Reflections on War in a Silver Spoon

“Men my age made this war.” Mr. Dawson in Dunkirk

Every man was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Miguel de Cervantes

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, either, but, growing up, there were a lot of silver spoons on the table. Now Michele and I have some of those silver spoons and we use a couple of them every day. While I was polishing one of them last week, it got me thinking about where they came from and that lead me to think about our constant wars. My parents got divorced in 1956 or ’57 and my mother got the silver. When she died, in 1985, I got the silver. Sometime between those dates, my mother told me it was originally a wedding gift from a vendor who was a supplier to my Grandfather’s restaurant.

My Grandparents originally came to San Francisco from Hungry in the late 1890s and, in my personal family myth, at least, my grandfather, who was a tailor when he got here, always wanted to own a restaurant. He got the chance when an almost defunct restaurant, across from the Ferry Building in San Francisco, was put up for sale. When the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was finished in 1936, Ferry traffic had dropped way off and the businesses – like that restaurant almost across the street from the Ferry Building – also lost most of their traffic, allowing my grandfather to get a good deal. It was a good deal on a restaurant just limping along but then the world changed.

Again, in my personal mythology,  when the war started, ship yards all around the Bay Area started up and workers used the ferry system to get to the various shipyards that were now working 24 hours a day, every day. Bethlehem in Alameda and South San Francisco as well as San Francisco, Kaiser in Richmond – where they once built a Liberty Ship in five days, assembled from pre-made sections – the Navy Shipyards in Vallejo, in total about 60 ship yards that employed about 244,000 workers at their height of production. Many of those workers took the ferry boat to get to their jobs and business boomed at Stern’s Coffee House. Now, polishing the spoon, I began to think my timeline was off. My parents got married on New Year’s Eve, 1937 and a complete set of silver was a big present. Somebody, or several somebodies, must have been doing a lot of business with Stern’s to be able to justify a very expensive silver set as a gift. Business must have been very good even before the war; a lot of people must have been already working in ship yards around the bay.

That got me thinking, we have been taught – maybe not today, after all, people aren’t even taught about Dunkirk anymore, but when I was in school in the 50s – that the United States was foolishly isolationist, even though Roosevelt and other wise people wanted to go to war, they couldn’t talk the people into it. We were told that the war, for us, didn’t start until Pearl Harbor, but biz was good at Stern’s before that. What if it were today and I was not looking at it through the lens of knowing what will happen? I probably would have been against going to Europe again. It seems to me that, then when people didn’t know what we know now, the people who were at risk of dying in the war were much less interested in doing so than the people who send them and were going to profit from it. After all, in 1939, it had been just twenty-two years earlier, that over 116,000 Americans died in Europe and it didn’t seem to change a thing. But the elites, the people who owned ship yards and airplane factories, were already gearing up for the war. In the end, more than 180,000 Americas died fighting Hitler and very few people would claim it wasn’t worth it, certainly not the much smaller number that got silver spoons.

As an aside, Hitler was a good thing for war makers. First, Hitler justified every and any thing we did during the war; our strategic bombing campaign killed over 600,000 German civilians including an estimated 47,000 children with almost no drop in German production but that was lost in the greater horror of the Holocaust. Hitler justified our going into the war; today, nobody, with a straight face, can say that we shouldn’t have fought the Nazis. And, most disturbing in my book, Hitler justifies every war ever since. Anybody we don’t like gets compared to Hitler sooner or later and we have already agreed that fighting Hitler, saving the world from Hitler, is not an option. End aside.

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