Sunday, May 3, 2020

Telephone Trevails; Behold a Black Horse; & Past Crises affected kids' lives too

Duluth News Tribune Column for today, May 3, 2020.
  Read   HERE. Telephone trevails

Duluth News Tribune Column for April 19, 2020
 Read HERE.  Behold a black horse

A Letter to my Grandchildren: Past crises affected kids’ lives too   

Written By: Jim Heffernan, For the News Tribune | 

This is a letter to my grandchildren, but you’re welcome to read it if you’re so inclined.

Dear Kids,

Long time no see, and it might be a lot longer. So I thought I’d record in this letter some thoughts I’ve been having about the coronavirus crisis; how it is affecting you and recalling some crises in the past and how they affected me when I was a kid.

One of you asked a parent the other day, “Isn’t there any good news?” Great question, and the answer is all too clear. Right now the answer is no. It pains me to tell you that, but you already know. All six of you — as you know you siblings and cousins range in age from 10 to 15 — are unable to go to school, for who knows how long, and you aren’t free to move about and associate with friends in the way you’d like to. I’m sorry you have to go through this. It never got to that point with me.

As you know I’ve been around a long time and I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about some of the things my generation went through when we were around your age. Every so often, very bad things happen in our world and as you grow into adulthood you’ll likely see more. But first we’ve got to get through this one.

Looking all the way back to my earliest days, I actually have recollections of World War II. I was born right when it started and was almost six at the end. This was a terrible time for America and the world and children were not always shielded from the horrors the war wrought, even though the actual fighting never came to America.

I was younger than any of you are now, but I can remember there was rationing of goods and food during the war. My parents had ration books that were used to buy common things like meat, butter and cheese and even jams and jellies because sugar was rationed. I remember longing for jam on toast, and the time a neighborhood dog sneaked into another neighbor’s garage and ate food stored where it was cool. Tempers flared.

Gasoline was rationed and tires were hard to get. My father sold our car mid-war because he couldn’t get tires. We didn’t have a family car for more than two years.

Word would come through about soldiers whose families we knew being killed on Europe or Asia battlefields. When the son of one of our neighbors was killed, I remember my mother rushing to his mother’s home to console her. The fathers of some of the kids I knew were in the military and away until war’s end. My father didn’t have to go; he had served during World War I.

Small square blue banners with gold stars hung in the living room windows of many homes, signifying that someone in that family was serving in the armed forces. Other banners signified that someone in that family had been killed in the war.

Then, suddenly, it ended. Very suddenly. We children were mesmerized by news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Japan. The idea of such a “big” bomb was frightening to me but also fascinating. One of the breakfast cereal producers — Kellogs or General Mills — offered kids “atomic bomb rings” for 25 cents and a box top. If you held the bomb-shaped ring close to your eye, you could see sparkling inside, supposedly simulating an atomic bomb explosion. I got one.

Today’s coronavirus crisis is so huge it is being compared to World War II in its impact on America. Impact is right. But while we couldn’t get jams and jellies, couldn’t buy new cars (Detroit quit manufacturing cars in 1941 to make warplanes, jeeps and tanks), and experienced other depravations, unlike today, the schools remained open.

There’s a lot more to tell about World War II but it’s time to move on to the next crisis. The immediate post-war years seemed wonderful. America was coming back. No rationing. New cars driving by. Everybody seemed happy. Armed services personnel returned home. But it was brief.

When I was still in elementary school along came another war. I had to ask my older brother where Korea was. I’d never heard of it. A lot of Duluth Marine reservists found out quickly enough. Many lost their lives in the early months of that war along with others as it dragged on for three years.

Still, life here went on more normally than during World War II. But there were other concerns on the home front, the biggest one a disease called poliomyelitis, usually called just polio or, more frighteningly, “infantile paralysis.” It was a disease affecting children and young adults that could render their limbs useless and even affect their ability to breathe. Many sufferers didn’t make it. Others were crippled for life.

My parents were extremely concerned. I got constant questions from my mother about polio symptoms she had heard about such as a stiff neck. I wasn’t allowed to drink from public drinking fountains or swim in Miller Creek not far from our home. Later I came to know some people my age who did contract it, their ability to walk severely impaired. The vaccine that eventually wiped it out in the mid-1950s arrived too late for them.

Throughout the years of my childhood, including in the war years, we dealt with childhood diseases that no longer are as serious a problem due to vaccinations. When I got mumps and measles, the health department nailed a quarantine sign next to our front door and I couldn’t go to school for two weeks. When my brother came down with a disease called scarlet fever, our family was quarantined for six weeks with my father moving in with our next-door neighbor so he could continue to work.

Tough times in many ways, but unlike today, school-age kids continued to go to school and people could assemble anywhere, in church, in theaters, at concerts, in restaurants. Jobs were plentiful around here. During the war they built ships in both Duluth and Superior, employing thousands of workers. Of course the atomic bomb dropping on Japan ended that too.

Today’s coronavirus crisis has been described by some as causing “the biggest seismic change since World War II.” I’ve lived through World War II, everything in between and now this. There will come a day when you too will describe what things were like in America when you were young. You will talk about this the way I’ve written about historic events in my early years.

We can only hope it comes to an end soon. In the meantime, always remember, kids, that you’re living through a historic time. I know you’ll never forget. But, more importantly, know that these crises come to an end, and better times lie ahead. They always do.

With love for all,


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

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