Twice Upon a Time | Newberry

Twice Upon a Time

Fifty years ago, journalist Richard Lingeman published a history of the World War II homefront called Don’t You Know there’s a War On? This was an omnipresent answer to every complaint during the early 1940s: the war was an amazing shake-up of life, and whining about forms to be filled out, rationing of gasoline, or having to keep your neighborhood blacked out after dark were met with this answer.

What I found most notable in the text were the things that disrupted daily life, the shortages, the rationing, the new rules, and the things the government suggested to work through these things. I’ve mentioned before the cookbooks with the recipes for apple-less apple pies (salt crackers and lemon juice were substituted) and meatless days. There were shortages of vegetables on occasion, too, so the government encouraged everybody to start a Victory garden and grow their own. I believe I may have mentioned how one woman known to my parents and grandparents coped when she couldn’t buy her favorite menthol-flavored cigarettes, smoking other brands that had been locked into a wooden box with mothballs to give them that special aroma.

But Mr. Lingeman’s book went past the obvious, digging into the stories behind the rationing. The United States was a top gasoline-producing nation at this point in its history, so how to explain the gasoline shortage? Simple: there was no shortage. Even shipping gas and oil to the front to supply the machinery of war, the United States, its export business otherwise pretty much curtailed, actually had a surplus of gasoline: hundreds of millions of barrels just sloshing in storage.

What America had was a desperate shortage of rubber. Rubber, in those days, was all natural, and derived from trees which were grown on islands now almost totally controlled by the enemy. Tires were desperately needed for the war machinery, so citizens at home had to make do with old tires growing thinner and thinner. The government had rationed tires (setting off a massive underground economy in stolen ones) but it wasn’t enough. People were going to go out driving on dangerous tires whenever they wanted to—America’s car companies had made this a basic fact of life in the 1920s. The only way to prevent this was to make sure those cars wouldn’t run unless necessary: hence the gasoline rationing. (People who had jobs deemed essential got to get out more, then as now, and were granted more gasoline.)

He points out that not every stratagem worked as well. In California, horse racing was banned, so people wouldn’t use up their tires going out to gamble. But then someone decided people needed some recreation in that stressful time, so horse racing was allowed again. But then someone saw how many people were driving to the tracks, and it was banned again. But then….

There was a labor shortage. Even though women eventually moved into a lot of jobs vacated by men headed for the military, there was a learning curve, and to cope with the shortfall, unnecessary operations and processes needed to be cut away. Suddenly all those experts who had been touting new efficient methods of running a business were being listened to, and other, less expert people were making up their own efficiency declarations. To meet that manpower shortage, someone in the government decreed that selling sliced loaves of bread wasted valuable time, so sliced bread was banned. The ban lasted only until letters started coming in from people who couldn’t go to work because they’d slashed their hands slicing their own bread for the first time in years. (There was the lady who assumed you sliced bread by holding the loaf in the air and slicing across it with the knife. This did not work.)

The problem was that nobody had ever dealt with an emergency like this before, and the governments, federal and local, had to make up things as they went along. Some things helped, some things didn’t help but made people feel better, and other things failed miserably.

One thing Mr. Lingeman studied with special interest was the scrap drive. As a young man, he had taken part in scrap drives, and even given up his comic books to them. What, he wondered, was the result of that? Was it a useful thing to do, or just something the government encouraged to make people THINK they were helping? He was ready for that. Brothers, sons, and husbands were dying, and anything that could make Americans believe they could have some real effect on it all was worthy, even if it accomplished nothing else.

Well, not only was he dealing in government matters, but military matters, and the numbers were all there, often in triplicate. By the end of the war, he says, something like ninety percent of the aluminum used at the front was what we would call recycled aluminum, along with eighty percent of the steel, and sixty percent of the paper. People had pulled together and, just as advertised, HAD made a difference to the outcome.

Don’t know what made me think of that book while I was sitting here working at home. It’s what books will do to ya.

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