It's Over- page 13 | History | Smithsonian
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It's Over

We asked readers to tell us where they were and how they reacted to the news that World War II had ended. And what a response we got!

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In my mind, I could see my cousin, Donny Schaaf, dying again and again as enemy bullets tore and jerked his body in several directions at once. Donny got medals for dying. He was the best dyer on West Second Street—no—in McCook, Nebraska. Maybe the whole state. No one could die like Donny.

Donny could throw his body in at least two directions at one time. His feet would fly, his head would spin almost 360 degrees, neck twisted like a wrung out dishrag, his torso and arms going the opposite direction, his gun arcing out across the back yard like a missile. And he had another gift that was the envy of us all. He could levitate. At the apex of his death-leap, he seemed to hang motionless, face contorted, eyes bulging, sinews taut, body stretched in opposite directions and on special occasions, one or both shoes flying randomly through the summer afternoon. It was great.

And it wasn't over when he hit the ground. Most of us just screamed and fell. Not Donny. He looked like six cats in a gunny sack, all fighting to get out. His death throes were legendary. He lurched, wretched, stretched, gurgled and sputtered. Arms and legs jerked involuntarily, drool dribbled into the grass, eyes glazed over. But it was his final lurch that usually got him the medal. He could bend his skinny little body into the most incredible shapes. Legs somehow twisted around his waist, an arm protruded out the center of his back, his head appeared attached to his hip. We often called time-out from the war to inspect his corpse.

But today, as it had been for the last few days, no one wanted to play. No one wanted to do anything. Adults put off going places. Across the land, houses stood silent, doors open, windows agape like giant beings staring out at empty streets shimmering expectantly in the heat, seemingly empty except for the sound of radios turned up an extra notch.

I went out on the porch for awhile. Nothing stirred. Even the wind had stopped. It was so quiet I thought I could hear the earth trundling through space. I sat next to one of the flower boxes that flanked the steps leading up to the porch. Throughout the war, these flower boxes had been gun positions, lookout posts from which we spied on the enemy, and occasionally, the podium from which the Imperial Japanese Commander delivered ultimatums to those of us unfortunate enough to be captured.

From inside my house, the man on the radio talked on about the coming end of the war and about a bomb we had dropped on the Japanese. It was a big bomb, he said again and again. It was big enough to destroy a whole city. We did it twice, in fact. Two cities. Wiped out. I looked around me, up and down my street. Somehow, I could imagine it. I could imagine me suddenly disappearing into a puff of mist. I could imagine my not being here anymore. I could see the rubble, hear the cries, sense the despair.

And then it happened. I knew the war had ended because suddenly the steam whistle atop the Burlington Railroad roundhouse way downtown began screaming. It was a high pitched shriek that spread over the rooftops. The man on the radio screamed. I couldn't understand a word he said.

And then, like a fog rising around me, the noise began. Car horns, distant at first, but growing louder and louder. Anything in McCook, Nebraska, that could make noise was put to use. Every church bell, door knocker, and now and then a shotgun blast, anything that could make noise pealed the news.

"Come on," my mother yelled. "We're going to grandma's." Throughout the war, grandma's house had been a place of refuge, where kids could dunk homemade cookies in sweet, cold milk and listen to adults talk about the war and censored letters from relatives, and who was and wasn't coming home anymore. My mother fairly danced out to the car, and away we went, across town as best we could. Suddenly, every car that could run was on the street, horns honking, arms waving, faces smiling. Mom honked, too. And waved. And when we got to grandma's house, everyone got hugged twice or more. Neighbors drifted in and out. Every house in town was open to anyone. Women wept and held hands. It's over, they kept saying. It's over. Everything is okay, now . . . .

My mother and father smiled a lot that evening. They cried, too. There were friends and relatives who wouldn't be coming home. They would always be in our prayers. They were our heroes. They had made it safe for us.

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