I thought I’d take a brief diversion today from to talk about my Mom & Dad, because they had quite a love story. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction! Their story involved the Korean War, one big misunderstanding, and a couple hundred love letters.
Right after my Dad completed his degree in Chemical Engineering, he was faced with the grim choice faced by millions of American men in 1950. The Korean War was in full swing and his odds of being called up were strong. If he volunteered, he would get a slot in Officer’s Candidate School, but waiting for his draft number to be called carried no such guarantee. Dad volunteered and became an army officer in 1952. Just before being shipped off he was sent for antiaircraft training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.
There he met my Mom, who was a journalism major at the University of Texas, El Paso. They met on a Saturday night at a crowded sorority party and were immediately taken with each other. My Dad didn’t waste any time and asked her to attend church with him the next morning. Their first official date was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and was quickly followed by seven more dates.
Things went pretty fast, and as my Dad’s departure date was drawing near, he told my Mom he was falling in love with her. My Mom replied that maybe he was just a nice guy a long way from home who was looking for a little fun before shipping off for war. As she later explained, she was looking for a little reassurance, but still lacking fluency in the arcane language called “Female Subtext” my Dad just kind of shrugged and replied that maybe she was right.
And that was the end of that. My Dad went to Korea and figured he would never see her again. He settled into building anti-aircraft towers, but couldn’t stop thinking about that girl he had eight fantastic dates with until the Big Chill descended. Six months passed with no communication, but he kept thinking and thinking about her. Finally, he broke down and sent her a Christmas card in December of 1952.
My Mom replied, saying she was surprised, but glad to hear from him. That tentative Christmas card kicked-off a marathon letter writing campaign. They cleared the air about the misunderstanding they had before my Dad left, and began to open up and discuss things they did not have a chance to cover in those whirlwind couple of weeks. Over the course of about a year, they exchanged hundreds of letters, and by the time my Dad was back in the states, he was ready to pop the question.
But it wasn’t that easy. My Dad returned to his family home in New Jersey and Mom was still in El Paso. In the days before mapquest and interstate highways, that sort of road trip took some doing. He borrowed his brother’s car and drove each day until he was too tired to keep going. Then he found the nearest graveyard where he could sack out in the back seat of the car. He figured no one wanted to be in a graveyard overnight, so it was the safest and cheapest place to sack out.
My parents were still really strangers, but had fallen in love through the course of those letters. Their reunion when my Dad finally made it to El Paso was equal measures awkward, thrilling, and affirming. They became engaged and married on June 19, 1954.
A few weeks ago my parents celebrated their 57th year of marriage. Last Christmas they had those hundreds of love letters re-printed and bound for each of their seven children, so I had a chance to read what was going through their minds during that year apart. For someone who always regarded my parents as sober, traditional people, it was a strange sensation to roll the clock back and see two giddy kids with stars in their eyes, but it is one of the best gifts I have ever received.