Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Best Years of Our Lives: or, How I Got Through Election Night

             I’ve had this piece in mind for more than a week, and it’s fitting that it’s Veterans’ Day, and I’m finally sitting down to write it.

            I knew the night of the election was going to be a long one, so I decided to watch The Best Years of Our Lives, one of my favorite movies, which just became available on Kanopy, the library’s free streaming channel. I’ve written about it before, and I will reiterate what I’ve said in the past: If you can watch this film with dry eyes, you have my nomination for hardass of the year.

            The movie is nearly three hours long, and it follows three returning World War II veterans. It was made in 1946, one year after the war ended, and it is a snapshot of America at a turning point. Unknown at the time the film was made was—what would that turning point be like?

            Harold Russell, who lost both hands in the war, plays Homer, who returns home to a family that pities him and Wilma, the girl next door, who loves him enough to overcome Homer’s doubts that she will ever be happy with him as he now is. Within days of Homer’s return, a relative is bloviating about how there will be a new depression coming, and Homer had better get a job—and fast. In truth, many people did see a depression on the way. The economy was shifting from wartime to peacetime, and millions of veterans were coming home. What was not known in 1946 was there was a tremendous pent up demand for housing and cars that had not been available during the war, and the GI Bill of Rights would stimulate the economy in ways that could not be foreseen.

            Fred, an airman, returns home to find his wife, whom he married after twenty days of knowing her, has an apartment of her own and a job in a nightclub. They quickly exhaust Fred’s savings, and the best job Fred can find is as a soda jerk in the drug store where he worked before the war. He loses that job when he defends Homer in an altercation instigated by a customer who tells Homer he had fought on the wrong side. The customer has a newspaper about a senator warning of danger. The film was released in November 1946, so that may have been a reflection of some of the senatorial campaigns in which red-baiting became popular. 1946 saw Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, among others, win seats in the Senate.

            Fred is without a job. His wife, who has taken up with another man, tells him she’s getting a divorce, and a romance with Al’s daughter seems off the table (more on that later), so he decides to leave. As he’s waiting for his flight, Fred walks through the airfield where combat aircraft are being dissembled. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of planes in pieces. He sees one like he flew and pulls himself into the nose window, which is where he spent a lot of time during the war. He’s spotted and asked what he’s doing. He tells the guy who’s questioning him he spent a lot of time in one of those and says something about all these planes being scrapped. To me the implication is the planes, like the returning veterans, are being piled on the scrap heap. The guy, who turns out to be a building supervisor, tells him the planes are not being scrapped. They’re being dissembled and will be used to build houses. He hires Fred. The planes are being put to new use. Maybe there’s hope for Fred.  

            As I mentioned above, there was an incredible housing shortage at the end of the war. My father, who rushed to enlist after Pearl Harbor, was very disappointed to be declared 4-F. (The same thing, by the way, happened to me during Vietnam except for the rush to enlist and the disappointment.) He (and my mother) wound up working on the Manhattan Project, first in New York, then Santa Fe, and finally Oak Ridge. After the war, they were transferred to St. Louis and let go. They moved in with my father’s parents, who treated them like children, even though they’d been on their own for a few years. That didn’t work out, and there’s quite a story there, but I’ll save that one for another time.

            There were companies that made homes of metal. One was Lustron, which was based in Columbus, Ohio. The Navy owned an aircraft plant next to the airport. After the war, the Navy rented the plant to Lustron, but because of the Cold War, the Navy decided to take the facility back, and North American Rockwell moved in. My first job with the Navy was in that facility. There are a few Lustron homes still around, including a few in Santa Fe Hills in Kansas City.

            Anyway, back to the movie. Al, who is a prosperous banker, comes home to a boss who wants him to get back to work immediately. He intends for Al, a veteran, to handle the new business coming in because of the GI Bill. The problem is the GI Bill is designed for veterans who don’t have much money, and Al’s boss wants Al to abide by the old rules. Al, who is very much into alcohol and, if the film were made today would probably be the subject of an intervention, gets plastered at a dinner honoring him and argues for the loans to be made as intended. It looks like he’ll get his way, but it’s 1946, and no one knows for sure how this is going to work out.

            Fred falls in love with Peggy, Al’s daughter, and vice versa. They reunite at Homer and Wilma’s wedding. Fred now has a job and an uncertain future and is divorced. He tells Peggy he doesn’t know how things will turn out, but he’ll really try, which is good enough for her. We can only guess how things worked out for the characters in the film, and audiences in 1946 were in the same boat. Who knew what the future would bring? As it turned out, there were challenges—including the coming of us Baby Boomers—that could not be imagined at the time, but there were also blessings, including the postwar boom and all it brought with it.

            After the movie ended, I checked the election returns. In spite of polls predicting a blue tsunami, it looked to me to be a replay of 2016. I went to bed thinking it looks like we’ll have four more years of Trump. I thought to myself, “We made it through the first four. I guess we’ll make it through the next four.” I consoled myself with the thought that the country had survived tough times before and come out all right as I’d just seen in The Best Years of Our Lives, and we could do it again. As we now know, Biden won. I told Dan it was so narrow, and I used an obscene expression one of my favorite bosses used, and Dan told me never to say that again—ever, so I won’t.

            There was hardly a blue tsunami—or even a blue ripple. It seems Americans didn’t reject Republicans, but they did reject Trump for now. But stay tuned. I’ll be writing my next piece on what I think Trump has planned for our future, and it ain’t pretty, folks.

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