I am on a delightful journey these days. With my dad. For about an hour every night, I am with him. I have thrust myself into the movie of his life, for about 4 months in 1951-52, reading all of the letters he wrote to my mom while stationed in France during the Korean War. I feel as if I am walking with him daily as he goes about his business and longs for the arrival of his wife and 2 year old son.
The letters begin when he leaves his medical practice in North Dakota and puts himself under Army command for the next few years. He hangs out in New York City at a hotel, checking in daily at Ft. Kilmer, until his troop transport ship is ready, seeing some Broadway shows and eating well at restaurants with his best friends from med school who happened to be in the same contingent.
When the ship leaves port is when I really engage with him. I stand next to him on the deck of the ship while he barfs his seasick guts out. I sit beside his rocking bed while he tries to get down some tea. I put my arm around him to steady his wobbly sea legs when he gets off the boat.
When he arrives in Germany, I wait with him, sharing his angst as he waits to find out where the Army is sending him on assignment. I had to smile behind his back at his description of being sent to “the worst assignment ever” in Captieux, France (only because I knew it ended up being a blessing in disguise). He was made Commanding Medical Officer of a dispensary (clinic) at an ammunition storage site, “full of dirty, vulgar, VD-ridden enlisted men.” He tells Mom how let-down he is and how miserable this is going to be.
The letters are fraught with love and longing. Every single one, without exception, has at least 2 paragraphs of him expressing his deep love for her and how intensely he misses her and my brother Mike. He is so lonesome. After 2 months of letters, he has yet to use my mom’s given name….just “darling” or “honey”…..if I was a teenager, I would say, “Gross.”
The letters have been both mundane and highly entertaining. I raise my eyebrows when he decides to buy a gray sweater to go with his PINK “trousers.” (must have been the trendy color in the early 50’s!) I avert my eyes when he takes his baths in his small metal bathtub. I laugh at his very graphic descriptions of the other officer’s wives (just a few follow) after a Christmas party: “The colonel’s wife is nice and looks like a boxer, has a nose like Buddy Baer. The major’s wife is nice-looking, neurotic, 35, and drinks like a fish. The captain’s wife is a very buxom type, former Army nurse, pregnant and very hard.”
Together we saunter down to the open air markets and see all the fresh bread and veggies and meats. He tells mom that she will have lots of fresh food. I am relieved with him when he moves into an inn/boarding house with other officers awaiting their families. His landlady, Madame Salm, becomes a dear friend and pseudo-grandmother to my brother.
Before Mom’s arrival, Madame Salm rents him one of her old houses in the town of Bazas. For now, she cooks 5 course dinners for the guys every night and it isn’t unusual for them to spend 4 hours to eat and drink wine (The French like their wine!). She makes things like oysters on the half-shell, filet mignon, fresh salmon, and very elaborate desserts. Where I am in the letters, Dad tells mom he has put on many pounds!
His obsession with cameras and photography: begun here. His utter commitment to keeping his family close to him: begun here. His preference for writing instead of talking: begun here. His disgust with rude, dishonest, unkind people: begun here. His obsession with financial details: begun here. He reports to mom every purchase he makes and details the cost. He managed their home accounts with precision from France. It is interesting to see the genesis of some of my dad’s traits through these passionate letters to mom.
Mom has just received her approval from the Army to go, so dad is now instructing her about what and what not to bring and reassures her that even though conditions in France are very antiquated and dirty, together they will create a clean, cozy home for themselves.
I will get to live through his excitement as the day comes closer to her arrival….he is near beside himself! Thanks, Dad, for this gift of a journey I could never have taken with you if you had not put it all down. I wish you were here so I could tell you what a total delight these letters are.