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They Use Real Bullets
Digital History ID 4137

Author:   Deborah Gorham
Date:1942

Annotation: The biographer Deborah Gorham describes her experiences as a child during World War II, after her father, an American pilot, enlisted in the Canadian air force.


Document: My father’s departure in January 1942 has always seemed in my memory to mark a major divide in my childhood. Before he went away, I can easily recall happy, if fleeting, memories. After he went away, I can retrieve happy memories only if I make an effort to do so…. In the summer of 1943, when I was just 6, my mother decided to send me to a summer camp in the Berkshires. I remember hating this camp: for much ofthe time, I recall being lonely, frightened and homesick, and relating my misery to the sadness of the war…. In remembering, I have at times had a sense that I actually told my mother, when she came on Visiting Day, that I was terribly unhappy and that she must take me home. I know that I wanted to tell her this, and I have been angry at her in retrospect because she did not realise how abandoned I felt. However, it is clear from the many letters she wrote to my father about my camp experience, that while she did send me to camp partly because she was busy working…and partly because she did not have satisfactory household help, she picked the camp with care, and sent me there mainly because she thought I needed a break from the heat of a New York summer. She missed me very much herself, and it is clear that I gave her no indication of my unhappiness. In early August, she wrote my father: “I got a long letter from Debby today ...She is having a wonderful time, can now float on her tummy and back, and takes long hikes. I think that in spite of my loneliness, camp has turned outto be an excellent affair and I am very glad I did it”….

The incident that stands out most clearly in my memory is the fear induced in me by a harmless movie called The Canterville Ghost, which involves a comic ghost who walks through walls. This comedy was for me transformed into horror: when our apartment was remodeled in 1944, and one wall was bricked up, every night for months I lay in bed, terrified that the horrible Canterville Ghost was about to slip through the bricked-up wall and attack me. But while I remember this fear quite vividly, I did not recall, until I read the correspondence, the fears that seem to have been most directly related to the war, to my love of my father and to my worries about his safety. For example, in 1942 I could not sleep at night: “Debbie was so enchanted with your letter this morning ... That child loves you almost too much for her own good (so does her mummy). As a matter of fact her concern for you has caused me to speak to Dr Bader about it. He has ordered a prescription of luminol to be given her every night to calm her down. She gets up at two and three in the morning and comes in fully awake to ask how you are, when you are coming home, are you in danger. Not only does it awaken me and disturb me, it means she isn’t getting a full night’s sleep herself. Dr Bader talked with her and decided on the rather drastic step of the luminol. God isn’t this a world! When five year olds have to have sedatives!”My most unhappy memories concern my father’s return, in December1944. I remember the acute anticipation and joy I felt, and then the let-down, when he was abrupt and unfriendly to me, and appeared far more interested in my year-old sister, whom he had never seen before.

During the war itself, I had idealised him. My mother’s letters to him and his to her about me, and even the letters I sent to him myself and those he sent to me, indicate that although I was only 4½ when he left, I loved him deeply, missed him, and worried about his safety. But I remembered a flawless pre-war Dad, who would take me…on jaunts to the zoo in [New York’s] Central Park and on to the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. He returned as a deeply troubled, angry man. And he remembered an exuberant 5 year-old, not a shy, gangly 7 year-old.

Source: Deborah Gorham , '"They use real bullets": an American family's experience of the Second World War. a fragment of memoir', Women's History Review, 6:1, 5 - 28.

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