“When FDR said, ‘If a rattlesnake is poised to strike… you don’t wait… you crush its head” I knew we were going to war.” -Soldier during La. Maneuvers 1941
Pretend you’re a young soldier in 1941. Stuck in Louisiana during weeks of maneuvers in the field. You’re unsure if war is coming.
Or imagine being a teenager during this same time as thousands of soldiers fill the countryside.
On Sept. 11, 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt gave his 18th “Fireside Chat.”
His subject will be increased German submarine attacks against American shipping.
The following passage from A Spent Bullet takes place on the Reed family porch in Bundick, La. It’s told by Elizabeth Reed, a young schoolteacher.
Your input on this passage is solicited and appreciated!
Thursday, September 11
(Washington) President Roosevelt will address the nation tonight at 9:00 pm Eastern. He is expected to address continued German U-boat attacks on American shipping, including the recent USS Greer incident. Sources within the White House say that the President will present his strongest case to date against the Nazis.
Just after sunset is when the soldiers began arriving. It was common for half a dozen to gather on the Reed porch most nights, but Elizabeth had never seen this many before.
They were coming for one reason: to hear the President’s Fireside Chat. Speculation was that Roosevelt would put America on a solid war footing in response to recent German aggression on the high seas.
She counted nineteen sitting and standing. They were all from the medical unit up the road. In the dusk, she could see more coming. Her father sat on the porch floor huddled over the radio, attempting to fine tune it as 8:00 approached. Reception was poor due to an approaching thunderstorm.
One of the medical officers knelt by him. “Mr. Reed, they’re predicting a tropical storm to move in off the Gulf in the next few days. Is that the same as a hurricane?”
Poppa was glued to the radio. “No, it’s mainly rain—more like a hurricane without the wind. It can rain for days if the storm bogs down.”
“Have you been through a hurricane?”
“Several small ones. The last big one here was in 1918. I believe it was in early August. I was still in France but when I returned home, damage was still everywhere.”
Peg came out with a pan of their mother’s hot biscuits, fresh butter, and muscadine jelly. She bumped Elizabeth as we squeezed by. “Well, I see Mary’s listening while poor ol’ Martha is slaving away.”
Poppa cleared his throat. “You boys come get one of the wife’s fresh cathead biscuits I’ve got the radio tuned to WWL in New Orleans. It’s our best clear channel.” Poppa seemed nervous and Elizabeth knew why: radio reception was spotty in the piney woods, especially at night.
She spotted nurse Emily Larsen, the only female among the soldiers. “You’re kind of outnumbered, aren’t you?” Elizabeth said.
“A woman has no lack of attention in this, doesn’t she? The clock in the house chimed eight and a grave announcer set the stage for the President. The soldiers, who always were joking, flirting, and wolfing down food and drink on the Reed porch, all leaned in as the familiar voice came across the airwaves. “My fellow Americans, the Navy Department of the United Sates has reported to me that on the morning of September fourth the United States destroyer Greer, proceeding in full daylight toward Iceland…”
Static obscured the transmission bringing low cursing and frantic tuning from Poppa until he found the signal again. “She was then and there attacked by a submarine. Germany admits it was a German submarine…”
As the signal faded in and out, Elizabeth studied the faces of the men around the radio. It reminded her of once going with Poppa on an all- night winter fox hunt. The men had huddled around the blazing campfire trying to stay warm. These soldiers had that same get-close-fire focus.
The glow from the radio illuminated their serious faces. It was as if the radio was a seer’s crystal ball and her father, fiddling with the knobs, was the fortune teller.
About three minutes into his speech, Roosevelt said, “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until it strikes before you crush it…” The signal faded out as every soldier on the porch looked up in amazement. One spoke for all, “We’re going to war.”
Roosevelt’s voice filtered through the interference. “There will be no shooting unless Germany continues to seek it.”
A medical officer said, “It’s shoot first and that always means more trouble.”
Elizabeth watched her father’s faraway gaze she knew so well. He was the only person on that porch who’d actually been battle-tested, and the President’s words seemed to melt him.
He took his hand off the radio dial and walked to the porch edge. When Elizabeth joined him, he whispered, “I wonder if Jimmy Earl’s listening to this up in Missouri?”
He sat on the steps and put his head in his hands. She put her arm around his shoulder. “Poppa, I suspect nearly everyone in America is listening to this, including our Jimmy Earl. I just feel like the whole world’s crumbling around us and there ain’t nothing we can do.”
She rubbed his grizzled chin. “It’s going to be all right.” Elizabeth looked back to the porch. One of the soldiers had taken over the dial but he was only getting static. It didn’t really matter—they’d all heard enough.
Elizabeth had never understood how a radio worked. Somehow the invisible waves, at a certain frequency filled the sky and anyone with a radio could capture them. All over America tonight, families were tuned in to this event. She wondered how they were reacting to the speech.
Finally, the speech ended in a garble of words, static and electrical popping from a nearby approaching thunderstorm.
One by one, the soldiers soberly thanked the Reed family for their hospitality and began leaving in small groups. Mr. Reed stood in the yard shaking each soldier’s hand. As they faded into the dark, it was as if they’d never been on the porch.
It was now just Elizabeth, her father, and the crickets, frogs, and locusts. Fireflies flashed all through the edge of the woods. Poppa scanned the sky, “It’s coming.”
“You mean the storm”?
He blinked as if he’d forgotten she was beside him. “It’s coming whether we want it or not.”
She knew what he meant. The war.