The aged wooden barrels freshly brought up from the cool cellars where they had been stored for a year or longer were prominently set on the sidewalks, emitting the unforgettable pungent aroma of the wine produced by the dark grapes grown in California’s soft and mild soil. Sitting next to the old barrels were the proud, older Italian American winemakers, offering a glass of the nectar to any passerby, be it a friend or stranger. It was the sunny, sultry morning of Aug. 15, 1945—V-J Day in the lexicon of the times when acronyms became the more common way of identifying historic events like the cessation of fighting that ended the most destructive war in recorded history. The formal termination of the war with Japan was still two weeks away, but America was ready to celebrate—my Brooklyn neighborhood, indeed every neighborhood in all of New York City was in the most festive spirit in memory.
Radio reports of the pending end of the war were rampant when I arose early that day. It also happened to be the Feast of the Assumption, a glorious religious holiday. I went to early Mass at St. Barbara’s Church only four blocks away and after the service, walked back to my block, met my teenage friends who were discussing animatedly the historic event that was transpiring. Accounts emanated about crowds that were beginning to congregate in Times Square, which now became our destination. With great anticipation, we began to walk to the closest subway station two blocks away, encountering many others of similar mind and invited them to turn the spigot on the wine barrel to have a glass of bold red liquid by neighborhood winemakers eager to share their personal pride beverage with us as if we were lifetime cherished friends.
My friends and I found the same affable and approachable spirit among subway riders; all of who seemed to be heading for the mecca that was Times Square. Once we surfaced from the bowels of the tepid subway, we were engulfed in a miasma of humanity. It seemed like the entire world was there. Our specific destination did not matter. We merely wanted to share in the rejoicing and perhaps kiss pretty young women. The crowd was so thick that it was impossible to proceed on any preconceived plan of travel. We must have been there for a few hours before our trek home, exhausted but exhilarated.
V-J celebrations did not end at that point. As of evening, joyous neighbors sitting on stoops or benches enjoyed the readily available wine as they shouted and rejoiced with one another. The exultant mood was understandably muted in homes where gold stars appeared in the window, such as my good friend whose soldier brother was killed in the D-Day invasion or in my aunt’s house, who lost a son in the invasion of Leyte island and another sailor son whose ship was sunk during a Pacific Ocean typhoon—ironically in October a month after Japan formally surrendered. The neighborhood celebrations nevertheless continued in the form of block parties, formal “welcome home” parties and informal merriment that attended the return home of the neighborhood boys.
We were aware that we were living during a momentous period in American history.
On Aug. 15, 1945, the nation reached the pinnacle of solidarity and unity that would last indefinitely—or so we thought. But alas that was long ago; the times are changing.
Salvatore J. LaGumina, PhD, is a director at the Center for Italian American Studies at Nassau Community College. He lives in Massapequa.