This true story was told to the author by a friend some years ago.
The night before my grandmother died I was reprimanded at the dinner table and told I wouldn't be allowed to listen on the radio to what was to be the game of the year for New York City's football fans. It was early December 1941, and my father had been telling my mother and me how the dense fog had rolled in that morning. Before it was engulfed in the fog, he said, the Statue of Liberty had looked like a spotlighted Ziegfeld Follies girl with stage smoke at her feet. I'd seen the fog on the water, too, so I piped in, "Yeah, you couldn't even see Jersey."
As soon as I said it, I knew I was in trouble. We lived in a brownstone on West 44th Street, and I was forbidden to go to the docks along the Hudson. My father put down his fork. "Where did you have occasion to see New Jersey?" he asked. I couldn't believe my stupidity. "Well?" my father said, his face growing stern. I knew I was doomed. I didn't say anything. He told me to come directly home after school and stay in my room every day for a week. And then came the crusher: "And no radio, and that includes the game on Sunday."
He knew how to hurt. My team, the New York Football Giants, already Eastern Division champs, was playing the Brooklyn Football Dodgers for the second time that season. The Brooks had beaten the Giants at Ebbets Field the first time around, and as my friend Tommy, who had moved to 44th Street from Brooklyn, said, champs or not, if the Giants lost again they'd be second in the city. I told my father he couldn't do that to me. He sent me to my room.
December 26, 1983
When I came home from school the next day, there was a black crepe wreath on our front door. Before I was able to figure out why it was there. Mom came out on the stoop and told me that Nanna had died last night. "Last night?" I said, not so upset that Nanna had died as that she had died in my old bed in the room she'd taken over from me the summer before. I'd been sleeping in the room next to her when she'd died.
Nanna had been sick for as long as I could remember, and she never really did seem to know who I was. Mom said that Nanna was in the parlor now. "I thought you said Nanna was dead," I said. "She is," said Mom, and then she told me about wakes and funerals and how they helped us to say goodby. "It's only until Monday," she said, but I was scared to go into the house. Mom asked if I would rather spend the weekend with her brother, my Uncle Roy.
If I was scared to go into the house, I was terrified about the prospect of staying with Uncle Roy. Whenever he looked at me I felt like I'd done something wrong. And knowing he'd know about my punishment for disobeying, there was no way I wanted to stay there. "What about Uncle Dan's?" I asked my mother.
"You know your father won't let you go to Uncle Dan's," she said. Whenever the subject came up—Uncle Dan often would invite me—Dad would tell me to go upstairs, then he'd say to my mother, "You know how much I love Dan," and then he would go on about Dan's "ways" and how he wouldn't have me exposed to them.
"Then I'll stay here," I said. Mom said that if I didn't want to see Nanna, I could close my eyes and she'd lead me to the back stairs. I took her hand and closed my eyes.
The house smelled different. I held my breath until we got up to my room. I ran to the window, opened it and breathed in the moist air. The fog was getting worse again. "Mommy," I said, "can I stay at Tommy's?" I must have looked even worse than I felt because she immediately said, "Yes, dear, I'm sure you can. Let me call Tommy's mother."
Mom packed my suitcase and I went to Tommy's. It was only when we were playing knee football in his living room, me as the Giants, Tommy as the Brooks, that it occurred to me that my mother might not have told Tommy's mother about my punishment. After our knees were so hot we couldn't play anymore—I scored five touchdowns, Tommy three—we turned on the radio. Tommy's mother even walked through the living room once: She didn't say anything. We ate dinner, listened to the radio some more and stayed up half the night talking about all the girls we hated.
Saturday it rained. We played cards and football and listened to the radio. I forgot all about Nanna.
Sunday morning was cold and the fog had cleared. We went to church. Mom and Dad were there and so we all sat together. I was sure when Mom took me aside after Mass that she was going to tell me not to worry, that it was O.K. for me to listen to the game (my father often forgot the punishments he'd imposed, though my mother never did). Instead, she said all the relatives would be coming over that afternoon and that she wanted me to be there, too. She said it would make her happy if I were. I said I didn't think I could. She said, "Please," and I said, "Please." Then Dad came over and said I'd have to be there.
I ate breakfast at Tommy s, and he spoke of nothing but the game. He said the Brooks were going to maraud the Giants, that Merlyn (the Magician) Condit and Ace Parker would wipe Tuffy Lee-mans all over the field. I allowed as how Tuffy would not only score touchdown after touchdown, but that he'd cleat the Magician in the face as well. We bet 10¢ on the game, a whole week's allowance for me. The doorbell rang. It was Uncle Dan. His Stutz was outside. His girl friend, the one my father didn't want me to know was living with him, was in the front seat. I told Tommy the Dodgers stunk and went out to the car.
I'd forgotten that Uncle Dan was a Dodger fan, too. He took up where Tommy had left off. We drove around for a while. The car was warm. Uncle Dan and his girl friend said they'd rather be at the game, too. She offered me a cigarette. I refused. Uncle Dan said my family wanted me to be at the wake because my father thought it was time I learned about death and how it was just another part of life, like going to the bathroom. That kind of thing always made me like Uncle Dan. He was much younger than my father, and my father said he was a Communist. But whenever he said that, my mother would say he wasn't, that Communists rode in subways, not Stutzes, and that Communists didn't like sports.
Uncle Roy met me at the door. He pinned black crepe around my arm. "Go up and say goodby to your Nanna, son," he said from deep in his throat.
"Yes, sir," I said. I took a deep breath and walked into the parlor and up to the coffin. Nanna looked like she was asleep, the way Uncle Dan had said she would. I knelt down. Mom knelt beside me and put her arm around my shoulder. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" she said, and then she bit her bottom lip like she was about to cry. "Let's say a prayer," said Mom. I prayed that Nanna would go to heaven. Nanna never moved, although once I thought I saw her cheek twitch the way it used to. My father laughed in the hall, but it seemed a thousand miles away. The room was very hot.
I woke up in my own bed. Uncle Dan and his girl friend sat by the window, smoking cigarettes.
"You O.K.?" asked Dan.
"What happened?" I asked.
"You passed out," said Uncle Dan.
"Too bad we can't turn on the radio, listen to the game," said his girl friend.
"Roy would have a fit," said Uncle Dan, then added, "Hey, why don't you go out to the car and see how the game is going?"
"Can I?" I leaped up.
"But you can't let anyone know," said Uncle Dan. "We're supposed to be in mourning."
"How are you doing, young fellow?" said Uncle Roy, as I got to the bottom of the stairs.
"Fine, sir," I said. I took a quick look into the parlor. There were more people there, most of whom I didn't know, sitting around the edge of the room.
"This must be May's grandchild," said an old woman coming out of the parlor.
"It is," said Uncle Dan, "but he's feeling a bit under the weather, so he's going to step out for a breath of air."
The cold brought me back to life. I walked down to the end of the block, and when I was sure no one could see me, I ducked down and ran back to where Uncle Dan had parked his car, directly across the street from our house. The car was cold as I turned on the game.
"Tuffy Leemans Day has not been a good one for either Tuffy or the Giants," said the announcer. "He's been held to scrimmage on almost every carry. And we just got a report that Mel Hein, who was honored last year, has been taken to the hospital. Nello Falaschi got a bad gash on his shin by a cleat. The Brooks are ahead 14-0, and let me tell you, the Brooks are the ones that look like champs today. O.K. The Giants line up at scrimmage.... There's another announcement. I don't know what's going on, but something sure is. It's a long count. The ball is hiked, it's given to Leemans, there's a hole on the right side, he's through the hole, but he's brought down from the side, and Tuffy's at the bottom of a big pile.... There's a time-out on the field, it looks like an official's timeout. Ladies and gentlemen, I've never heard more people paged at a football game. First it was Colonel William J. Donovan, asked to call Washington, and since then every few minutes someone else has been paged. Wait a minute. I've just been handed a bulletin. Can we get a confirmation? Ladies and gentlemen, this is datelined Washington, D.C.: Early this morning Japanese planes launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval base in Pearl Harbor. All servicemen are requested to report to their bases. The ball is in play again. It's a pass. Over the middle, and it's intercepted. Manders intercepted...."
I shut the radio off and pushed open the door. I almost called "Dad," but then I remembered Nanna and how I'd been forbidden to listen to the radio. I pulled the door shut, afraid someone had seen me. I knew my parents would want to hear, but I didn't know how I could tell them. They'd been talking about the Japanese all week. I thought maybe I'd imagined what I'd heard, so I turned the radio back on. The game continued, but you'd hardly have known it because the announcer kept reading bulletins and repeating them over and over again. I knew I had to do something. I shut the radio off. I knew if my father thought I had disobeyed again he'd keep me in past Christmas—and with my Nanna in there. I thought I could say that everyone was talking about it, that someone in a passing car had honked his horn and told me. But the street was as quiet as ever. Then I remembered that Old Doc Kellner's drugstore just two blocks away had a radio. I wasn't supposed to go in there either, but Uncle Dan had given me money to get myself a honey bun, and I figured I could say it was the only place open, that I didn't want to go in there.... No, I thought, I could say I didn't go in there, that I had asked a man standing out front to go in for me and that he had told me.
I snuck back up to the end of the block, crossed the street and then ran all the way home. When I burst in the door, everyone turned to look at me.
"What's the matter, dear?" my mother asked.
"The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor," I said too loud.
All at once people said, "What?" and "Oh my God" and "Pearl Harbor?"
Uncle Dan said there was a radio in my room. They all looked at one another and then at me. Uncle Dan led the rush up the stairs. Only three of the old women stayed in the parlor. "God help us," said one. I looked in at Nanna's coffin, then ran upstairs.
No one ever asked me where I'd heard the news, not even Uncle Roy. The Brooks won 21-7, and I lost my allowance to Tommy. Uncle Dan enlisted in the Navy the next day and was assigned to the aircraft carrier Hornet; it was less than a year before we put another black wreath on the door.