A streetcar named Pearl Harbor: Getting onboard



On the last day of boyhood — not youth, but boyhood — their big guy, Endicott (“Chub”) Peabody of Massachusetts, unstoppable defensive lineman of the Harvard Crimson, had almost single-handedly taken apart the Big Green 11 captained by our big guy, center Charles Milton (“Stubby”) Pearson of Minnesota.

Now, on the other side of the river, the Boston side, an hour or so after the end of the game on this aching Saturday afternoon, I was steering my overcrowded black 1940 convertible Ford Schpitfeuer straight into the mouth of a Mass Avenue shortcut tunnel, only to discover that it wasn’t a shortcut at all unless you were a streetcar of “the T,” Boston’s equivalent of the M.T.A. One such monster, bell clanging furiously, was headed at that very moment straight toward the nose of the Schpitfeuer Ford, not to mention toward myself and the six or seven or eight other guys — buddies, classmates, defeated invaders — who were distributed elsewhere in or on the vehicle.

I was at the wheel because only a half-minute earlier, Al Goldman, the corpulent, go-getting business manager of The Dartmouth, who’d been serving as driver because he knew the terrain, suddenly, right there in the middle of downtown Boston traffic, had jammed on the brakes, looked around, jumped out, said: “I left my car somewhere around here,” and disappeared forever into the crowd. Leaving me, the editor in chief, to, so to speak, take back the reins.

What did I do? I backed us out slowly, very, very slowly, with the streetcar moving voraciously forward by way of encouragement, inch by inch.

Why do I call that 1940 Ford a Schpitfeuer? Well, because all that spring of 1941, we of The Dartmouth, the oldest college daily newspaper in America, went out every so often in a couple of cars to the Bema, a grassy place just off the campus, to play dogfight in the skies over Britain, in honor of those who were truly great. …“Achtung, Schpitfeuer!”… “I say, old boy, jolly good show!” …as we hurtled and skidded our beer-drenched, overloaded autos this way and that way over the greensward. Babe and Craighead, DeSherb and Farb, Mitchbitch and Proc Page, even humorless old Joseph P., my second in command.

Newspapermen! A fraternity more binding than any traditional Greek-letter animal house.

Those Bema dogfight things were merely the letting-off of steam, of course — release of nervous tension — because 1941 was a very bad year indeed. During the course of it, Adolf Hitler continued to consume and destroy country after country, while we — in our faraway, isolated, protective little Hanover, New Hampshire, cocoon — were increasingly involved in several mini-wars of our own: the pacifist isolationists; subclass (a) radical or (b) reactionary, along with a sprinkling of America Firsters, versus the ever more heated and alarmed stop-Hitler interventionists. The latter meaning me, in that newspaper.

When the Germans, in April of that year, went from invading Yugoslavia to invading Greece, Charles Guy Bolté, the golden boy of the Class of 1941 — one year ahead of my Class of 1942 — brought me a manifesto he had just written in the form of an open letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. “Dear Mr. President,” it began, “Now we have waited long enough… .” It called on F.D.R. to quit stalling and at long last move against Hitler by force.

I ran it on the next morning’s front page — and the whole campus damn near blew up. What had been a 1,000 percent pacifist college paper when yours truly (then also an ardent pacifist) ascended to the editor’s desk was now all that and more of an interventionist college newspaper — the first such in this entire country, I have always believed. Listening to Edward R. Murrow broadcast the summer before from the rooftops of burning London had turned me 180 degrees around. That, and whatever new barbarism the Nazis were executing every day. I don’t think I ever used the word “Jew” except between the lines.

The Japanese? Well, they had raped an entire city — China’s Nanking — back in 1937, but we would have to get around to that someday in the distant future, when we had the time and the means to do it.

In the fall of the year before, 1940, on the night of the famous “Fifth Down” football game against Cornell, coach Earl Blaik reminded us at a big emotional bonfire that Dartmouth men always exemplified the idea of “Rugged, see!”

O.K., I’m only a college boy, a citified college boy who can neither skate nor ski — nor, God save us, play football. But so long as I have this newspaper, I’ll keep writing anti-Nazi, go-to-war editorials while Babe — associate editor and best friend Alex “Babe” Fanelli of Pelham Manor, New York — supplies the poetry.

In Boston, around midafternoon Sunday, the day after that disastrous Harvard-Dartmouth football game, I pointed the 1940 black Ford (a hand-me-down from my mother) north toward Hanover.

Several hours later, as I drew up and parked in front of Robinson Hall, the ancient and honorable edifice that housed the editorial and business offices of The Dartmouth, a kid came running out of — pouring out of — the building, I forget his name; it may have been Jessup. He was what was called a “heeler” — an underclassman bucking to become a full-time staffer of that newspaper.

“Jerry!” he was yelling. “Jerry, have you heard? The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor!”

And like almost every other jerk in this country at that moment, I said: “Where’s Pearl Harbor?”

Forty-eight hours and three or four extra editions of The Dartmouth later, Babe and I were sleeplessly downing harsh black coffee in the Hanover Inn. Babe looked at me, took a swallow, and said: “I guess we’d better go, don’t you?”

And so we went, leaving the oldest college newspaper in America to the tender mercies of Joseph P. & Co.

Some six months later a postcard reached me at an anti-submarine airbase up the Demerera from Georgetown, British Guiana. It was from George Hanna, Class of 1941, a star on the Dartmouth basketball team and someone I’d never met. It had been mailed six months earlier. “So you went and did it,” it said. “Good for you.”

George Hanna, a distinguished New Hampshire lawyer, died only a couple of years ago. I never got to thank him for that postcard.

Charles Bolté left college, went to Canada, joined the King’s Royal Rifles, got a leg blown off at El Alamein, was a Rhodes Scholar, married a beautiful girl named Mary Elwell, founded and ran the American Veterans Committee, had a decent career in publishing, was a physical and vocal duplicate of Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane, and is now also gone.

Endicott Peabody won a Silver Star for gallant service on a U.S. Navy submarine in the Pacific theater of war. He served one two-year term (1963-’65) as Democratic governor of Massachusetts (and ally of John F. Kennedy), but was too racially and economically liberal — he refused, among other things, to send any human being to the electric chair — to ever again get elected to anything. He left us in 2009.

And Stubby Pearson? Big, amiable, earnest, decent, rough-complectioned Charles Milton Pearson of Minnesota? I knew him fairly well, as it happens, because he, too, believe it or not, in our freshman year had been a heeler, alongside me, though in his case for the sports pages of The Dartmouth. But instead of writing it, he ended up playing it — football and basketball, all-star captains of both.

Stubby was also the Class of 1942 Phi Beta Kappa valedictorian, though by that time I was not on the scene. (The war, in fact, was to save me from flunking out.)

I imagine that Charles Milton Pearson would have gone on to become a Rhodes Scholar himself, a college president, a senator, governor, a United States president, anything. But in late March 1944, Stubby Pearson plunged his Navy dive bomber down toward a Japanese destroyer in the waters off Palau, and died in the attempt, taking his gunner, T.W. Watterston, with him.

Does that do it, Mr. Blaik? Rugged, see! Give us the boy and we’ll give you the man.

This bonfire is for all those boys, in the embers of December 7, 2010.