“It’s a letter from the army,” Irene announced from the front porch. She tore open the letter, postmarked November 20, 1944, U. S. Army – European Theater, thankful that it was not the dreaded telegram announcing Bob’s death in Italy. He had survived the ongoing battle at Monte Cassino, but the Germans continued to fight from the ruins of the monastery on the mountain. Her dad and mom had come to the foyer in their home on 18th Street in Columbus.
“The army’s sending Bob back to the states,” she announced. The joy on her face faded, “but to Camp Shelby in Mississippi … for rest and rehabilitation … from combat fatigue. It’s signed by a doctor.”
“Thank the good Lord that he’s coming back and he’s not wounded, Irene,” said her mom.
“Your husband’s coming home,” her dad added.
Irene turned to the living room where her one-year old was banging on a pot with a big spoon in his wooden play pen. “Michael, your Daddy is coming home,” she said. He looked at her blankly for a moment, and returned to his drumming.
“He’ll arrive at Camp Shelby in two months. I want to meet him there. I can take a train or a bus,” she said.
“Now, I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Irene. A young woman traveling alone…” said her dad.
“The phone company will give me a couple of weeks off. I’m going. That’s all there is to it,” replied Irene.
As a hospitalized serviceman’s wife, Irene was able to book a train through Chicago to Memphis and then a Greyhound bus to Hattiesburg and nearby Camp Shelby in February. On the train, she had a lot of time to think about combat fatigue and what horrors Bob must have experienced in North Africa and Italy as she stared out the window at brown fields and loading docks in midwestern towns. By the time her train pulled out toward St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, it was dark and only her worried face was reflected in the window. A chorus of snores lulled her into brief periods of sleep.
The bus station in downtown Memphis was surprisingly busy in the middle of the night. Soldiers were sleeping in uncomfortable chairs with their duffel bags serving as footstools. Irene sat on a red stool at the food counter adjacent to the restaurant. She ordered a cup of coffee and a doughnut. The waitress refilled her white coffee cup twice while she waited to board her bus.
The winter sun was shining when she stepped off the bus at the gate at Camp Shelby. It was not as warm in Mississippi as she had expected. She was not uncomfortable in her coat. A guard pointed to the hospital, a large two-story building with classical columns on either side of the entrance. The camp was built in World War I. A tree-lined road curved around a large lawn and she set off with her small, plaid suitcase.
Sergeant Ryan, who sat behind a desk in the visitor’s room, sent someone to tell Corporal Calvert that he had a visitor. In the visitors room in the hospital barracks, Irene hugged Bob for a long time and both cried. He was clean shaven and dressed in olive drab fatigues with an open collar. They sat and talked in the corner of an empty dining room with high ceilings and large curtained windows until doctors. nurses, and men in fatigues began taking seats for lunch. She had lunch with him that day and every day she was at Camp Shelby. Irene checked him out of the barracks, and they took long walks through the landscaped grounds. She showed him pictures of their little boy and pointed out how much Michael looked just like him.
Bob was not the man she had kissed farewell and hugged tightly at Union Station two years before. When he boarded the train for Norfolk, a band played the artillery fight song and some of the new soldiers sang, “Over hill, over dale, as we hit the dusty trail…” A week later a troop transport took him and his battalion on a ten-day voyage to Morocco as part of a convoy flanked by destroyers on the lookout for U-boats.
Now Bob was quiet, and his blue-grey eyes were blank. He didn’t seem to be able to look her in the eye for very long. She had to do most of the talking on their walks. She could not get him to laugh. She told stories and even tried jokes accompanied by her own forced laughter. He would nod, but could barely manage a smile.
All too soon Irene had to return to Columbus to go back to work. Their long and tearful farewell embrace was much like the one when she arrived. On the bus, she cried quietly into her handkerchief. She hadn’t packed enough of them.
On the train, she wrote and rewrote a long letter. She wasn’t sure what else she could say, but she found words. She promised herself that she would write every day and hoped these letters and her love would help him get better.
It was after dark on a cold night when her dad met Irene at the train station, gave her a kiss on the cheek, took her suitcase and asked, “How’s Bob doing?”
“He’s getting better. He had a rough time in Italy. He’s been beat down pretty bad. It’s going to take time. The doctors don’t know how long, but he’ll get better.”
“I hope it’s soon. Bob’s a good man. Well, I can tell you Michael’s going to be glad to see you. We let him stay up tonight so he could see that you are home. I don’t think we could have gotten him to sleep.”
Irene had dwelled on Bob’s condition so much that she was surprised by how happy she was was to see her darling son. After Michael was tucked in bed and kissed on both cheeks, she went downstairs and reassured her folks that Bob would be home sometime, but she didn’t know when. As she lay in the single bed in her old room, she cried softly. She knew Bob might never get well.
Bob’s mother and younger brother William visited almost every weekend. They usually brought a rattle, toy or some article of clothing. William, who had scarlet fever as a boy was ineligible for military service, lived with Bob’s mother and attended Ohio State. Her mother-in-law shared information she gathered from local physicians and professors on Bob’s condition. She also had lots of advice for Irene about diaper rash, nutrition, and other things that Irene already knew, but she smiled and nodded appreciatively.
Spring came and the war ground on. The Germans fought on in Italy after Mussolini had surrendered. After D-Day, the Allies were moving toward Paris and Berlin, but they got bogged down in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally the war in Europe was over. There were riotous celebrations in Times Square in New York and other cities including Columbus. Irene was grateful for the end of the war, but she could not really enjoy the celebrations with Bob so far away.
Everyday Irene dropped a letter to Bob in the mail box at her bus stop. Her days on the switchboard at Ohio Bell occupied her mind, but after work and late in the evenings, she worried about Bob and wondered whether he was improving. Surely he would get back to being himself. She forced herself to remember the good times they had at high school dances and parties. He was a swell guy. Good looking, too. And she was thrilled that he liked her.
They had grown closer after he graduated and she was a senior at St. Mary’s. He had wanted to get married just before he left for basic training in Brownsville, Texas, but they decided to wait until he returned when they would have more time together. Not a glamorous honeymoon, but precious time before he shipped out for overseas duty. Bob looked sharp in his double-pocketed jacket, wide leather belt, creased pants, spit-shined shoes, and service cap. Irene’s mom had made her wedding dress, not a floor length gown with a train, but a beautiful ivory sheath dress. Father Holtzappel led them through their vows at St. Augustine Church where Irene had attended grade school.
After the atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, Japan surrendered. Irene and her parents were immensely relieved because Irene’s brother Bill could come home from the Pacific. He would have been part of the invasion of Japan’s home islands that was expected to cost one million American lives.
Within weeks, Bill surprised them by walking in the front door, laughing as he hugged his mom, dad and Irene. He had a deep tan and a military haircut, but the teenager who had joined the Navy had become a confident young man with plans to make up for the time he spent in the Pacific.
Bill announced that he was buying a farm with the money he had set aside while overseas. Soon he had a contract to buy a 465-acre farm in the hills of southeastern Ohio. He and his Dad drove down to look it over and were impressed with the property. Two hay barns, corn crib, hen house, summer kitchen, a deep well, a cistern and a large house built with massive logs now covered with clapboard and a good slate roof.
Bill had reclaimed his old Pennsylvania Railroad job as a brakeman in the Columbus yard, sixty miles and a two-hour drive away from the farm. He could work double shifts and drive to the farm two or three days each week, but someone had to milk the cows, feed the chickens, slop the pigs, and do other chores every day. His dad, who was strong and healthy at sixty, offered to run the farm. His mom would move there. Since there was plenty of room, Irene and Michael could live there too until Bob came home.
At the farm, Irene was busy keeping up with Michael who was now walking. He had to be kept from toddling over and burning his hands on the cook stove in the kitchen and the pot belly stove in the living room. Her mother, who was sixty-six, was glad to have help with cooking, cleaning, and laundry. When Irene lay down with Michael to read a story before his nap and at night, she always thought about his dad and wondered how he was doing. In response to her daily letters, she received a few brief notes. She worried. Sometimes she cried softly after Michael had fallen asleep.
Grandpa often came into the large kitchen for some coffee when he had finished milking and mucking out their stalls. Grandma, Irene and Michael were usually finishing breakfast. Grandpa’s boots would be outside the side door, still smelling of manure even after he wiped them in the grass. Grandma poured a fresh pot of coffee into mugs for Grandpa, Irene and herself. Michael was released from his high chair to toddle about, but Irene was on her feet to grab him under the arms if he began to careen toward the hot iron cook stove.
The coal fire begun by Grandpa before dawn faded to embers until lunch time. Grandma swung open the door on the front of the stove and stirred the neon-bright, orange coals with a poker to produce a magnificent flurry of sparks. A few modest flames began to dance above the coals. Then Grandma threw in additional coal from a bucket that was kept full of dry coal next to the stove.
After his coffee, Grandpa allowed Michael to follow him to the corncrib. Bags of feed were stored there along next to bins of corn for feeding livestock. Loose corn was set aside for seeding next year’s crop. Grandpa stirred feed into three-gallon buckets of well water. I followed as he carried a bucket in each hand to the hog pen. The lumbering boors and sows muscled aside the struggling piglets to feed in the V-shaped trough fashioned from two boards. The grunts and squeals rose to a cacophony and subsided to a murmur as soon as the trough was licked clean and the pigs returned to digest their meal reclining regally in black mud and manure.
With her large egg basket on her arm, Gandma took little Michael by the hand. They walked through the barnyard toward the hen house. Grandma guided Michael around small yellow gobs of chicken manure with flies circling. As they stepped into the low-roofed hen house, they were met with a pungent smell of hay and feathers and a chorus of clucking that sounded critical to Michael’s young ears. More likely, they were excited that Grandma would soon pour chicken feed into a long galvanized steel tray near the ground. Most of the hens fluttered to the feed, but Grandma had to shoo some from their roosts. She allowed me to pick up the brown speckled eggs from the hay and put them in her basket. Grandma would fry some for breakfast but most would be put in gray molded containers for sale at the general store in Gore.
Grandma also allowed Michael to follow her in the kitchen garden as she harvested ripe tomatoes, pole beans, rhubarb, cabbage, peas, and other vegetables. A few were set aside for lunch and dinner, but most were stored in baskets for drying or canning. Some of Michael’s first words echoed her complaints about bird and varmints that got to tomatoes before she did. Fortunately she never swore. Scarecrows made from tree limbs with branches for legs and arms were clothed with red shirts, raggedy pants and floppy hats. The slightest breeze would set them aflutter. They had limited success frightening crows and other birds away, but Michael stared at them for minutes at a time while Grandma inspected unripened fruit for future harvesting.
In the mornings after she had washed the breakfast dishes, Irene drove her dad’s black, humpbacked car to the general store and post office in nearby Gore. Michael rode in the back seat looking out the rear window, fascinated by the rooster tail of dust that billowed into a dust storm over the hard-packed clay and gravel roads. Irene struggled to shift gears by maneuvering a wooden knob atop a long rod that disappeared into the floor.
Irene usually found the store proprietor, Mrs. Terrill, under a sign that said U. S. Post Office. Beneath a cloud of grey frizzy hair, she frowned as she sorted the mail iinto pigeon holes. Later a carrier would deliver it to everyone’s roadside mailbox.
Irene always went right to the post office counter and asked if there were any letters for her. Personal letters, especially any postmarked Camp Shelby, were torn open and read on the spot. Michael wandered the entire store, but mostly lingered at the glass case with loose hardtack candy.
One day Irene waved a letter and said, “Your Daddy is going to be coming home. He can’t wait to see you. Are you excited about seeing him?” Michael nodded and pointed to the candy case. She was beaming. “I’ll bet you would like to have some candy. What kind? Can you show me?’” she said cheerfully. Mrs. Terrill scooped some liquorish into a small white bag while Irene paid for a loaf of Wonder Bread, a blue can of Maxwell House coffee, and a red tin of Prince Albert’s tobacco, her dad’s brand. Mrs. Terrill came around the counter to hand Michael the candy. As they walked to the car, Irene hummed Bing Crosby’s latest hit “I’ll be Seeing You.”
Irene’s mom was putting lunch on the table while her dad and Bill were washing up. Irene waited until we were all seated and her mother had said grace before she announced, “Bob’s going to be discharged at the end of next month, and I’m going to go to Mississippi and bring him home.”
Everyone was delighted. Then her dad said, “I still don’t like you taking the train. They are so crowded these days.”
“Why don’t you let the army bring him to Columbus? They’ll do it,” said Bill.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this, and I am going to Mississippi to get my husband. Lots of wives are on the trains these days. I’m going!”
“Can I go?” asked Michael. Everyone laughed.
“Don’t worry, Michael, your Grandma and Grandpa will take good care of you while your mom’s gone,” said her mother.
The next day, Irene gave Mrs. Terrill her letter for Bob telling him how happy everyone was that he was being discharged. The letter also said she would come to Camp Shelby to accompany him home. She reported that Michael was telling Mrs. Terrill and all her customers that his Daddy was coming home. Michael left with another small bag of candy – peppermint this time.
The rhythm of life on the farm continued a few weeks until Irene came to lunch wearing her good blue dress, her purse, and a small straw hat with a blue feather in the band. After some hugs and promises that she would be back in a few days, Bill took her to Union Station in Columbus. Michael watched the car until it disappeared behind the trees.
The journey was much like her first trip more than a year before. She hardly saw the farms and towns that passed by her train window. Occasionally a grain elevator or a church steeple silhoutted against the gray sky drew her attention. After dark, there were only mysterious lights in the distance.
How would she find Bob on this visit? Certainly better if the Army was discharging him. But would he be the old Bob, the one she met as a junior at Holy Rosary High School? Would he laugh like he used to when they were going to parties with Jim Connor, Tommy Curran, and Bobby Daughtery? Would he still make bad puns? She smiled as she thought they couldn’t be any worse – even after all this. She knew from her first visit he had learned to cuss and swear in the army. She wished that was his worst problem.
When Irene stepped into the visitors’ room, Bob bounded out of a chair and hurried toward her and folded her into his arms. They held each other tight for a long time, teetering a little in the middle of the room. They stepped back, hands still clasped, and gazed at each other with love. Bob smiled broadly, and his eyes danced as he took in his young wife once again.
Bob turned to Sergeant Ryan at the desk and said, “We’re going out for a walk, a long walk.”
“OK, Corporal,” he replied with a barely perceptible grin.
Bob was full of questions about everyone in Columbus. “How’s your mom and dad? Have you seen my mom? Is my little brother Bill still at Ohio State? I’m sure my mom won’t let him drop out,” he said with a chuckle that meant so much to Irene.
“Edward wrote and said he’s staying in China for a while to train Chaing Kai Shek’s pilots,” he continued. “How about your brother? Did you tell me that Bill’s bought a farm?” “And how’s my little boy? Walking and talking, I’m told. Tell me all about him.”
Their eyes locked as the conversation jumped from updates on one person to another. Good old Bob was back thought Mom with a surge of joy. They walked and talked for hours, missed lunch, and didn’t realize they were hungry until the shadows were slanted across the road and it was almost dinner time.
After dinner, Bob brought his duffel bag to the visitor’s room, checked himself out, and said goodbye to Sergeant Ryan. They were taking the bus to Memphis and getting a midnight train to Chicago. They snuggled as the Greyhound raced through the Mississippi delta on nearly empty roads. Irene was relieved and happy. Bob was back.
Irene, who had little sleep the night before succumbed to a deep sleep as the train forged through the darkness of Tennessee and Illinois toward Chicago. Bob put his arm around her and lightly rubbed her back as she slept and dozed through the night. As the fields and wood lots gradually turned from gray to green and the sky brightened, Bob was enjoying the peaceful landscape of the American Midwest, serene in the morning light of a cloudy day. He thought about all the battered buildings and ravished lands he had seen in Morocco, Tunisia and Italy, and said aloud “It’s beautiful.”
Irene was jostled awake and saw Bob curled up on the floor at her feet with his arms over his head. Low-flying planes had droned over the train, and their sound of their engines was fading away.
“Bob! It’s OK. You’re in the states with me,” Irene said. She patted his back, slowly stroked his forehead, and repeated her assurances.
Bob lay there for a few minutes, nodded and climbed back into his seat. He buried his face in Irene’s shoulder and wept. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to do that in front of you. Please forgive me. I won’t do it again.I promise.”
“It’s OK. It’s OK. You’re going to be fine,” she said repeatedly. He became quiet and then fell asleep on her shoulder. When the train pulled into the station in Chicago, Bob spoke normally about finding the platform for the train to Columbus and getting some coffee. Irene was encouraged, but still shaken by his dive for cover.
By the time they arrived at Union Station in Columbus, Bob sounded much like he did the day before, but Irene noticed some hesitation and awkwardness in his conversation. He looked her in the eye when he spoke to her, but his eyes sometimes lost focus and stared aimlessly. Bob was not all the way back to his old self. He just needs some time to adjust she thought. She vowed to give him all the time he needed. He’d be fine.
As they peered through the window, a small boy in short pants came into view on the platform. He was standing in front of Irene’s folks, her brother Bill, Bob’s mother and brother William. Is that Michael? Is that my boy?”
Bob grabbed his duffel bag and Irene’s suitcase from the overhead rack and followed her off the train. He walked to the little boy, squatted and said quietly, “Your Daddy’s home.” The boy stepped back and stared intently at this man he had never seen before.