Once Upon a Time

20 Oct

Long ago and far away .

Once upon a time, long ago (1942-1946) in a faraway land (close to various U.S. Army Camps) there was a likeable girl … or three or thousands. They made Army life tolerable for the new soldiers, far from the only life they’d known. Those girls from nearby offices, factories and hospitals were our buddies (if not our loves) for a night at the movies, an evening at the USO dance or for a walk through the park with dripping ice cream cones. Most had fathers, brothers or sweethearts in the service and if you spoke of them it was briefly. While you worried and waited for a letter or a call, you covered their fears with smiles and small talk. Was a dance condemned by the Church? What did you see in us back then, beyond our loneliness and uncertainty? Were we only trudging columns in boots and olive drab who arrived as wide eyed boys and marched away soon after … going to God only knew where. Few of us would ever return to the camps of the forties. But our roots were there. We would learn to dance and to kill.

Do you recall how strong, brave and fearful we were or only that we were one of a kind, all with one mind, all with the same line and trying so clumsily to impress you. Did we talk too much, nervously, about the girl back home, or not at all? Was she keeping her promises? “Yes” for a while because her letters said so until, for many of us, the letters slowed and stopped. “Dear Johns” arrived weekly.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder it also makes for loneliness. You made the loneliness go away. We sang songs about that: “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me; I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places or I’ll be with you in apple blossom time. Don’t get around much anymore. As time goes by….”

Dear ladies of that long ago time, you are not forgotten by these grey old grandfathers and great grandfathers who reached out to you when we were lonely. You knew we were passing by, just as you were. I hope you knew what you meant to us … Oh, how many of you, how many hellos and goodbyes, how many dances, kisses, shy and not so shy. And we were an endless chain coming and going, while you stayed. The troop train left in the night and another arrived in the morning. Few of us would ever come your way again. Among elderly ladies, the stories of those times are moving and touching, the stuff of legends. “for Heaven’s sake, Grandma! Certainly, that wasn’t you!” Of course it was.

Sherry Gray … we met at a roller skating rink and liked each other. Like school kids. It was on Ray Street in an Army town (Asheville NC?) There were a hundred bewildered soldiers to each wise and pretty girl, each hungry for what passed as romance in those times. You could have chosen any of us and you picked me. We met on Saturday nights and after the skating we walked until the last bus back to camp. Your father was a bus driver and you wanted me to meet him. He was gruff and intimidating. “You the Yankee boy whose been going out with my daughter?” I looked around. ”Yes, sir.” He gripped my jacket and pulled me into a quiet comer. ”You’ll be moving on like all of them, won’t you? I wish all you boys good luck. I want you to know two important things.” He was in charge. “My daughter is big for her age and thinks she’s grown up. She is not yet sixteen. You should know that.” He grabbed my hand and could have broken my arm. I got the message. He said, “And this is important to you. You got your cap on backwards.” He must have had connections. I was shipped out a couple of days later.

Priscilla Henson … Prissy, we met at a college dance, one of those things that given a choice, we would have avoided. You came from Kentucky to work in a military office. You had a big family. Your father’s picture with a long rifle worried me. What a grim guy but you said he was a great story teller. I did meet most of the rest of your clan. They were fun and made me feel like family. That was a time when I needed family, very much. I had a brief job at the War Department School, as a Cadet Major and then as an instructor. We met when we could. We had good times rowing on the lake, riding the roller coaster … and we saw “Oklahoma” but time ran out. I called you but your sister said you’d had a dental operation and gone home to recover. It didn’t tum out well and you wouldn’t be coming back. I had all kinds of imaginings. She sent me a letter saying you were recovering, but without details. I wish we could have walked together one more time but maybe it’s best that we didn’t. For me, things turned out right. I pray that you’ve had a life of peace and happiness.

Thoris Flowers … you were a nurse in the Centreville hospital and we met at a Church social. I learned that you were the coordinator and latched on to you for a very selfish reason. Our company had parties in our mess hall, maybe once a month. We’d decorate the hall, play records and sing; some of our people were natural performers. Jack Roth was a singer, Hannau was an acrobat and Roberts was a juggler. 1sang along with the record player until told to stop. Our cook made ice cream and cake. You would bring all the nurses you could gather. How did you get Army trucks to bring them out to the camp? The best part for us was helping you girls down from the trucks and we fought for that privilege. Those parties never lasted long enough. We didn’t realize that most of you had to go to work in the early morning. We became good friends and shared a movie now and then. I once called for you at the hospital and an officer was waiting for you in the lobby. He presumed that you and Saturday nights were his. You gently turned him away. If looks could kill I was dead. You never said so, but 1knew your man was overseas and that you were worried. 1hope he came back in good health.

Maria Vasquez … it was party night at the New Orleans YMCA with all of the usual trimmings: music, dancing, low lights, milk shakes and ice cream sundaes. No beer or liquor allowed. Your job was to make each of us believe he was the most wonderful guy you had ever met even if he was a dumb head. When 1recall that first night, 1imagine “she was a picture in old Spanish lace.” We didn’t plan to meet again, but we did, several times, same place, always with your aunt nearby, scowling. You said she was your duenna, your guardian and she would kill to protect her niece. You were like a butterfly flittering about, but you’d come back to me for the final slow dance and our walk. On my last night in town, as we strolled the narrow streets I took your arm. I expected a harsh warning from your aunt. “Maria, come here,” or something else in Spanish. You came back in a minute, smiling. “I have to leave now, but my Auntie likes you and she said I should kiss you goodnight.” It was a minor earthquake. We didn’t meet again and 1hope you found the same joy in life that you shared with so many of us. There were thousands like me, but 1always felt special when you were there.

Maybe we had a secret.

Renetta Lawrence … No, there’s no romance at all in this. She was beautiful with a laugh heard round the world. She had three roommates (all worked in a government office nearby). They had this nice townhouse apartment from Sunday night to Friday and went home for weekends. Five of us from a nearby base took them out now and then. The deal was Renetta’s idea: we could stay at the apartment on weekends, sleep where we could (loafer chairs, sofas and floor) and vacate on schedule. Our side of the bargain was to fill the refrigerator, clean the apartment and not use the bedrooms. They were off limits. Fine. We were potential officers and knew the rues. When the word came that we’d be moving on, the girls invited us to an all night party, mostly laughs. Renetta was Mother Superior and engaged to an Air Force officer. I hope he realized what didn’t go on … or maybe it did. I don’t think so.

Gina Kirby … I knew Gina for two nights and two letters. She was completely in charge of just about everything. Her family owned a wine company. Again, it was a college social and an escape … or I would not have remembered. She was everywhere at once, prodding the bashful and dragging girls to meet boys they would never see again. We were a tough bunch, paratroopers on our way to the Pacific. You didn’t go to California for a boat to England. Gina and her friends made the evening go too fast. The goodbyes took too long for the chaperones. They got on their busses for the return trip to college, but we couldn’t let go. The girls didn’t know that we were on the roofs. A mile or so down the road, we leaned over the sides of the bus, hanging on by our toes. We looked into the windows and made funny faces. Tough my eye. We were school kids again. We met once more but they knew that people like us were just passing through. We were confined to base from then on and allowed one phone call. I spent that evening with Gina, talking mostly about home and family. We exchanged a few letters and lost touch. We were all replaced by others just like us, I’m sure. I don’t imagine any long lasting relationships came out of those parties. They were special events, only for the moment. We learned to avoid looking at the clock. A friend of mine met a lovely girl on one of those nights and married her a few weeks later. They were a perfect pair but Jimmy was killed at Nasugbu.

Evie Williams … a spirit, lively as Spring; she danced on rooftops in Mass. I was lucky. She danced for me, wrapped in a big beach towel and I saved her picture, in a little box of wartime letters. We dated by mail for a year, and each of us promised that someday we would get together for real. She was a pretty high school kid, a laughable flirt, and I was a grizzled warrior of twenty with no time for laughs. I never met Evie though we shared an affair, sort of. She sent cookies and knitted a Navy watch cap for me. I told her I was a Navy paratrooper. Her high school boyfriend was fighting somewhere North of our territory. He was a Marine – and through some kind of malfunction in the Army Postal Service, I got her letter to him. I wrote to her and explained, and I’m sure they reconnected in time. We were alike, he and I, and for a little while we shared an affection for that silly kid. No, I never looked for her, but I did hope and pray that her guy got home in one piece.

This is a tribute to those adorable anonymous girls who made us forget that we were out of a common design, Government Issued and had no souls … and that’s heroic enough for me. I wish I had pictures. If we try to imagine them, the images get faded and jumbled … and we can’t reassemble the names, times, faces and places. They may have moved on, leaving behind a trail of love. If they haven’t, they’re at least as seasoned as I am … and not so cute or pretty, carefree and lively as they were back then. But, by Heavens, they are beautiful and worthy of a big warm hug. This story may be the only hug I can offer them this late in the day.

Stories abound, about one brave or dumb-headed guy who stood up and did the right thing when others played it safe. The machine gunner had no experience. So when the enemy got close he tried to fire, popped the latch and panicked. One man stood up and fired two clips as fast as he could while the others took off. Next day, the Captain praised the guy who screwed up. That must happen a lot.

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