I'm working on a short story set in 1939 Cheyenne. I rarely venture this far back in time. Two stories in my first collection were set in post-World War II Wyoming and Colorado. I have gone far into the future with some of my sci-fi. But never back to the 1930s. I wasn't around then, but my parents were, both young people struggling through the Great Depression with their working-class families. I've read fiction set in the thirties. Nelson Algren, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Irwin Shaw. The twenties and thirties may have been the golden age of the American short story. I've read hundreds of them. Big Blonde. How Beautiful with Shoes. A Rose for Emily. A Bottle of Milk for Mother. The Killers. Flowering Judas.
One of my favorites is Irwin Shaw's "Sailor Off the Bremen." Shaw is best known for his post-war novels such as "The Young Lions" and "Rich Man, Poor Man." But it's his stories that I've read and studied. They were collected into a volume, "Five Decades."
"Sailor Off the Bremen," published in The New Yorker in February 1939, is about international politics and revenge. In New York Harbor, communists stage an anti-Nazi demonstration aboard the German ship Bremen. A Nazi steward beats up a demonstrator, whose family and friends believe that the Nazi should pay. They find out who the steward is, trap and beat the crap out of him.
When I first read that story decades ago, I knew little about the years leading up to World War II. I was a student of the war. As was the case with many Baby Boomer boys, we watched movies and TV shows about the war our fathers fought in. Some of us read books, too, as my father had a great library. We knew war as boys know war. Names of battles, famous generals, types of airplanes and tanks.
What caused the war? Hitler and the damn Nazis. Tojo and the stinkin' Japs. Excuse my use of the term "Japs" -- that's how Americans spoke about residents of the Empire of Japan during the war and after it. That's about as far as it went until I got older and began reading about it. America was dragged kicking and screaming into it. I don't mean after Pearl Harbor, but before it, when many Americans had no reason to care what happened to French farmers and Chinese peasants. We'd been dragged into another European war in 1917, and many wondered why we had to bail out the French and the Brits once again. Isolationism was rampant, especially among those in the individualist-minded Rocky Mountain West. Many of the leading isolationists in Congress were from Montana and Idaho and South Dakota. Probably Wyoming, too, although I haven't done any research on the matter.
I am reading a book on the subject. "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's fight over World War II, 1939-1941," by Lynne Olson. I just finished a section about the very close Congressional vote to extend the conscription act, a vote held four months before Dec. 7, 1941. Conscription had been passed a year before in which young men were drafted into the army for a year. That year was up and many of those young men wanted to go back home. They spent their time digging ditches and marching around with fake rifles and didn't see the point as the U.S. wasn't at war. So when Roosevelt and his interventionist allies tried to extend the draft, many in Congress weren't eager to sign on, including ,many Democrats. The final vote was 203 aye and 202 nays. And some of the ayes were about to change their votes when Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn closed the vote with an arcane procedural move. It took the U.S. a long time to mobilize after the Dec. 8 declaration of war. Imagine how long it would have taken if the draft had been abandoned? History can turn on a single vote.
One thing is clear -- even four months before we entered the war, isolationism was strong in this country. I wondered what it was like for the average joe, the guy who became G.I. Joe in the war years. The economy had picked up once we got into the 1940s, but problems of the Great Depression hadn't gone away. What made you an interventionist and what made you an isolationist? in 1941, there wasn't a bomber or missile that could reach the U.S. from potential enemies. But what would happen if Hitler took over the world and eventually threatened us? And what about all of those rumors of Nazis murdering Jews?
As always, I tried to put myself in that era in the form of a fictional character. And so goes my story and along with it, hours of research. Research can be addictive, especially in this age of unlimited accessibility to online sources. But I stopped myself and wrote the story. It's called "Ras Tafari in Cheyenne." I'm excerpting it on my blog because I don't know what else to do with it. If you have any ideas for markets, let me know. The excerpts will begin in mid-January -- I'll keep you posted.