War, Peace, the Homefront, and Uncle Sam

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War, Peace, the Homefront, and Uncle SamI.

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In our house when I was growing up, there were three WWI posters that my great aunt had saved in her attic. My father rescued and framed them, hanging the posters in the hallway at the top of the stairs. I walked past them on the way to my room which was at the end of this hallway. There was no way I could avoid Uncle Sam trying to recruit me every time I went up the stairs. He never budged, determined to enlist me before I could even read. I had the sense that he was measuring every ounce of my patriotism: I Want YOU for US Army, he called out, pointing and glaring straight at me as I made my way up the stairs. I always continued forward, nearing closer to that long, protruding finger as though responding to his beckoning, feigning my conscription, only to turn the corner to my room.

There is some speculation as to whether Uncle Sam was a real person. (Many historians point their fingers to Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, New York, who during the War of 1812 provided large supplies of meat to the US Army. Soldiers noticed that the crates of meat were marked with the letters “U.S.” and it was then said that the meat was from “Uncle Sam” Wilson.) I knew he was real because Uncle Sam appeared before me in many forms. At night, if the hall lights were not on, Uncle Sam’s white stars would stand out, glowing softly. When I was sick the red YOU became demonic, hurting me if I looked at it for too long. In the late afternoon when the sun had drifted into the hallway and hit the walls in a slant, half of the poster would be cast in shadow, sometimes leaving Uncle Sam’s face concealed in darkness, yet his hand would be exposed, dangling in the sun. In the morning if it wasn’t overcast, if the light filtering inside the house was bright enough, I could see my reflection in the glass as I came up the stairs, my face on top of his.

II.

Uncle Sam has disappeared. He no longer urges civilians to enlist in the military. Today, Uncle Sam has been replaced with slick, sensational ads, often enhanced with computer graphics. At the end of these commercials, the slogan “Be all that you can be” is sung, the last “be” drawn out so it lingers in your head after the commercial break is over.

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