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A generation remembers

In a new book of stories, retired professionals recall life in the 1940s.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published July 29, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Many are in their 70s and 80s, having been at the top of their fields as physicists, engineers, educators and more. But when they chose to tell the stories of their lives, they settled on a time long past.

The result is a book of 90 short stories, Circa 1945, When We Were Very Young. Written by members of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College, the work is a capsule of memories dating back to when the writers were barely 5, adolescents or hovering on the brink of adulthood.

The title, editor Carolyn Janik, 65, pointed out, was appropriately borrowed from A.A. Milne's classic, When We Were Very Young.

"What's really fun is to read the story and then read the bios and see what these people became," she said.

When the decision was made to write the book, the group agreed to stick to one topic. But what?

"Seniors telling stories, remembering. Ho, hum," Janik writes, as she gave a glimpse of the reasoning in her introduction. "But what if all the stories were to come from the pivotal decade of the 20th century? What if the settings and events were to range over three continents and the south Pacific? What if the stories were to make you laugh, or empathize, or sympathize, or think or stop with wonder and awe?"

At first the stories dribbled in on sheets of paper and on disks, she said.

Then they poured in.

They came from whatever part of the world ASPEC's well-traveled members happened to be at the time. As the historic period dictated, many wrote about some aspect of World War II. Others wrote pieces that spoke of coming of age. Some would draw tears.

Others, like Cary Cooper's Pink Champagne, would bring smiles. The piece is about buying a first lipstick. "Picking the right shade required some thought that end-of-the-War summer of '45," she wrote. "Not for me that namby-pamby Tangee Natural that my mother was advocating as appropriate for young girls. No, nothing would do but Revlon's Pink Champagne."

Just 5 in the pivotal year, Linda Reimer, 65, touched on a variety of memories. "I couldn't decide to write about just one thing," the former Bayfront Medical Center nurse said. Instead, her nostalgic What's a Nice Jewish Girl Like Me Doing... piece talked about the "easy, safe, and fun" days growing up in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section.

Carolyn Janik's husband, Joe, was just 8 when his uncle returned from the war that had such a significant impact on the lives of the ASPEC writers and their contemporaries. A celebration was planned for his uncle, Joe Janik, 68, remembered. "With all the noise of people talking and shouting and laughing, it's amazing anyone heard the plane flying low over our house," the retired electrical engineer wrote. "The old prop engines roared. Joe's coffee hit the ceiling, raining down on everyone. 'Incoming!' he screamed, terror in his voice. And he dove beneath the table."

For Martha Lamar, the moment in August 1945 that "is forever etched" in her mind is the day she got a fashionable brown leather purse.

"It is as real to me now, 60 years later, as the moment I first held it as my own," she wrote. But the day is memorable for another reason also. "That afternoon I heard a newsboy shouting in the street in front of our apartment building, the retired chaplain wrote. "The loud words rang in the air. 'Extra! Extra! Japan surrenders! Read all about it.' "

It was a victory that came dearly, as Ray Cooper, 78, a retired physicist with the Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Energy, would remind readers. He wrote a goose bump-raising piece about Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 - in the terrifying weapon's own voice.

The 192-page book, written and designed from cover to cover by ASPEC members, is self-published. The group had a budget of $5,000 and managed to have $10 remaining after getting 500 copies printed locally.

Everyone in the group of about 300 members and associate members received a copy of the book, which was published in December. "A lot of people bought to give to family and friends. They wanted to give it to the grandchildren. This is a picture of a decade you can't get in a history book because they're personal stories," Janik said.

"We're toying with another book," she said. "Stories I've Never Told My Mother."

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