Sixty-seven years ago yesterday, a recently discharged soldier in Brooklyn, N.Y., put on his Army uniform and headed for the subway. The way he explained it years later, the Army at that time permitted those who left the service with an honorable discharge to continue wearing their uniforms for a brief period. And since the New York Football Giants, as they were known in those days, let men in uniform into games for free, the choice of dress was the easiest decision he had to make on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
A little more than a month earlier, on Oct. 26, the Brooklyn Dodgers — yes, Brooklyn had an NFL team in those days — stunned the Giants, 16-13, at Ebbets Field, the cozy home of the baseball Dodgers. This caused quite a stir in New York, and the rematch, promoted for days in the newspapers, brought 55,051, the largest crowd in the NFL that season, to the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. It was also Tuffy Leemans Day, with the Giants honoring their popular halfback in a pre-game ceremony.
That’s where my father was, watching the biggest NFL game of the day, when word spread that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
The first bombs fell about 1:23 p.m. Eastern time, less than 10 minutes before the Leemans ceremony and 37 minutes before kickoff, according to news accounts. WOR, which broadcast the game on radio, interrupted with the first bulletins at about 2:26 p.m. With no television and no message boards in the stadium, it took awhile for spectators to realize what was going on.
My father said he remembered a buzz in the servicemen’s section after the public address announcer, in a concerned voice, asked for a high-ranking officer to call Washington, D.C., immediately. (My father probably meant Col. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the Army’s chief intelligence officer.) Later in the game — which the Dodgers won, 21-7 — another announcement ordered servicemen to report to their units.
Now, since my father wasn’t on active duty — which, he said, he tried to explain to an officer who confronted him leaving the stadium — he figured the announcement meant everyone but him. Wrong; it meant everybody. He always laughed when he told this part of the story, laughing at the audacity of what he did next.
He told the officer he was going home.
And he did.
My father died in 2004, and I can never remember the chronology of what he said happened next. Maybe that day, maybe the next, a couple of military policemen came to the house and, shall we say, suggested to my grandparents in the strongest terms that their son return to his unit ASAP, lest he end up in the stockade. Realizing the untenable predicament he put himself in, he packed his bags and did what he was told.
Our family was lucky. My father served stateside through the end of the war. And he lived long enough to see the NFL grow from a trunk-of-the-car operation into a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate of indoor stadiums, 300-pound players, $7 beers and $150 personalized jerseys.
You’ll read plenty today about the Vikings and the Lions, about the Williamses’ court case and the cheap shot on Jared Allen, how a flabby Daunte Culpepper nearly beat his old team and turned Vikings-Lions into a rivalry. I can almost hear my dad calling Pat Williams a fat tub of lard, wondering how the Vikings found a pair of pants big enough to fit him, and asking why, instead of taking diet pills, he didn’t just stop eating.
But too many of us have forgotten what happened 67 years ago yesterday, and the thousands of lives, military and civilian, that were lost on that day and the years that followed. A friend who drives an airport shuttle to Minneapolis-St Paul International said several passengers innocently asked him yesterday why the airport flags flew at half-staff. And that’s a shame.
Instead of debating whether Brad Childress should be fired (are we still into that?), be grateful that we still live in a country where we CAN debate it. Sixty-seven years after the greatest challenge to our freedom, we’re still here. That’s worth celebrating, and remembering.