There are vast libraries filled with documentation of the Second World War, from military records to history books, biographies, novels and plays. The works still appear — there’s always something more to tell about the pivotal conflict of the 20th century. Even now we still speak about “post war” facts and experiences. “When All the Men Were Gone: World War II and the Home Front, One Boy’s Journey Through the War Years” is the latest in a WW2 literary sub-genre: the memories of being a child in wartime. As author Ronald G. Capalaces writes, his generation was “not the greatest, but the one closest to it.”
Ron Capalaces’s homefront was based in the First Ward of Binghamton, NY., a working class neighborhood anchored by Clinton Street, now the city’s Antique Row. He was raised by a single mother within a strong extended family, attended the Daniel S. Dickinson School and had pals called Dutchie, Tootsie, Jug-Bug and Yonkie. The kids were taught right from wrong, which didn’t seem to stop them from sneaking into movies at the Ritz Theater or snatching a penny candy from Parrish’s Candy Store on Mygatt Street. And even though they recognized the dangers of swimming in the Chenango River, it was exciting to play hide and seek around Cutler’s Dam. “Every summer someone drowned,” Capalaces writes. “Sometimes you never knew anyone was missing or in trouble until a pile of clothes lay unclaimed on the dam for a day or two.” But the war was an inescapable fact of life, even for a child in Binghamton.
You could feel things changing on Clinton Street. Women and girls worked real jobs, the ones the men left behind. The big crowds of people were gone and you started to get a sad feeling like riding a merry-go-round when the music ends and the horses slow down. On Clinton Street, kids could remember or forget their troubles, or just waste time waiting for the day when everyone would be home again and the street would look and sound and smell the way it once did. In the meantime, you had the feeling you were on your own.
— from “When All the Men Were Gone”
There were also institutions that gave some direction and protection to young people, especially the Boys’ Club on the corner of East Clinton and Washington. Young “Cappy” went there for the games and sports, but also found himself involved in civic activities (he was even elected to serve a day as the “Boy Mayor” of Binghamton). He joined the Victory Volunteers, a uniformed cadre sponsored by the Boys’ Club that carried out such essential wartime support activity as collecting kitchen fats for recycling into ammunition. His first assignment was pulling a wagon from one splendid mansion to the next along Riverside Drive to ask wealthy residents for their drippings. The club provided many growing experiences which Ron Capalaces has not forgotten. A portion of the proceeds from sale of “When All the Men Were Gone” will go to support what is now the Boys and Girls Clubs of Binghamton.
Each chapter begins with war headlines from the Binghamton newspapers and as the book proceeds wartime activity moves to the center of Ron’s remembrances. There was victory and emotional homecomings, but war is always tragic and even those who survive may suffer. “When All the Men Were Gone” opens with the poignant postwar story of young Ron searching the taverns up and down Clinton Street to find his Uncle John and lead the inebriated war hero home.
Ron Capalaces went on to a distinguished media career. He was a cameraman during the early days of WNBF-TV, Binghamton’s original channel 12, later worked for the U.S. Infortmation Agency and the Close-Up Foundation.