Coming Home and Other Memories: The Heart (or Art) of the Story

“We’ll Meet Again,” Vera Lynn

Let’s say goodbye with a smile, dear

Just for a while, dear

We must part

Don’t let this parting upset you

I’ll not forget you, sweetheart

We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Keep smiling through

Just like you always do

‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away

So will you please say hello

To the folks that I know

Tell them I won’t be long

They’ll be happy to know

That as you saw me go

I was singing this song

We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

(We’ll meet again)

(Don’t know where)

(Don’t know when)

(But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day)

(Keep smiling through)

(Just like you always do)

(‘Til the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away)

So will you please say hello

To the folks that I know

Tell them I won’t be long

They’ll be happy to know

That as you saw me go

I was singin’ this song

We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

This song was written by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles in 1939. One of the most popular songs during the second World War, the lyrics focus on the love and pain many felt for their soldiers.

I sat in my church pew, the same pew I had been sitting in for fifteen years, surrounded by faces much older than mine.  We grow up hearing stories of an older time, but sometimes we’re so caught up in our own worlds that we don’t realize that we are surrounded by people who lived in what felt to them, another world. In my own church of only thirty people, so many of those faces had seen a completely different world. I invited Mary, a 1945 graduate from the same small town’s high school, for coffee. I asked her to share a little with me about what it was like to be in high school during the War. My mother rustled in the kitchen putting dishes away; the phone rang. I sat with Mary at the dining room table, the mid-morning light filtering in through the large north-facing windows.

In the span of two hours, Mary told me about the times she and fellow high school students sold war bonds and stamps, saying it was her small part during one of the scariest times our country has seen. “If you sold them, then you were investing money in the war, even as a student,” she explained. “The country was so united against the other side, it was just so different then.”

Although many things stayed the same in the daily lives of these students, the hard times brought them together in new ways.

Looking down at a an old war bond that she had brought to show me, Mary said, “People it seemed, were all working together. In high school, the English class on Fridays, we wrote to the service men. We would draw their names out of a hat, and we would spend the whole hour writing to them.” She paused, looking up at me. Then she continued, “It feels like another world ago, ‘course we were so young.”

If you went to the store in 1943, you couldn’t buy lots of things. You couldn’t even buy sheets. All the rubber and steel to make cars was used for making war machines. In order to buy gas for your car, you had to apply for gas stamps. The government would assign a letter—A, B, or C—each denoting the amount of stamps you could receive based on the importance of your need for gas.

“My brother and I stopped to get some gas, but we forgot our gas stamps,” Mary leaned in like she was telling a secret. Smiling, she whispered, “I still get on my brother about that. Well,” she continued, “after the gas attendant asked for our stamps, Jim reaches and reaches around, and slowly gets out of the car. Now, he’s got the crutches to stand on, and he’s patting himself looking for the gas stamp that we didn’t have. And the man said, ‘You’re all right soldier, you’ve done your service.’ I said ‘Jim, you big faker, you.’ He had done his share, but he was still a faker. That’s not all that poor man had to put up with.” She lifted her eyebrows. “I know boys who would give the gas man a postage stamp instead, and he wasn’t very bright! He TOOK it! Truly, the government must have been shaking their heads when they received those in the mail from that station,” she laughed and shook her head before lifting the cup of coffee to her smiling lips.

The War changed everyone’s way of life. I would dare to say that families suffered the most.  Mothers and young children watched their sons and brothers. They were left to wait. The high school graduation rate dropped from 51.2% in 1941-42 to 42.3% in 1943-44. Young men were leaving school to fight for their country and their home.

“You didn’t graduate, you went into service,” Mary explained, “so at graduation in 1943 and 1944, they’d have the seniors lined up on the center stage during the graduation services, and they’d have service flags draped over the empty chairs for the seniors who left for war.”  

Mary’s brother Jim was among the many to leave. She said, “We had a post office box here in town, we were so anxious to hear from my brother. Time passed without a letter. Mother went down to the post office to check our box after dropping me off at church choir. I’m up in the choir loft, church has started, and here she is in the back of the church, waving a letter that was there. It was such a relief to hear from him and know that he was okay. How did mother endure it? How do mothers endure it today?”

She and her mother wrote him every day. She said, “People who were all working together, to get this “thing”—the war—over, was such a different feeling than today. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“I think I was the only one with a brother in the war. I used to hound my friends, “Here’s Jim’s address, write write write,” because he told me that the mail was the biggest part of their day, or however often they got it.”

The most moving part of the story is yet to come, though. The pain of a mother who thinks she has lost her child is deeper than words.  

“My brother enlisted in the ASTP, which was Army Specialized Training Program, then they sent them to college, that was the idea,” Mary began the next part of the story, “And he went to the University of Kansas—that was where he was sent with another fellow from Hudson. And he went to school there, and then the war got bad and so he ended up in the regular infantry, and he was sent to France in the infantry, and he was wounded there. And people we knew, not very many (it’s a small town) but there were two or three killed. My cousin was killed on D-Day, we think. There is no way of knowing for sure. My brother was hurt with what they call the million-dollar-wound. It hurt him enough to get him out, but not enough to cripple him. They would send telegrams, and even this little town had an operator. The lady who ran the telegraph office was a friend of my mother’s. Plus, the telegraph office was in with another business. You could not deliver the telegraph via telephone; you had to go in person. And anyways, my mother was getting me up for school, and I will never forget it. Had walked to the foot of the stairway to call me to come for school and saw this woman and this man coming up our sidewalk. And she knew something, and that is the only time, the only time I ever remember my mother, usually calm and collected . . .

“And she screamed.

“And of course, it startled me, and the lady kept saying—I remember this—she kept saying, ‘It’s all right! It’s all right! He’s wounded. He’s wounded. It’s all right.’

“When he was wounded, I don’t remember how he got to Paris, but then they flew him to London, and then put him on a ship and sent him home. But my parents couldn’t go to New York where the ship landed. But he called, and said he’d been told he was going to the hospital in Indianapolis. And he called again and said that just as soon as he got settled in, we would either just as soon drive down there or he would come home.

“And I know it was not a week later, the phone rang, and it was my brother. He was in Hillsdale. He had bummed a ride from somebody who lived in Hillsdale. Dad was not at home, he was working. Plus, we only had one car, and I am sure my dad had it. So we waited for my dad; my mother wouldn’t have gone without my dad. And we . . .  I still remember . . . he was standing on the main street of Hillsdale, on the West Side and we parked on the East side. He got out and we met in the middle of the street and just held up traffic. Course, he was on crutches, and people knew, you know. They knew. He was only just 19 years old,” Mary finished her in a quiet voice, lost in the memory of that day.

And that’s just it. I would bet that the people in the street watched with tears in their eyes, just as I listened with tears in mine. This sense of unity, this national bond permeated our country. It truly felt like a different world. These are the stories of people who mean so much to me, and many others have stories just as moving. The people still surviving today from this time remember Pearl Harbor. They remember VE-Day and VJ-Day. This glimpse into another time is a gift. I encourage you to listen to these stories from people who remember. I urge you to be captivated by their stories, and to look to the future with the same spunk and determination these people showed even in the darkest of times. Recognizing that everyone has a story to tell and taking the time to listen to them is an essential part of being human. In a world that boasts more connectivity than any other age, it feels as if we are more disconnected than ever with the people who are in the same church, office, or school. It takes less than thirty minutes to write a letter to a soldier. It takes less than ten to say thank you to someone you love or even to someone you don’t know personally. This Thanksgiving, the Twitter feed is filled with live updates of everyone’s holiday get-togethers. In a way, we are more connected. I feel like I spent Thanksgiving, at least in part, with twenty of my friends and their families. But more than ever, we spend less time looking around our own family room and talking to the people who are here with us. For Christmas, leave your phone on the bedside table, find someone who sits quietly, and ask to hear her story.  

“Ditty For Departing Troops” by Eve Merriam

Keep your eye fixed normally on woe:

War solves problems, ends with armistice.

When Honor is at Stake, we gladly go.

The victor’s rose will flower on our grave, for Justice

Under her bloody blindfold is wide awake we know.

Morgan Channels is a senior studying English and French.

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