Photo credit: Crescent Studio, Vashon, WA
For 50 years, I’ve been listening to my husband’s stories about growing up on San Diego’s Mission Bay when it was more of a small fishing village than the popular resort it is now. The warm bay water lapped at the sand when the tide was in. There was swimming and surfing. Phil went without shoes from June until September, and his feet grew calloused and summer-wide.
He’d row his small boat out where the reeds and grass grew tall and read comic books until his nose was sunburned and his empty stomach growled. He watched seals tumble in the water and fished for perch and small halibut. When the tide was out, the beach was mud, pocked with pickleweed and eelgrass. Shoals and small islands, home to colonies of mussels and sand dollars that stood on end in soldier-like rows, were revealed.
The place was idyllic for Phil and even for me as I listened to him. I wanted to write about it, to put someone there to be nurtured and soothed by the tides flowing in and out, the squawks of the gulls, the peace of the small waves on the bay, and the sparkle of the sun on the quiet blue water. So the anxious, fearful, worried Millie of War and Millie McGonigle was born.
On December 7, 1941, war came to Millie and the rest of America’s children. Some of them picked up toy guns and shot at pretend enemies. Others had nightmares for the rest of their lives. Millie thinks the war came like an earthquake and shook everything and everybody up:
I was awakened by the noise of airplanes flying overhead, maybe ours from the naval air station on North Island, maybe the Japanese or Germans. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees, waiting for incoming bombs or paratroopers with machine guns or who knows what. War scenes from movies and newsreels flashed across my mind. I felt sick.
“We’re scared,” Lily said, wheezing, as she and Pete climbed into my bed.
“Can we sleep with you?” they asked together. Edna grumbled and moved to the sofa.
I was haunted by my own fears and worries. My body felt jangled, like I had electricity instead of blood in my veins. But I was, after all, the big sister and felt an unexpected stab of responsibility. “Okay, but you, Petey, have to promise not to wet the bed. And, Lily, no hogging the covers.” They snuggled in and Lily stuck her thumb in her mouth.
“Are those planes from bad guys?” Pete asked. “Will they bomb us?”
“Will we have war here?” Lily asked, her face all wrinkled with worry.
And from Pete: “Just what is war?”
Bombs and guns and fear and death and suffering, I thought.
Rumors of spies, invasion, and defeats were everywhere and crowded the airwaves. Children built sand forts, not castles, on the beach. Many families were separated as the men went to war and women to work. Others relocated from family homes to be closer to where the factories and jobs were. Japanese citizens were torn from their homes and sent to concentration camps in the desert and elsewhere. And soldiers were wounded, disabled, and died, soldiers the children knew — relatives, neighbors, celebrities. The loss and grief was personal.
I spent a lot of time in 1941 as I researched War and Mille McGonigle
. Then, as now, there was racism and anti-Semitism, violence, poverty, drugs, and crime. But most children had strong family and community ties and a sense of personal safety, at least within their own neighborhoods. There was a strong belief in patriotism, working together, and the common good. With a combination of optimism and allegiance, young folks played war games with sticks and stones as they practiced defeating the enemy. They cheered at the Three Stooges in You Nazty Spy!
and sang “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Even cowboy hero Tom Mix fought spies and saboteurs on the radio.
Millie McGonigle may have been worried and afraid:
Everyone wants me to cheer up, but I refuse. Know why?... The world’s full of war and death. That’s why. Hitler’s gobbling up one country after another, and I’m afraid he’ll come here next. My pop can’t find a job, Mama’s crabby, and Lily is sick all the time. What’s there to be cheery about?
But she had an enemy to fight and a way, albeit small, to help the war effort:
After breakfast I sat at the table studying the material I’d gotten from Civilian Defense.
“What are those?” Pete asked, climbing onto my lap.
“What are flamfuts?”
“Pamphlets. Booklets that tell about things that we can do to help fight the war.”
“I thought the war would be done by now,” Pete said.
“Then I want to fight the war, too.”
“Good for you. Now pay attention. Since the war, the Japanese control all the rubber plantations in the world, so we can’t get rubber. Stop wiggling! So the government is rationing tires and other rubber goods and asking people to turn in their old rubber, like tires, raincoats, hot-water bottles, bathing caps, girdles, garden hoses.”
“Girdles,” Pete giggled, swiveling his hips.
“Stop wiggling,” I said.
“What does the government need girdles for?”
“They’ll turn them into things the army needs.”
“I don’t know. Tank tires.”
“Tanks don’t have tires.”
“Forget it, Pete. Let the government figure out what to do with them.”
Like thousands of other kids, she collected scrap metal and old newspapers, saved for war bonds and victory stamps, and became a plane spotter, watching the skies for evidence of enemy advances.
I love Millie McGonigle. She’s a 12-year-old girl with tides to watch and dead things to find, grappling with losing her gram, facing her fears, and navigating the changes that come with a country at war. Millie is stubborn, brave, feisty, and funny. She’s part me, part my husband’s memories of growing up at the beach, and part every young person who faces fears and challenges with courage, humor, and a great deal of spunk.
In today’s America, we don’t face an actual war, but we are fighting an enemy nonetheless: the COVID-19 virus and the isolation that results from social distancing and lockdowns. Nearly a year after lockdown began here on the island where I live, students are still attending classes online. Social isolation is the new normal. What effect does that have on students’ mental health?
In February, young reporters for our high school newspaper sent out an anonymous survey asking students to discuss their struggles. Alarmingly, 83.1 percent of respondents said they were wrestling with mental health issues. A 2020 survey of seventh and eighth graders at the middle school concluded that over 60 percent were feeling anxious or depressed more than half the week. This is a serious issue that requires help — and soon.
I am surprised at how much I miss those children. They used to come over on the ferries every day to attend our island schools. Hundreds of them crowded the boats, which rang with raucous laughter. They streamed through the streets of our little town, swamped the lines at the supermarket, and hogged all the tables at the library. I used to complain — there were so many of them and they were so noisy. Where are they now? Mostly shut in, I assume, isolated and silent because of the pandemic. I miss them, and I long for them to come back.
There are some signs of hope. The pandemic, at least here in the United States, is easing a bit. Cases and deaths are down. Restrictions are being lifted (let us hope wisely). May all that energy that young people built up over the COVID year be transformed into action against the injustices that surround them — poverty and homelessness, racial inequality, gun violence, climate change.
Children are resilient and, hopefully, most will recover easily. But the forced isolation of the pandemic has for some emphasized the dangerous — but somehow shadowy — threats they face. Without community and involvement as bulwarks against loss and fear, they struggle. Perhaps we can learn something from Millie’s world about contributing, pulling together, optimism, and positivity. Maybe before too long, I’ll hear those loud and lively children on the streets again. Laughing. And this time, I won’t complain.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the Newbery Award-winning author of The Midwife's Apprentice
and the Newbery Honor book Catherine, Called Birdy
, amongst many other popular novels for young readers. She was born just a few months before the United States entered World War II, and parts of the book are based on her husband's experiences growing up in California during the war. Today she lives on a soft, green island near Seattle, Washington.