I wasn’t around for Pearl Harbor. Unbelievably, I’m not that old. But my parents equated their feelings about 9/11 with the feelings they experienced when they heard about Pearl Harbor. My father was unable to serve, so my first-hand experience of World War II is non-existent.
Years ago, when I was a road warrior for work, I spent a lot of time in New York City. On one visit, I had a string of meetings with ad agencies on December 7. I liked (and still do like) to create quintessential experiences for myself wherever I go, and so at the end of a long day, I decided to go have an experience at Sardi’s.
For those of you who don’t know it, Sardi’s is a classic restaurant in the Theatre District. It’s one of those places that you can go for a late supper after the show lets out. Known for the hundreds of caricatures of celebrities lining the walls of the dining room, Sardi’s has been a Broadway institution for 90 years. I considered it my duty to experience it firsthand, so on a chill December twilight, I made my way under the flashing neon and the burgundy awning, through the mahogany and glass doors with their brass kickplate, and into a slice of history.
The dining room was quiet so early in the evening, so I headed upstairs to the bar, which was bustling. I ordered a martini and stood back a bit, watching, gauging the energy of the people clustered together chatting. But not for long. The folks were welcoming and social and I was almost immediately included in conversations with people who seemed to have known the place forever.
There was a very drunk elderly woman, garbed in exquisitely pure white, complete with turban, wearing way too much makeup and hanging onto an extremely handsome young Brazilian man. She was somehow related to the New York Times family, and we had a long chat. She kindly bought me another martini, and when she had excused herself to powder her nose, the Brazilian gentleman slipped me his card – thick, cream-colored, embossed with his name. He was her kept man – her Giglio, he explained with pride. But if I required anything, he was sure he could get away, and she wouldn’t mind. How…. kind. He was really quite charming, discrete and nice about it all. And I declined, in case you were wondering.
There was a small circle of old-school newspaper reporters who enjoyed complaining as much as they enjoyed drinking, which was quite a lot, and seeing as how I was a fresh ear, they bought me another martini and regaled me with tales about their long careers.
And then there was the final little circle of elderly gentlemen. About six of them. They were all Pearl Harbor survivors. They met at Sardi’s every year, coming from around the country on December 7 to celebrate life, loss, patriotism, and victories large and small. Two of them had overcome cancer. Others had lost spouses, children, careers. But all were proud of their own survival, their own tenacious hold on life. They told me stories – where they had been, what it had been like, how they had felt. Tears were shed. After a couple more martinis for all – I bought them a round – they made me an honorary member of their unit and asked me to promise to come back the next year. They would be there. I was honored. And I was proud to have been able to meet them all.
I did not make it back next year. In fact, I never made it back. But December 7 never passes without my recalling those men and that night. I’m fairly sure that their number has dwindled, perhaps to nothing. Nevertheless, I am with them in spirit tonight, wherever they are.
(And after that many martinis, I had dinner with an ex-boyfriend and his wife, and spent the evening pretending that I spoke broken English with a charming French accent when the waiter was around, much to his amusement and her displeasure. I think the old boys would have gotten a kick out of it.)