Sugar Hill Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem
Chapter 6 World War II, Polio and Puberty
Uncle Harry, Aunt Cee, Mom, Hunt*
In the 1950s the Broadway RKO on 145th Street, and other theaters across America played a major role in helping children conceptualize a world at war and instilling us with a sense of patriotism. Each Saturday, before screening the week’s cartoon or cowboy movie, the RKO first showed old war footage. I loved those newsreels, looked forward to their patriotic drum rolling-music with the narrator whose voice sounded like Uncle Sam. He rat-a-tatted his delivery, hammered the D’s, boomed out B’s, reassured us with cadence. I held my breath at Dunkirk and on D-Day; places and events where good triumph over evil, and Allied forces stormed the beaches and won battles—of Britain or the Bulge.
Skipping a few Saturdays didn’t matter since every weekend, for at least ten years after the war, cameras zoomed in on what looked like the same convoy of chisel-faced, chain-smoking tough guys hunkering in foxholes with M-1 carbines, or standing by howitzers and threading billy club-sized bullets into thundering guns. When soldiers were on the move, they rumbled along in jeeps, trudged down miles of road strewn with shot-up vehicles, or they hitched rides on armored tanks, and despite cold and snow, the men just kept smiling and marching from one ravished European country to the next.
What the films didn’t show were wet socks, frost bitten toes, or young men who looked sick because they had tonsillitis or strep throat. And the movie screen never flashed to any of the nearly one million colored soldiers, like the ones from Harlem, who had also been in Europe. I learned about them during family gatherings, when Jack and my uncles reminisced. They laughed or joked about sailing overseas on crowded troop ships, enduring seasickness, or eating bad food, and they made fun of commanding officers, but like the men in the movies, they smiled a lot and never got around to discussing the horrors of war.
Mom’s cousin, Leamon, Jr. was twenty-four years old and, unlike the veterans in our living room, was still on active military duty. The day after he returned from his deployment in the Pacific, he dropped by with a duffle bag full of GI gifts stamped “Occupied Japan.” I was proud of him and my other relatives for helping liberate Europe and making Japan act right, although I didn’t know exactly what went wrong in Japan because the newsreels mostly focused on Europe. The filmmakers seemed intent on assuring audiences that a bad guy named Hitler, who caused most of the problems over there, was going to lose the war….
* I use this photo in the book, and the man on the right is unidentified. After “Sugar Hill” went to press, I found another picture with these four people and Hunt’s name was scibbled on the back.