My father’s childhood train trip from California’s wartime blackout to the brilliant lights of Las Vegas provides a different metaphor for our Advent quest.
We call wartime “dark days” and in the 21st century we tend to focus on the emotional and spiritual darkness of a war.
But for my father, just 11 years old in February 1942, World War II’s darkness was literal. Southern California, as a potential coastal target for the Japanese, lived under a nighttime blackout starting almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. The fear and caution intensified in February after a Japanese submarine fired on an oil refinery near Santa Barbara.
Then an unidentified object was sighted hovering over Los Angeles. The photo shows searchlights converging on the mysterious object, which was never identified. (Image: unretouched Los Angeles Times photo, retrieved from the LA Times online archives).
Hundreds of military shells bombarded the floating device. And every home not yet blacked out swathed its windows in thick curtains to prevent any evening illumination from escaping to provide a target for alien weapons. Automobiles – which were considerably fewer than today – moved cautiously if they moved at all, without streetlamps or headlights to guide them. During those literally “dark days,” no outdoor lighting of any kind was allowed.
Dad’s family were divided at the time. Dad and his younger brother, Jim, were living with grandparents on a two-acre Southern California “farmette” while their Mom, Dad, and toddler brother, Jeff, got settled into brand-new “company” housing near the brand-new company town of Henderson, Nevada. Henderson was where a magnesium mine and refinery was located, producing a “miracle metal” essential to bomb casings and aircraft parts as part of the US war effort. Grampa had taken a job there and Grammie carried her littlest to Nevada with her while she set up housekeeping.
But eventually the moment came for Dad and Jim to join the rest of the family. Their grandparents put them on a train for what was expected to be an 8-hour ride to the station in Las Vegas.
The eastward journey toward home and family stalled repeatedly as the train pulled onto sidings to allow westbound troop transports the right of way. Dad, just 11 years old, minded Jim – then 8 – through all of what turned into a 15-hour trip.
What Dad remembered as the train neared Las Vegas was seeing the light – first the distant glow of a city, then the lights that surrounded the train and blazed along the city’s streets. The Strip in 1942 didn’t look much like what we know as Las Vegas today. But unlike California, it had lights at night.
Fremont Street in Las Vegas isn’t exactly my vision of God’s light that awaits me. But like Dad and Uncle Jim on that extended rail trip east, we live as children caring for children on a long wartime journey that is often side-tracked. At the end is a place we will call home, heralded by an unfamiliar light and entered by way of a loving Parent’s warm embrace.
Advent lasts a lifetime. Ride expectantly.