Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

By the next morning, everybody knew where Pearl Harbor was. The kids at school, from the seniors down through the seventh graders—the high school and junior high shared one building complex—talked of nothing else. The teachers, too, pointing to world maps or spinning globes to show us what was going on in the Pacific. Everyone was numb. At eleven-thirty the whole school assembled in the auditorium to hear President Franklin D. Roosevelt address a joint session of Congress. Speakers were hooked up to a radio. Roosevelt came on and started a short speech with stirring words: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy . . ." When he finished, we weren't numb anymore, we were angry.

In the days that followed, everyone of military age, including myself, volunteered. Sadly, my advanced nearsightedness kept me out of the military. John was too young to be drafted. If not drafted, the rest of us planted Victory Gardens and shared the sacrifice of rationing butter and sugar and meat, gasoline and tires. Women took their places in the factories and we all bought war bonds to keep up the supplies of goods, arms, and ammunition.

Those last years of high school sped by. My work duties at the cafe had expanded from the cash register to the kitchen and all points in between. I washed and dried dishes, waited and bussed tables, mopped the floors, for which my father paid me a dollar a day. On weekends I worked at the Kearney Country Club, tending bar at night in exchange for golf lessons and caddying during the day, for which I collected the grand sum of fifty cents a round and sometimes a ten-cent tip. When I was a senior, the same year I organized the dance, construction crews moved into Kearney to start work on a new Army Air Force base outside town. The crews meant new business and more income for my father. One day when I was working the counter I met the foreman who was overseeing construction of the runways. He became a regular and I served him extra-large slices of pie until I worked up the nerve to ask what kind of jobs might be available.

"Come out Saturday. We'll see," he said.

He assigned me to watch a huge pile of builders' odds and ends, mostly junk, that had accumulated in one corner of the base complex. The work was anything but demanding. All I had to do was sit there and warm my hands on an open fire while I watched the junk pile to make sure there was no pilfering. At the end of that day, he told me I had qualified for weekend overtime pay and handed me a check for the astounding sum of $18.

That evening I walked into the cafe kitchen where my father was hard at work cutting up a piece of beef, his sleeves rolled up and a bloodstained apron covering his shirt front. When he saw me he pushed his hair off his forehead with his wrist and said, "Well, big shot, how does it feel to put in a real day's work for a change?" The moment I had been waiting years for had arrived at last.

"Actually, Dad, I enjoyed it a lot. And you might be interested in what they're paying me." I threw the check down on the worktable.

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