On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, I returned home from school at half-past-three and, as usual, immediately deposited myself on the living room carpet in front of our Philco radio/record player console. After tuning the AM radio dial to 630 (WMAL), as I did every day after school, I became consumed for two and a half hours with listening to a succession of serialized adventure programs, until I was called to dinner at six o’clock. Everything in the life of a 7-year-old boy inevitably became trivialized when contrasted with the thrilling exploits of Jack Armstrong (the All-American Boy) or Sergeant Preston of the Yukon (and his dog King) or Superman (aka Clark Kent) or, especially, The Lone Ranger (and his faithful companion Tonto.) Nothing could separate me from the Philco console during those broadcasts except the call of the bathroom, which I would answer during commercial breaks. But this day would be different.
Superman was swooping through the air above Gotham City when he was abruptly grounded by the voice of an announcer saying, “We interrupt this program to inform you that the president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, passed away this afternoon in Warm Springs, Georgia.” Next was heard the subdued voice of someone providing a report from Warm Springs. I decided that I ought to tell my mother, who was standing at the kitchen sink and peeling potatoes, what I had heard on the radio. She hurriedly walked toward the living room, where she stood silently for a minute in front of the radio before she turned about and returned to the kitchen. I followed her and watched as she resumed peeling potatoes; she sobbed quietly all the while, her tears dropping into the sink amidst the potato peels.
Standing there in the kitchen close to my mother, I felt sad. I was sad because she was sad, not because Roosevelt had died. Maybe I was also sad because I was being denied my daily ration of Superman. I felt some confusion, too: my mother didn’t even know Roosevelt, and yet she was crying—why? During the many years that followed I would often ask myself the same question: why did my mother cry? Roosevelt had been ill, he died a natural death, and he wasn’t especially young. Millions had died tragically in Europe and Asia, but Roosevelt’s death could not be called a tragedy. Why was she so upset?
I never thought to pose the question to my mother, but over the years I evolved a tentative answer to my own question. For more than 12 years, through the vicissitudes of Depression years and war years, this patrician president had seemed a messianic figure, imperturbable, remote yet paternalistic, regularly offering messages of hope for my mother and many other citizens. And suddenly this president, this messiah, this surrogate father, was gone—and my bereaved mother, together with most of the nation, was in mourning. Superman had indeed been grounded.