Category Archives: People

The Soldier and the Ambulance Driver

Last week, I had the honor of conducting the funeral for another member of The Greatest Generation. Born 96 years ago, he breathed his last breath in the peace and comfort of a local hospice house. A preschool child on Armistice Day and a teenager when the market crashed in ’29, he lived his young adulthood though the years of the Great Depression and was well on his way toward his 30th birthday when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He served during World War II as a radio operator in the 1st Army, 5th Corps, 56th Signal Battalion.

The battalion initially landed in Scotland on 12 July 1942 and remained there until 14 July 1942. From 15 July until 20 November 1944, the unit conducted training in Northern Ireland. The 56th Signal Battalion arrived in England on 24 November 1942 and remained there for over eighteen months until 5 June 1944. While there, the battalion underwent additional training with the British Army Royal-School-of-Signals. This training assisted the battalion in establishing solid communications between American and British forces as they prepare to battle their way across Europe. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, assigned to Fifth U.S. Corps, the battalion participated in initial amphibious landings on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. During this period from 6 June 1944 through 8 May 1945, the 56th Signal Battalion supported combat operations in: France (from 6 June – 6 September 1944,) Belgium (from 9-11 September 1944,) Luxembourg (from 15-23 September 1944,) Belgium (from 4 October 1944 – 26 February 1945,) Germany (from 8 March – 7 May 1945,) and Czechoslovakia (from 8 May until Victory in Europe Day 1945). The 56th Signal Battalion was awarded battle streamers in recognition of participation in combat operations during the Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe campaigns. (http://www.netcom.army.mil/21/56/index.htm) He never lost his ear or his touch for Morse code and he enjoyed telling the story of being on the radio set when the signal came through that Germany had surrendered.

In his travels during this period, he met a young British girl. She was an ambulance driver in the women’s unit of the British Army. Someone else driving ambulances for the British Army was a young lady named Elizabeth. Elizabeth went on to marry a Duke named Phillip and eventually became Queen of England. Though this soldier was not royalty, he was prince of a guy. Immediately and forever the ambulance driver became his queen – for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish ‘til parted by death.

After the wedding, they established their home in the states. He went to work in the town’s company store. They joined the downtown church where she loved working in the nursery. When it became evident they could have no children of their own, they adopted a son and then later on, they adopted a daughter. Like so many other veterans, he joined the local lodge. It seemed to fulfill a need he and so many former soldiers had to continue the sense of comradeship and common purpose they had become accustomed to in war. Eventually, he bought a grocery store in town and together the prince and his queen served their community for decades.

The year I met them, they had been retired for quite some time and her mind was disappearing into the shadows of Alzheimer’s. His frame, once tall and straight, was now stooped from years of work and the weight of care. Still, the love born so long ago as a result of a chance, wartime meeting between these children of separate continents continued to palpably envelope them. It seemed their hearts beat as one.

She had lost all ability to care for herself and was confined to a wheelchair but he never let her forget that she was queen of his heart. Daily, he would see to all of her personal needs. Then he would dress her, not in bedclothes or a simple frock as one might expect considering the circumstances but in a fine dress. He fixed her hair, applied her make-up and tastefully accessorized her outfit. For despite her infirmity and his advancing age, they had an almost daily appointment with the world.

Sometimes that appointment simply consisted of a stroll through the neighborhood. Year round she wore a fashionable hat as an added accessory for these outings. In the cooler parts of the year, a coat covered her outfit but kept her warm.

Other times their appointment might be a date together at a local restaurant. Though she required a wheelchair because she was too weak to walk, he would not allow it to be her permanent throne. When assigned a table by the hostess, he helped her into a chair placed right beside his own and would go to great lengths to make her comfortable.

We have all watched a parent feed a small child – lifting a bite of food from the plate to a waiting mouth, spoon by spoon, until the child is tired of the food or the food is exhausted from the plate. It is a common and natural event. Outside of a hospital or nursing home, we rarely see an adult feeding another adult. Because it is much less common, it is easy to think it unnatural so we tend to avert our eyes out of pity or even disgust.

Something about this couple melted all pity and deflated any disgust. Their manner did not say “patient and nurse” but “loved and lover.” For while his hand provided her food, her eyes sang him a love sonnet and his eyes danced to her music. Words were not exchanged between them but neither were they necessary. Their adoration for one another transcended all of the limits of spoken language.

She died ten years ago. Because the circumstances of their final years seemed so difficult for so long, you might expect him to feel some sense of relief even in the midst of his loss. But, you see, caring for his bride was never a burden. Back during the war they fell in love with one another. They made vows before God to love one another. They lived a long life of love with one another. Being “in love with” another evolved into being “love to” another and the two became one flesh. There was no question the prince would serve his queen.

He visited her gravesite every day until his own health required he leave their “castle” for an assisted living facility. He still got to visit her grave, thanks to their daughter, but it was never often enough for him.

Last week, the soldier rejoined the ambulance driver. The husband is with his wife, the loved is with the lover and the prince now rests with his queen.


A New American Gothic

(This is a post from my old site written in October, 2007. I still think of this couple quite often.)

Kim and I caught a quick supper at Wendy’s this evening. When it’s just the two of us, as is the case most of the time these days, we normally sit across the table from each other and engage in near constant, and often animated, conversation.

Tonight, we both were fascinated with an elderly couple seated across the restaurant. (Pardon the grainy cell phone photo. I tried to be surreptitious as I snapped it…I don’t know how successful I was.) This couple had arrived before us. They were quietly involved with their meals when we sat down.

Their table, like ours, was a four-top, with seats available on both sides. As is our habit, we sat opposite each other. This couple chose to sit side by side. Per our habit, we talked throughout our meal. We observed not a single word pass between them. At no point did we see one look in the direction of the other. When they finished their meal, they carefully folded their sandwich wrappers and continued to sit quietly with each other. At irregular intervals, one or the other would take a sip from their drink. She used a straw. He didn’t.

I can imagine each of them in their Sunday School classes each week…she in her ladies’ class, he with the men. They’re sitting in straight, ladder-back chairs that creak occasionally, with cushions in the seats that could use fresh foam inside their faded, handmade covers. Both have adopted the exact same posture we see in this picture as they patiently listen to the teacher standing behind a slightly off-perpendicular lectern made in someone’s home wood shop years and years ago. Neither class is as large as it was last year, two years ago, five years ago. So many of their friends…the ones he used to share a smoke with on the front porch of the church between Sunday School and church, that is before it became frowned upon and besides, the doctor made him quit…the ones she used to call once each morning and once each afternoon “just to catch up”, that is if she could catch that chatty neighbor off of their party line…they’re in the cemetery behind the church.

There’s a place waiting for each of them in that same cemetery. It’s a thought that each of them used to ignore because of busyness, because of energy, because of fear. Now, neither is as busy, neither has as much energy. But neither is there as much fear. Because after all of those years sitting with those friends in their separate Sunday School classes, listening to the Sunday School teachers teach behind those homemade lecterns, the lessons on living, dying and hope – especially the ones from Ecclesiastes – ring truer than ever.

To everything there is a season…a time to use a straw and a time to go without…a time to sit across from one another, and a time to sit side by side…a time to talk and a time to sit quietly…a time to be born and a time to die.