it again on each anniversary. Because of the parallels. Because of the parallels between what New Yorkers thought, said and did on that day nine years ago and how much those attitudes were similarly reflected in the words of that lifelong New Yorker, Jimmy Cannon, more than a half century earlier. (New Yorkers are a difficult lot, but a special breed.)

Excerpts from False Alarm by Jimmy Cannon

The voice talked about the city. It was a radio announcer's voice and I resented its clean diction and its wheedling salesmanship. The voice of warning spoke to the people of the city as though it were trying to sell them a laxative, a tube of tooth paste, a cake of soap, or a pack of cigarettes. It was a cold voice, aloof and precise, and I knew the announcer had spent a lot of time with vocal teachers.

The voice told the people of the city to stay off the streets, to be calm, to remain in their homes until the all-clear had sounded. The voice said unidentified planes had been spotted beating toward the city. Those planes, I thought, are coming to bomb my family and my friends to try to destroy the city that I love. We sat there in the barracks, waiting to go on guard, and we cursed the planes and I felt angry and helpless.

It was a false alarm. The planes never came. But that polite radio announcer's voice pronouncing the warning made me hate the enemies of democracy more than anything else ever will. I'd always thought of war as being fought in strange lands, in parched fields or in far-away mud. I thought of it as something that happened to remote cities where other peoples lived. Although I have always thought our life and our property were in jeopardy, I never imagined New York under fire. I do now. I think of my family and friends and the city I love every time I take a rifle in my hands and every time I fix my bayonet.

Poster’s Note: Jimmy Cannon served in World War Two covering the war in Europe for The Stars and Stripes.

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