Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
Warm summer evenings had a way of drawing neighbors together on Derby Street when I was growing up in the 1940s especially. To escape the heat in our homes, we often sought the cool breezes that our wide porches afforded or found a seat on the low cement wall that bounded our front lawn at 17 Derby. Neighbors might softly call back and forth to one another as dusk grew to night, and I always liked the sharing and closeness of families that lived at the end of “my street” near South Main. It was just part of life as I knew it.
It was on such a summer evening in the middle of August in 1945 that Rosalie Paterniti, a friend of mine who lived on Harrison Street, came walking down the block after supper and announced, rather casually as I recall, that the war was over. As five year olds, we had spent our pre-school days surrounded by talk of “the war” either from our parents and families, our elders, or news broadcasts on the radio. WW II had always been part of our young lives, and now, on August 14, President Harry S. Truman had announced to the nation that Japan had surrendered and WW II that had been the most destructive war that humanity had faced and fought and died in was all over. It took a few minutes for this news to sink in, and I doubted her word, maybe because it had come from a kid as old as I was. How could she know? But she assured me that the war was over, and with that, I ran to my back yard to tell my parents the news.
Most of us remember those moments–where we were, what we were doing–when news of events that rock our world, either in sorrow or joy, strike us. I remember that my mother was washing down the back steps that led to our second-floor apartment, and when I told her the news, she called to my father and then, uncharacteristic of her, someone who was meticulous in her housekeeping, threw her rag and dirty water onto the lawn and ran upstairs to listen to the radio that my dad had just turned on. It was true; the war was over, and suddenly our neighbors came pouring out of their homes as the news spread. My mother and the three Gullo sisters who lived in the duplex directly across from us met in the middle of the street laughing, crying, and hugging each other. How could they do both, laugh and cry at the same time? At five, I did not know the fine line that separated and yet drew together those emotions. With tears of joy running down their cheeks, they embraced one another because their brothers, Russ Gullo who was in the Army and my Uncle Bill, my mother’s younger brother who was in the Navy, would be coming home.
What happened next was probably the most exciting part of that evening for me. I got washed up, had my hair brushed by my mother, and changed into a Sunday dress and shoes. Meanwhile my father had changed into a suit, a white shirt and tie because we were going uptown, and no man of my father’s generation would go anywhere on such an auspicious occasion without dressing up. By then the whole city had heard the news and broken out into full celebration. Our walk through Brooklyn Square, packed with people, traffic stopped, and car and bus horns honking, was just an appetizer for what lay ahead as we made our way north on Main Street. Jamestown’s main business district stretched east and west at Third and Main, and I could not believe the number of people who had gathered at that corner. I think the crowds might have frightened me a little, but with my hand in my dad’s, we made our way through scores of people to the five and dime we frequented most—Murphy’s on W. Third between N. Main and Cherry. I had no idea what my dad had in mind, but we went down the steps just past the front entrance to my favorite part of the store–the toy department. I’m not sure if my dad thought I should be part of the general mayhem that was going on outside or what, but when he asked what toy I’d like, I chose a red, white, and blue whistle in the shape of a trumpet that caught my eye. For ten or fifteen cents it was mine. I recall my dad saying to the salesperson: “Now she can drive her mother crazy with it!” No such thing, but I did a fair amount of tooting that plastic whistle as we walked along the sidewalks.
I’m not sure where my brother was when my dad and I were uptown. Because he was a big twelve compared to his little sister and had the freedom of a boy that age, I’m guessing that he and the other boys on the block, who usually hung out together, were at Fenton Park or Brooklyn Square. The rest of that evening when my dad and I got home and joined my mother has faded from memory. But it was a time that families would be drawn together, so maybe we walked to my Aunt Sarah’s house and my grandmother and Aunt Anna’s house on Allen Street to share the news and celebrate what came to be known as V-J Day (Victory over Japan).
What I do remember distinctly was being very tired after all of the excitement and being put to bed on a roll-away cot that my father had set up in my brother’s front bedroom, which had originally been the sun parlor. With French windows opened, it was the coolest room in the house, and I was soon becoming drowsy. My parents had gathered with neighbors across the street, and one of my last memories that night was my father coming back into the house, going to the ice box that was in one of the gabled sections of the dining room that served as my mother’s pantry, and bringing some lunch meat, which would have gone into a sandwich for the next work day, to the food that everyone was sharing. After the huge celebration that was still going on in the city, our close Derby Street neighbors that night—the Galatis, the Hennases, the Gullos—had a smaller and quieter one among themselves. I fell asleep listening to the adult voices just beyond the windows, secure as only a five year old can be, but not really knowing how secure most of the world was beginning to feel after the ordeal of WW II.