Retired UC Santa Cruz professor and lecturer Wendy Martyna has a packet of her mother’s World War II letters, including one written almost 80 years ago about the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Martyna ponders the letter, the change that has occurred over her lifetime in the news cycle and muses at how the past “inflects our present; it shadows and illuminates.”
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I had the feeling that April 12 had some historical significance as I wrote in my journal last week but couldn’t quite . . . Then, I knew: It was the day FDR died. In the spring of 1945.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 63, the president of the United States, in the midst of his fourth term of office, in the fourth year of America’s involvement in World War II. He was sitting for a portrait, working at a small table at his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia, when he suddenly grasped his forehead and said, “I have a terrible headache,” then fainted, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage a few hours later.
I wasn’t yet born, though in learning later about the postwar world I’d been born into, I could imagine the nation’s grief, one that was to echo the outpouring following President Abraham Lincoln’s sudden death in another April, 80 years earlier.
But a few years ago, when I found a packet of my mother’s wartime letters, I could feel the loss viscerally as well. She had been a dancer with the USO, was barely 20 at the time, writing on the stationery of the New York hotel where her company was staying while they rehearsed the new show they were about to take overseas, traveling with Gen. George Patton’s Army, entertaining the troops.
“Mommy,” she wrote on April 12, 1945, “I have to stop now. I am crying too hard. The radio just said the president has died.”
I found a newspaper article online today, written nearly 80 years ago by a White House reporter, Merriman Smith of United Press International. It takes me to a time when news served as a kind of literature, this vital story told in vivid and poignant detail. A time when news arrived literally “over the wires” — when print and radio were the main means of knowing about world events. When the word “FLASH” — with the following dash — was used to signal what would be today’s “Breaking News” (now used so ubiquitously as to have become meaningless).
The headline would be phoned to the switchboard operators for UPI and the Associated Press and other news services, and in cases such as the death of FDR, the teletype operator had to “punch in” 15 bells, so as to alert editors around the world that this news flash would have stunning global impact.
The article Smith wrote later that day began: “Death today removed Franklin Delano Roosevelt from a war-torn world and left peace-expectant millions shocked and stunned. Death gave the 63-year-old President of the United States short notice. At about 1 o’clock this afternoon, sitting in the ‘Little White House’ here, he felt a sudden pain in the back of his head. At 1:15 p.m. (C.W.T.) he fainted. He never regained consciousness. At 3:35 p.m. he died without pain of what the doctor called a ‘massive cerebral hemorrhage.’”
Our past inflects our present; it shadows and illuminates.
A remembered date in history recalls the world into which I was born, the times that preceded mine, the griefs — and the joys — of my kin. It sets in motion a thought train taking me to what seemed a simpler time, but of course, wasn’t. Not really.
We grapple with and grieve our own “war-torn world.” We, too, are left so often “shocked and stunned” by the day’s news, however it arrives. We, too, must try, in our own ways, as the British did in World War II, to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
And to do whatever we can, whenever we can, to alter the course of history.
Wendy Martyna is a writer and educator who earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University in 1978 and has been both a professor of psychology and a lecturer in sociology at UC Santa Cruz. She has led workshops on death and dying, storytelling, creativity, and personal development in the U.S. and the U.K, and served as consultant and board member of several social justice organizations, including the Resource Center for Nonviolence. She has lived in Santa Cruz for 45 years.