They were high school sweethearts. He did not have the best home life, and found a refuge of laughter and warmth in my Mom's family home as a kid. He and my Mom were in the same grade in that small Montana town and he and his brothers and sister would spend many hours there playing or just hanging around to find some spark of what they didn't have in their own home.
He and my Mom ended up falling in love and of his three other siblings, another one as well, married into her family, his older sister marrying one of Mom's younger brothers. But WWII suddenly intervened while they were at college, changing the plans that they, like many young couples, had made. He'd planned on marrying my Mom upon graduation from the University of Montana but that had to wait as he went off to spend years in England in the 8th Air Force.
In the big scheme of their lives, those years were only a blink, yet it colored everything about how they lived after that, like the war was a lens that they would forever look through. I look at all the pictures they sent to one another during that time and there are pictures of fun, and the laughter of just being 20-something years old; photos of Mom hamming it up with her friends, and photos of my Dad in his 44th Bomb Group uniform, on a rare afternoon free. But if you can look real close, you can see the worry about their eyes, anxious nights and sleepless waiting, not for days. . or months. . . but for years. . . . . wondering if they would ever again see the the bright clear eyes of the one they loved. There is no worse feeling, I can tell you that. But things were different then. There were no flights home, no leave back stateside to visit friends and family. Once Dad left on the Queen Mary to sail over, he did not return until the War had ended.
When he did come home, outwardly unharmed, unlike much of his squadron, he had changed. Changed with what he had seen and witnessed, and like most soldiers had developed his own survival ritual, his system of integrity and his concepts of what it meant to be worthy of the uniform he wore. With this, he and Mom married immediately and settled into a comfortable, steady, uneventful life that the youth of today would indeed consider dull. They didn't have a huge mortgage for a house that was too big, multiple cars, or exotic travel or trips. They created a steadiness in their life, mowing the lawn, washing the Buick every Saturday, dancing in the living room to Big Band, a quiet sanctuary of quiet routine and sameness that my siblings and I were welcomed into a decade or more later.
As a kid, and especially as my teen years loomed, our small town life seemed rather uneventful and I wished that something big would happen. Something exciting. But it didn't. Something big had already happened to them, and only a few years back. Still vivid in their memory were B-25's limping home in pieces only to crash before their eyes; flag draped coffins of family and friends being sent home, losses beyond redemption. And then there was the waiting. There was no instant communication then, no emails or cell phones to keep in touch. Their memories were days of silence and snippets of news, of hunger and rations; survival in a nation at war, the fear greeting them each day at their meager breakfast plate as they prayed that maybe just once this month they would get a letter, some hope.
Dad and Ash the Dalmatian 2011.
Maybe after all of that, Dad's goal was simply that nothing big happened again, nothing except safety, and the warm embrace of your family around you each night. In a world at peace because of the one big thing that you did.
On the day that I found their wartime letters to one another, packed in a trunk with his uniform, it was a holiday. The fireworks began, and we sat, a family absent my Mom who had passed on years prior, in the old wooden chairs they'd bought as newlyweds. As the rockets rained down, ones that exploded like living thunder, and the small lit ones that draped across the sky like a lei, flowerings of light floating slowly down to our safe little spot I glanced over at my Dad. As the last one, the showstopper, exploded in a blinding red and white of a thousand suns and a burst of sound that hurt the ears, I saw the tear on his rapt upturned face, his hand over his heart, as he remembered his comrades, as he remembered the beautiful girl who he had proudly fought for. Remembered, there in the safe world they had made for us.