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Citizen's View: Remembering what it meant to become an American

The first time I celebrated Independence Day in the United States was in 1942.

I was within a week of becoming 6 years old. My family had emigrated from Canada to a small town in Northwest Washington, where my father had become the pastor of a small mission church some months earlier. This was our first 4th of July celebration on American soil. Of course, we had always celebrated Canada Day on July 1, but this was to be part of our new life in America and my older brother, sister and I wanted desperately to fit in.

World War II was raging in the South Pacific and in Europe, and our little coastal town was stripped of its young men, all in uniform and serving on those far-flung battlefields. Our lives at that time were focused entirely on the war effort. Having a berry cannery at the heart of our little town caused all of us to fear the prospect of Japanese bombers suddenly appearing in the middle of the night with their deadly cargo. Never mind the shipyards in larger cities in the Pacific Northwest; we were convinced we were a prime target for our enemies.

The war effort gave us all an extra sense of what our freedom meant. There was no middle ground. No room for dissent. Either you supported the war effort or you did not. Even at my age, I did.

My contribution, as a soon-to-be 6-year-old, was to march around our block every evening at dusk as part of a civil patrol and check our neighbors’ homes for light leaks. Everyone was required to have their thick air raid curtains pulled tightly after dark, just in case those bombers might appear. I felt very important as I walked my route each evening. If I observed a sliver of light coming from the home of one of our neighbors, I would present myself at their door and inform them of the fact.

I had been issued a heavy khaki-colored canvas bag containing a gas mask, which was draped across my small body. Looking back, I have no idea who issued it to me. The bag had been made for the military and was for an adult and dragged along beside me. Occasionally, I would wear my gas mask, which of course had not been made for a 5-year-old child’s small head, either. But I wore it anyway. And proudly.

I felt like a soldier fighting at the front. It was only years later that I came to realize there had been no canister attached to the gas mask hose; if there had actually been a gas attack, I would have been dead within a matter of seconds. But at the time, I felt very important.

I remember that year, too, that a member of the church where my father was the pastor gave us some fireworks with which to celebrate our first 4th of July in our new country. My recollection was that there were none for sale, all such materials going to the war effort. Where he might have gotten them, I don’t know. Perhaps they had been brought in from Canada. Perhaps he had had them for a long time. In any event, they were a special added treat for the occasion.

We had several strings of small firecrackers called “Ladyfingers,” and a few sparklers, and, after dark, we set them off in the alley behind our house, our mother and father supervising to make sure we didn’t burn the house down. Some of the neighbor kids joined in, too. It was a celebration to remember, our first 4th of July.

It is now 70-plus years later, and as I look back on that small boy, the newcomer, sometimes teased by the other children for his Canadian accent and his sometimes odd vocabulary, stumbling around the block in the dark checking for light leaks, the heavy khaki canvas bag dragging on the ground, the loose hose from the gas mask swinging freely, that I have come to recognize this task was, in fact, my moment of assimilation. This was my contribution to the cause, the war effort.

It was at that brief moment, as I rounded the last corner for home, my mission successfully completed, certain my new neighborhood was now safe from our enemies, triumphant in that one small act of service to my new country, that I discovered I had become truly and irrevocably American.

Ronald Talney is a resident of Lake Oswego.

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