After completing several stories about my father’s experiences in Germany during World War II, I thought it was time to write what I know about my mother’s life while he was overseas. Following is the story, ‘Waiting on the Home Front.’
She looks down at the old woman lying in the hospital bed. The shrunken body is all twisted with the legs facing one way and the shoulders another, while the sheets are twining every which way. The old woman looks vaguely familiar and so does the younger woman, though she has gray in her hair, sitting by her side holding her gnarled hand. There is a short knocking sound out in the hallway and while the younger woman turns to see what it is, the old one lets out a sigh and drops her head to her chest. The younger woman turns back and lets out a soft cry. This action has freed her in some way she can’t quite comprehend and she turns away from the tableau before her and starts to run. But she is running up into the air, not across the floor. What is happening? She hears a telephone ringing in the distance and knows she has to get to it. A face pops into her inner vision of a young man in a uniform. He is so handsome with those wide- open blue eyes that have always melted her heart when he looks at her. She can’t quite get his name even though he looks so familiar, like the old woman down below who is rapidly receding with each second that passes. She looks down at her feet and sees scuffed brown oxfords running along an oiled, gravel road. A voice from a porch on the farm house across the road and down a ways, is yelling for her to ‘Hurry’, to ‘Come to the phone, Now! Before the connection is lost!’
And, in an instant, the hospital room disappears and the gravel road and farmland around her comes into sharp focus. She is running from her parents’ place to the house across the road where, fortunately, the Town Supervisor who has the only telephone for miles around, lives. She prays the caller is not the Army telling her something terrible she does not want to hear. She prays it is the call she has been waiting for since the end of the War in Europe last year. She prays it is the voice she has been longing to hear for months upon lonely months. As she steps into the parlor of her neighbor’s house, her closest friend hands over the telephone receiver. She is shaking so much she almost drops the unfamiliar instrument.
“Hello?” she says in a quavering voice made breathless from her sprint across the highway.
“Hello, Duchess? I’m home.”
With those few words spoken she remembers his name. Rudy. Her beloved husband, Rudy.
Rudy is home and her life can begin again.
The truth is Rudy isn’t actually ‘home’ yet. He has called her from New York City. From some office near the dock. He has managed to get a ticket on a train bound for Western New York but when he will get to Middleport is unclear. He will have to travel to Buffalo first and then find a ride home. She knows her brother will pick him up there unless he can catch a freight train right into their small town. So there is more waiting to be done. This waiting will be easier in one way – she knows he is safely back in America – but far harder in another way because he is so close but not standing in front of her yet.
As Rudy starts to tell her what train he hopes to be on, the telephone connection is broken and she replaces the heavy receiver in its cradle, turns around and walks out of the house and back down the road to her parents’ farm. Her friend’s questions are carried along on the breeze: ‘Where is Rudy? When will he get here? Is he OK?’ She shuts the voice out, unable to answer these questions anyway, and lets her mind wander over the past year and a half she has spent without him: the sacrifices she and her parents and brother and sisters had to make for ‘the war effort;’ the uncertainty of Rudy’s survival that plagued her every day; the anxiously awaited letters that came in batches of 15 or 20 after none at all for weeks upon anxious weeks; the furtive praying in church on Sundays; the crying into her pillow most nights.
She knows that other families suffered far greater anxieties than she did. She remembers the lists of names of the dead and missing posted at the Middleport Village Hall every Saturday morning for the past 5 years. The Village Hall had a map of the world taped to the wall with straight pins stuck in where local boys had fallen or were last heard from. The war had stretched wide across the globe with names of countries and islands few could pronounce and most had never heard of before December 7, 1941. The world was at war many years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which plunged the U.S. headfirst into the fray, but people did not pay much attention to where in the world these places were. Since she was a teacher she knew the locations of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima, the desert countries of the North African Theatre and Lindenhof, Germany. But trying to picture her beloved Rudy, his little brother Jimmy, several nephews and many childhood and college friends both male and female, in these strange, exotic places boggled her mind. When she lay down at night the Pacific Ocean with small islands like dots on those vast waters, deserts filled with wandering Bedouins and their camels, and the snow covered peaks of the Alps swirled around and around in her head until she fell into a fitful sleep near dawn and awoke more exhausted than when she had turned in the night before. But regardless of this lack of sleep, she did get up each day right after sunrise. She lived on a farm and there were chores to be done before she left for her teaching job in town.
She was lucky to secure this teaching position in Middleport instead of continuing to live in Niagara Falls with no way to visit her parents and siblings unless her dad came up to get her and take her back on the weekends. Rudy had always taken care of the driving and she could take a city bus to work or for shopping or to the occasional picture show. She had friends and her sister-in-law in Niagara Falls and her best friend from childhood lived in Buffalo, but after Rudy enlisted in the Army, she wanted to be home surrounded by the familiar while the rest of the world went mad.
She tried so hard to be supportive and even happy that Rudy was going off to war against Hitler, or would it be the Emperor of Japan? The bombing of Pearl Harbor 3 years before had whipped even the most peaceful people into a frenzy of vengeful thinking. Rudy, of course, wanted to do his part and felt more depressed each time one of his family or friends left for overseas. He kept being rejected by the Army for one thing or the other which made her heart glad while she put on a sad face for him. But by the Autumn 1944 America was running out of eager, healthy young men and finally telegraphed Rudy with his date of departure from Niagara Falls to a basic training camp in Georgia. He was turning 28 his next birthday in April, 1945 and she could not let herself wonder if he would be alive to turn 29 the following year.
She had seen enough men wandering the streets of Niagara Falls and Buffalo, on crutches, body parts missing, blind and using walking sticks, to know his chances of coming back home to her as a whole person were getting slimmer as the war dragged on.
When Rudy received his Army uniform they drove to his hometown of Silver Springs, NY to say goodbye to his parents and numerous nieces and nephews. The nephews crawled all over him, as usual, the nieces agog with how handsome he looked in his uniform. His father shook his hand goodbye then went back into his restaurant and his mother clung to him sobbing, both as expected.
She stood to the side letting his family get their fill of him, and kept a smile plastered on her face. He seemed so happy to be leaving all of them. How could he be? How could her usually calm and steady Rudy be happy about going to war? He had longings she knew nothing about and would never understand.
They drove back to Niagara Falls where he boarded the train for Georgia. They had decided that she would not accompany him there as some of the younger wives were doing. Instead her brother Charlie came by train to Niagara Falls and drove her back to the farm in Rudy’s car. Her parents could use his gas rations for their tractors while the car stayed in storage in one of the barns. All neat and tidy, this transition, from her life as a wife and teacher in a city school, back to being a daughter, older sister, farm worker and young woman seeking a teaching job in the one – building – for – all – grades school in her tiny home town.
What would happen to her now?
Here is what happened. She moved home from Niagara Falls to Middleport to live with her parents. She and Rudy had recently purchased a nearby farm not knowing he would be leaving so soon, but she did not want to live in the drafty old farmhouse by herself. In fact she was afraid to live there alone so contented herself with walking down to it every day and dreaming about how it would look when they officially moved in. Next, because of the shortage of male teachers, she was given the position of Business Teacher for all Middleport High School grades. She is 27 years old and teaching the younger brothers and sisters of her childhood friends. How strange.
She is rising at the crack of dawn in order to help with the chores on the farm, once again due to the lack of men available for such work. Thank God her brother is not overseas. Since he is the only son of a farmer he is needed at home to help with ‘the home front war effort.’ She never asked him if he wanted to be a soldier. He seemed pretty content to be out of harm’s way and one of the few eligible bachelors for miles around.
Next, she learned to drive a car because she needed to get herself to Middleport each day. Her dad took her out onto Ridge Road for a driving lesson exactly once and promptly paid their neighbor Carl to teach her enough to get her license. Rudy’s car came out of storage and she braved the seasonal elements and slow moving farm equipment back and forth the 4+ miles on the Stone Road 5 days a week. Her first school year was short since she did not start teaching until Rudy left in April. By the end of June she had gotten used to her little paycheck and would like to have some ‘pin money’ over the summer months so answered an ad for a job as bookkeeper for Barden Homes in town. She found she liked this job and the people she worked with and was happy to be feeling more and more independent as the days and weeks and months and then year crawled by.
Among her many hopes and fears during this time was that she might be called upon to report the sighting of enemy aircraft in the skies over her father’s farm. They lived close enough to Niagara Falls and the Air Force Base there to be an enemy target. She had foolishly signed up to be part of the US Army Aircraft Warning Service while teaching in Akron, NY 2 years before. That was before she was married, before Rudy joined the Army and went to Germany, before anyone really believed the war could come to American soil. She sits on her folding lawn chair in front of her parent’s open garage door, scans the skies and wonders when she will hear from her husband again.
Rudy’s letters home are sporadic. Days go by without a one, then 5 or 10 or even 20 will show up together. She puts them in order by date and makes herself read just one a day. She has come to love his stilted handwriting made awkward by his teacher Miss Kent who forced everyone to write right-handed no matter what their natural tendency. There are days her little sister gets a letter from Rudy when she has not and she tries so hard to not seem jealous. The first 6 months after his departure, she had her brother drive her every 2 weeks to Silver Springs to visit her in-laws, but their faces and voices were so worried for Rudy, his brother Jimmy and several nephews she eventually could not take this added heartache nor the fact they might have gotten a letter when she had not. She took to calling once a month from her neighbor’s telephone to their neighbor’s telephone. Stilted, awkward conversations ending with promises to stay in touch.
Where is Rudy now? It is August, 1946 and the war in Europe officially ended over a year ago. Why are our soldiers still in Germany? The Japanese Emperor surrendered weeks ago. At the beginning of the summer she had a few days of panic that Rudy would be sent to the Pacific. Many of the soldiers and sailors and pilots were on their way there for the final push to squash the Japanese. How cruel to survive one front only to be sent to another one. But luckily one of his letters got through that he was staying put in Europe for now. She thanks God for this small miracle. Dare she hope for more?
One dreadfully hot August afternoon she is sitting at her parents’ dining room table trying to think of something clever to write in her letter to Rudy when she hears her name being called – shouted really – from across the road.
‘ Margaret,hurry, it’s a phone call for you. The Middleport operator is waiting. Hurry!’
She pushes back from the table, dropping her fountain pen, scattering the sheets of overseas stationery. They float like feathers all around the dining room as she moves with leaden legs towards the kitchen door. She grasps the wedding ring Rudy made her out of a dime that she wears around her neck on a silver chain. It is too big for her finger but it matches the ring he made for himself from a nickel. Her mother reaches out a hand to touch her shoulder but she moves past her. Her little sister cries out, ‘Is it about Rudy?’ Corkie, her sister’s dog, starts to whine.
She flings the screen door open and starts to walk down the driveway. Faster and faster she walks as she reaches the oiled, gravel road. She crosses the road without looking for cars or tractors and sprints onto her neighbor’s front porch. She won’t let herself think about what this call might be about. She wills herself to not cry or scream when she hears the bad news. She slams their screen door open and can barely breathe as she takes the unfamiliar telephone receiver from her neighbor’s out-stretched hand.
‘Hello?’ Her voice is barely a whisper.
The air around her is suddenly dazzlingly bright. White and shimmering. Below her the old woman in the bed appears again – smiling, one hand reaching out in greeting, holding a telephone receiver. She feels dizzy and disoriented. How did the old woman get the telephone? As they each put the receiver to their ears she hears the operator say,
“Your call is ready sir.”
Then: “ Margaret, is that you? I’ve been waiting here for you. Join me.”
And with those words Rudy is standing before her, tall and handsome in his Army uniform, smiling his dazzling smile. He takes her hand which no longer holds the telephone receiver and they step upwards together, above the hospital bed, above the village of Medina, above the Earth. Shadowy figures are all around, welcoming them. She looks down and sees their farmhouse and acres of plowed fields, flowers stretching on and on to the horizon.
He turns to her and says, ‘Welcome home, Duchess. What took you so long?’