Screenshot from HBO's magnificent "Band of Brothers."

Dusk comes fast now. No more the long languorous sunsets: the hammer falls. We were all playing outside at 7:40 tonight, and it was clear we were a few billion photons short here. Throw the stick to Jasp - he can’t find it. Throw the ball to Gnat - swing and a miss. Everyone inside, then.

It’s not lockdown day, at least. Lockdown day comes when you head inside one night with the realization that you won’t be out for several months. Oh, you might go out to sled, to build a snowman, but the days of sitting out back with your feet up, listening to the radio, having a cup of hard dark coffee and a good cigar are over, son. Over. Back in your cell. Lockdown.

Of course, Jasperwood is hardly a cell. Last night my wife turned on the family-room fireplace, and that fine toasty aroma flowed through the house. It’s an unusual smell, I thought; it’s not the scent of wood, or the scent of gas, but just the perfume of fire! The aromatic essence of combustion’s soul!

Or, as I realized later, the scent that the sofa gives off after the left arm has been superheated by proximity to the fireplace.
I mentioned we have house guests - third week in a row. I think that explains the spate of lousy Bleatage, and general confusion elsewhere; I’m just this cork bobbing along, riding with the eddies and currents. Right now it's midnight and I'm at my usual station at the kitchen table, with a pow'r'ful hankerin' to bag it and watch "Enterprise," but: I have these photocopies of the front page of the Star-Journal from 1939 to tell you about. Bear with me.

As noted before, I’ve been listening to the famous day-long Sept. 21, 1939 radio broadcast that was recorded for posterity. It seems unfair to judge any of it by modern standards, but you can’t help it. Listening to Arthur Godfrey’s morning show (“Sundial”) is an astonishing experiment, in a way, because to modern ears it is the most excruciatingly dull thing you’ve ever heard. He tells the time, he shuffles paper, he tells the time. He announces a birthday; he tells the time. He plays a song without introduction, and doesn’t tell you who that was. It’s radio designed to be heard without being listened to. He has these ticks - when he tells the time, it’s always “7:12 and a hawf, 48 before the hour.” Inexplicable English accents switching to a Southern drawl. “The music is record-ay,” he says, again and again; apparently they were compelled for some reason - probably regulatory - to say that the music came from records, not live orchestras; Godfrey got tired of saying “the music is recorded” so he gave it a French accent. Then more birthdays, usually for small children. “Why don’t you look under the table,” he’ll say, and all of a sudden you’re no longer in your car listening to a 64-year old recording that has been transferred from shellac to tape to bits; you’re wondering what it was like that morning when the little three-year-old kid’s eyes lit up after the man on the radio said his name and told him to look under the table. There was a present there! How’d he know, Mom, how’d he know? He just did.

News? Not much. Godfrey reads some copy about Poland, but there are no hard breaks at the bottom or top of the hour, no cliched dee-deedee-dee sounders to warn you that the world is about to crash into your kitchen. I was curious what happened on Sept 21, 1939, so I checked the fiche at work.

Headline: “F.R. Demands Congress Repeal Arms Embargo, Invoke International Law.”

“Rumanian Premier, Nazi Foe, Murdered”

“Nazis Fortify Italian Border; ready to carve Poland”

There’s an analysis piece with this cheer head:

“Two Great Armies Equipped with Latest Death Devices Girding Selves for Battle”

To put it as delicately as possible: things just sucked. Perhaps that’s why they didn’t puncture the “Sundial” program with news twice an hour. News was for newspapers. The radio was another medium entirely, something that flowed through your day like the lymphatic system. When it got serious, you’d pay attention - because it didn’t get serious unless it really required you to sit down and listen.

It was a bittersweet pleasure to scroll through the 09/21/39 paper - I spent a lot of time reading the fiche a few years ago, pre-Gnat, and I haven’t had the chance lately. But that’s the nifty thing about any portion of the past you never experienced: its distance from your current position doesn’t change much. The difference between me and, say, a TV show from 1984 or an issue of Cream from 1975 - these are significant distances. But 1939 will always be 1939, as familiar as it is foreign. Cigarette ads, KSTP schedules, big campaigns for department stores long gone or recently renamed. The newspapers contain the DNA of the era, and the microfiche is the amber that holds them.

Still, things change; some day 1939 will be inscrutable, distant, irrelevant. If you want evidence, look at this from today's paper, the sort of story that would have been unthinkable back the days of the Greatest Gen: A local veteran’s organization used to hold regular Armistice Day parades, but they think this is a bad idea now, because it would be too, you know, warlike.

“(Post leader) Ackerman urged instead the day be ‘Set aside for united prayers and solemn thoughts of all war veterans and other organizations, for restoration of peace throughout the world.’”

“ ‘The usual Armistice day celebration would be inappropriate this year in view of the war,” Ackerman said. ‘The day of the anniversary of cessation of hostilities is intended as a day for rejoicing for peace. How can we stage a peace celebration when our armed forces are fighting? Would this not be mockery?”

Okay, okay, oldest trick in the book. Surprise! The above was taken from the 1939 front page. The article appeared above the fold, too - no small piece. It began in classic old-paper style:

“Fearing Armistice day parades, with bands playing martial airs and flags waving, might serve to re-awaken the war fever in America, Russell S. Ackerman, manager of Bearcat Post band, today urged Dr. William E. Watson, Fifth district American Legion commander, to eliminate such festivities here on the holiday this year.”

Wow. Now: study that sentence. That’s a form of newspaper writing completely forgotten in modern journalism. It’s a freight-train; it’s clunky, it’s overstuffed, but damn if it doesn’t pack in everything you need to know. It’s meant to be understood as it’s read. It’s not trying to impress you or convince you or provoke you - it simply tells you what you need to know.

And what you need to know is that on the eve of WW2, there were those who opposed involvement in Europe on practical and philosophical grounds. If they’d had a lawn-sign culture like we do, you’d have seen SAY NO TO WAR AGAINST GERMANY here and there, and “FREE POLAND” bumperstickers. It all would have seemed alarming and depressing and tiresome; how long have we been talking about his Hitler fellow, anyway? It would seem distant and remote - it’s all over there, after all - but also terribly close, since you knew someone in the service, and there were rumors of new conscription drives that might not spare guys like you, or guys like your boyfriend. It was all quite unsettling.

But it wasn’t what you thought about all day. You thought about work, breakfast, the price of coal, the house payment, the fact that you’d inadvertently winked at that young lady this morning on the streetcar and she had smiled in return, the unusual rattle the icebox had been making lately, the tooth you needed fixed and the pants you wanted let out, the newspaper you forgot to bring home - your son was fond of that ridiculous Brick Bradford comic, and he insisted you read it to him every night. Yesterday Brick was fighting a giant Metal Monster. It had seemed certain he would be crushed. Today? You forgot to bring it home. Well. The streetcar stopped at the drug store; perhaps they’d have a copy of the paper at the lunch counter -

Hello, the fellow who’s getting off at this stop left his paper on the seat. You glance at the headlines; nothing new. We all know the news, and the news is bad, and everyone knows it’s going to get worse. It’s like the planet is falling into the sun. We all feel it. The details consume some, and bore a few, and frighten the rest . . . Ah. Here’s Brick.

You tuck the paper under your arm, and you’re whistling when you walk through the front door. The fire’s on; the radio’s playing; your wife has supper ready and your son runs to you yelling Indian war-whoops.

Life is good.

It’s hard to think of 1939 as anything but the Year Before. We all know how the story concluded, and the action all takes place in the 40s; 1939 seems like a prologue, a deep breath drawn and not exhaled until V-J day. But that’s the trickery history plays. Like every other year, and every other month, week and day, every moment of 1939 was lived on the point of the spear. The past was certain; the present would be hurled on the doorstep tomorrow morning. Beyond that, it was just blind hope and good guesses.

I had that 1939 feeling after 9/11; no more. Feels more like ‘41 now, and no, I can’t back that up. It just does.

Keep in mind that in 1941, people came home from work on an autumn evening, noted the quick fall of the sun, the chill in the air; they saw the gray scarves unraveling from the smokestacks, heard the shrieks of the children as they came up the walk, and they tucked the bad news under their arm, straightened their hat brim, and thought: Life is good. Not always; not everywhere. But it’s good here and now, and that has to count for something.

Or nothing counts for anything.

En route to the office I listened to a conversation between Dennis Prager and Andrew Sullivan, two men who couldn’t possibly disagree more about the matter of gay marriage. It was civil, collegial, interesting and amusing, and I assume it took up the entire hour. I always think of shows like this whenever a local media critic (ahem) starts talking about the ranters on AM talk radio; I think: gosh. You don’t know what you’re talking about, do you? You’d think that every station with a talk format ran the Savage Nation 24/7.

On the way back from the office, Medved was interviewing Susan Lenfesty, a Minneapolis writer who birthed an execrable slab of overheated nonsense that ran in Sunday’s Strib. To sum it up: Bush evil, people screwed, nation hijacked, but! There’s a silver lining! Like the passengers of Flight 93 we know what’s going on, and we can do something about it. She ended the piece with “let’s roll.” I thought it was a particularly stupid analogy when I read it, since it seemed to say we should all storm the White House, throw scalding water on Cheney and Wolfowitz, and then drive the nation into the ground. Well, Medved had the woman on the air today, prompting me to issue another of my regular Talk Radio Tips:

1. If you’re a guest, do not inflate your guesthood as proof you’re important . Be of good cheer. Particularly if you’re angry. If you’re a glum dour downbeat killjoy who has nothing to peddle but reheated miserabilism, you will come across as a bitter fool, and no one will be persuaded. The only people who want to hear bad news are the people who are heartened by failure. This is a demographic you want on your side?

2. Callers! You know that really, really clever thing you thought of the other day? It wasn’t. And you know how you think it’s just going to slay the host or guest when you say it? It won’t. You know how you sound when you’re stoned? No? Well, we do, now.

Clip & save. Have a good weekend; see you Monday.

Oh: d’oh. I forgot. The bleat-banner picture this week was from American Home Magazine c. June 1944; it’s an ad for a linoleum company. The man is home on leave, and he’s looking out the weekend of his sweetheart’s parents’ house at the hill where they want to build their post-war home.

Whether he made it back from the war, I have no idea.

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