The Magazine

Cooke's Tour

A keen eye and sharpened pencil in wartime America.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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This wartime journey began, retrospectively, a few weeks before Cooke knew he was going to take it. War had not yet begun for America, but rumors buzzed as he was on hand among a flock of correspondents on November 15, 1941, to conduct an ambush press conference with special Japanese envoy Saburo Kurusu as he arrived in New York. Cooke followed him down to Washington, and there he was by December 6, a Saturday that ended uneventfully with "a raw, misty night." Sunday, December 7, opened sunny and balmy, and that afternoon, just before 2:30, Cooke sat down with much of the nation to listen to the New York Philharmonic broadcast on radio, that domestic device which had become, for Americans, "a background to living, a species of wallpaper, against which they eat and snore and quarrel," when the bulletin came in from Hawaii.

The next day Cooke stood in the U.S. House chamber to hear President Roosevelt call, to rousing cheers, for a declaration of war on Japan.

Any reporter's instincts would likely keep him pinned to the center of political, or perhaps military, action in the rush of these momentous events. But Cooke opted to hit the road and "see what the war [would do] to people, to the towns I might go through, to some jobs and crops, to stretches of landscape I loved and had seen at peace." By February 1942, carting pad and pencil, maps, and a set of second-hand retreads, he was off.

His clockwise itinerary began in Washington, headed through the southland to Florida, west through New Orleans and Texas, to California and the Pacific Northwest, then east through the Great Plains and Midwest, ending in New England and New York City. Here was a wide canvas for word painting. Quickly do we see that this was a different America over a decade before the interstate highways began to make life more speedily convenient but, in doing so, diminished the sense of space, belittling those little places, consigning many to insignificance. In these early years of the war, Cooke must drive, not whisk, by stores and factories and fields--a propitious method for a writer graced with a keen eye for detail. America is a place with less blaring electronic noise and more politeness than today, and far less wealthy.

As Cooke sets out from Washington, a notice in a shop window presents the first sign of the coming austerity as he crosses the Potomac into Virginia: "Zippers repaired." The war, he sees, is already administering "a gentle nudge to the American way of life." Along with passing many touchstones of familiar geography, he also travels through a world in some ways barely recognizable now, like the outlying hills and towns just west of Washington in Virginia: "After leaving US 50 and going west on 29-211, I drove almost a dozen miles without seeing more than one truck and one private car coming or going." (Only the release of a neutron bomb could explain traffic so sparse along that stretch of road today.)

Mile upon mile he takes us along, the roving eye, speaking in the confidential second person, describing what we, too, would find were we riding along. Slowly do we spy the regimented privations of wartime. Predictably he finds people with "a defiant faith in General MacArthur and very little knowledge of Pacific geography." Out in Charleston, West Virginia, they're zealously recruiting air wardens to watch the skies for the Luftwaffe and finding a glut of volunteers for nurse's training. He reaches Louisville to witness the amorous languor of soldiers in town from nearby Ft. Knox and guesses later--perhaps not so predictably to us--that "the fifteen-year-old unattractive girl might well be the debauchee of the Second World War."

He sees farmland and fruit orchards in the South converted to impromptu airfields and hotel owners in Miami negotiating ineptly with the Army for quartering troops. In New Orleans he meets a man with the auspicious name of Andrew Jackson Higgins, a businessman who parlays an amateur's knowledge of naval design to develop PT boats. He passes through Texas, ruminates on the oil business, and discusses the apparent foolishness of rationing gasoline, which has not yet beset all regions of the country. He visits anxious passengers late one evening in a New Mexico train station: "Never are Americans so still as when waiting for a train late at night."