On a drizzly Thursday morning 50 years ago, my father and I left our home on Long Island, N.Y., by car for Texas where he was to be stationed. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.
The whole world remembers that day, April 12, 1945, and indeed remembers the next three weeks, which were packed with some of history's most dramatic events: the meeting of Russian and American Armies, the fall of Berlin, the deaths of Mussolini and Hitler, and finally the collapse of Nazi Germany. But our wholehearted, well-deserved celebration of these triumphs was not to be, because of what happened on that day we left for Texas.
I'm sure that my dad and I were among the last in the world to find out. We'd driven since early morning, and everything we'd seen made an impression on me. After leaving home, we'd crossed Manhattan and New Jersey and then drove for hours along America's only superhighway -- the brand-new Pennsylvania Turnpike -- with its four lanes, futuristic cloverleaves, and long tunnels under the mountains.
It was nighttime when we exited the turnpike at a road connecting with US 40, the Lincoln Highway. But my adventure was shattered as soon as we reached the toll booths. There, the kindly ticket taker leaned his head into the car and asked solemnly, ''Have you had your radio on?'' We hadn't. Then his voice cracked as he told us, ''President Roosevelt died.''
My father held the wheel and looked into the darkness for a long time before starting up. His eyes moistened. Finally he said, ''I feel like I've lost my best friend.''
It was a total shock. It was one of the few events of the century where everyone remembers exactly what they were doing at the moment they heard the news.
During his 12 years as president, Roosevelt had led us through a global depression and World War II. He turned these calamities into national challenges ending in triumph. He'd galvanized us with the words: ''The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.'' He had been like a guiding light, and his strength, optimism, and determination had become imbued in every one of us. That he should give out now, with the moment of victory only days away, and that we would never hear his voice announcing: ''Germany has surrendered!'' was inconceivable.
The only president I'd ever known was dead. Suddenly, the real, unsafe, world at war had thrown itself back on my cheerful day, and our euphoric sense of being on the eve of peace was gone.
After hours on America's most modern highway, the road now was black, bumpy, narrow, and treacherous ... like driving out of a dream and back into the nightmare of 1945. We slowly wound down a mountainside through the rainy night toward a mass of tiny lights in a valley far below, where Washington, Pa., was sprawled out. There we found a restaurant.
IT was packed. A man was draping black cloth above the bar, and I asked my father about it. He explained that when someone dies you hang crepe. I was baffled. To me, the word ''crepe'' was associated with colorful paper streamers at happy occasions. When confronted with this confusing new use for the word, I was unwilling to accept it. I remember arguing about it while we waited for dinner. Soon I became so absorbed in my novel surroundings that I forgot about the news.
The voice of a familiar network radio announcer in the background had been mixed in with the general clatter, with perhaps only those closest to the radio actually listening. But when the voice stopped and they began playing ''Home on the Range,'' my father turned to me. I'll never forget his expression when he said, ''This was the president's favorite song.'' I saw the whole world's sadness in his face.
Within seconds, the entire room was listening. Everyone knew what that song meant to Franklin Roosevelt and, for a moment, Americans everywhere who were tuned to that broadcast were drawn together in silence. I looked out into the night past a red neon sign hanging in the restaurant window and watched sheets of illuminated rain flow down the plate glass, as I listened to the words.
Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.