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Once upon a time, he shot at surfacing German subs in the North Atlantic, tried to pick off the crews who were aiming anti-aircraft flak at Navy bombers whose depth charges could blow those subs right out of the water.
In the spring of 1942 he’d gone into flight school after graduation from college, spent a year in series of special schools, then took orders to Norfolk for duty in the North Atlantic. During his years keeping Nazi U-boats away, his unit of Liberator pilots knocked off nine subs. “They didn’t give you credit unless there was a heckuva oil stain on the water,” he told me, a bowl of soup set precariously on a couple of towels draped over his lap. Today, he’s not quite as adept at using a soup spoon as he was, long ago, with a tiller. The soup was lime chicken from his daughter in North Carolina. They know how to cook in North Carolina, he says.
He knew. He married a North Carolina girl.
I didn’t say much at all for two hours while he told me about his life, but what a joy it was to hear a life story he hadn’t told all that often in a long time, if in fact he ever had.
He cried twice. Once, when he remembered coming back to Norfolk aboard the tin bucket aircraft carrier that shuffled them around for most of the war, a merchant marine vessel worked over into an carrier with barely enough space to land Liberators. In all, it held just nine birds. Made take-offs difficult too. Like it or not, that ship was home.
What brewed the tears was remembering how that old carrier sailed into the harbor and how right there on the pier in front of him coming ever closer was his brand new wife standing among the others. That happened 78 years before, he said. Just seeing her there in his memory brought tears.
When the Nazis began to recharge their batteries at night on the North Atlantic, he and his buddies had to learn whole new technologies. Where there was once a bomb in the hold, the Navy installed flood lights. To learn the new flying tricks, the whole bunch were sent to Florida. He told his sweetheart to take a train down south with the other wives. “But, honey,” she told him sweetly, “you have to remember, we’re not married.”
“Then that’ll have to change,” he told her.
And it did. They left for Florida a few days later, married.
The next time that carrier and its nine planes returned to port for resupply was the time he spotted his new wife on the pier waiting for him–that’s the moment he’ll never forget. He’s an old vet, and he doesn’t walk or hear well, but the memory of that beautiful woman waiting on the pier brought tears from someplace so deep inside we all wish we held such treasures.
He’d met her in Norfolk, danced with her three times in a row one night, then asked her if next time he was in port he could date her. She said yes, so he wrote her address on his sharp white cuff of his uniform.
The picture he showed me is just about the most beautiful thing you can imagine, the two of them, a radiant, happy couple in a full body hug, huge smiles on both their handsome faces. There’s no sweet side to war, but once in a while it can do something greatly memorable with love.
Couldn’t help but note an edge of tears in his eyes one other time too that morning, when he told me how land prices skyrocketed in 70s and early 80s. When they did, farmers loaded up on land, on machinery, on cattle. As long as their paper worth was way up and out of sight, so was good sense.
But the market didn’t hold, and when land prices fell the whole works buckled like a house of cards. Good, hard-working people who prayed to the Almighty suddenly found themselves so far gone there was no way out of debt but to wrinkle up your dreams in your fists.
“That was a bad time, wasn’t it?” I asked him.
That’s when he cried again.
He’d become a banker, a good one. “The Board met every day at six in the morning and go over loans,” he told me, his lips shivering in the overheated apartment.
Twice he cried that afternoon, this precious old man who, once upon a time in the inky dark over a cold North Atlantic, pushed a joystick around, and it wasn’t a game.
Twice he cried. I saw it. Once in joy and once in misery. Both of them so different. Both of them in this veteran’s life.
And yours. And mine.
That morning, it was a blessing to hear him tell it.
Vernon Mouw age 96, of Sioux Center, IA died Thursday, November 3, 2016, just a few weeks after he told me his story.