When I was about 9 years old my father took me to England. Growing up in west Texas, there were not many of my peers who had done that unless their parents were enlisted in the Air Force, and most had actually lived abroad when their parents were stationed in Germany or Japan. They still did not pick up and go on a vacation overseas.
The Air Force was part of the reason that we were taking the trip. My own father had been stationed in Germany when he was enlisted, and it was while he lived there that he ended up meeting his first wife. She was born and raised in England.
My dad always seemed to be a pretty adventurous guy, but somehow I doubt that he would have taken the steps to get to Europe if he had not joined the Air Force. Growing up in Ozona, Texas – a much smaller community than San Angelo, where I grew up – there was no major airport anywhere nearby, and probably not much of a reason for someone who was born in the midst of the Great Depression to conceive of the idea of travelling so far from home.
Like so many others, enlisting in the military took him far from home. It was while he was in his first year that some young women living in London – at least two sisters that I know of – birthed the idea to become pen pals with some American soldiers.
The story is (at least this is how I remember it), that these ladies had a map of the entire U.S.of A. Their process to discover a pen pal was to take a thumbtack, close one’s eyes, probably spin around with the other sister’s help, and stick the tack into the map. Where ever it landed, that’s where they would focus their attention.
I have no idea what map would have had Ozona, Texas, notated so prominently, but that is where that thumbtack landed. I have often wondered who they actually wrote to with an Ozona address! Whomever got that letter, though, decided that one of the local heroes should be the one to receive it and become the pen pal.
That local ‘hero’ was my dad.
Now, he had definitely done some heroic stuff in his life. For a town of 3,000 people in west Texas, at least.
He was, after all, a star of the high school football team. He also apparently lied about his age and joined the USAF at age 17, before graduating, so perhaps he was considered a blue-blooded American. He may not have been much of a hero at that time, but being in Germany I guess he was living pretty close to England, and that could have been the reason for forwarding the letter to him.
Later, he proved himself by rescuing some of the people who were being swept away by the aftermath of Hurricane Alice and the infamous flood of 1954.
Dad was definitely a writer. He liked to draw too. So I am sure when he got a letter from a couple of young women in England, via his home town, he was intrigued and quickly responded. Nobody ever mentioned how long this correspondence went on.
It did end up with a weekend of R&R in London in which this young man of 18 or 19 went to meet his penpal(s) in person. I put the ‘s’ in parentheses because from all accounts, he was actually only corresponding with the oldest sister, as the younger one was only 17.
The younger sister was the one who answered the door that day…
It was not too long after when they got married, she moved to the American Air Force Base in Germany, and gave birth to the first of their five children.
Upon the completion of his tour in Germany, they moved to Texas – home for my dad, but truly a foreign country for his young wife! The other four kids were born in four different Air Force bases throughout the state.
Unfortunately, theirs is a story like so many military families. The stress of the movement, which must have been exacerbated by what was – for her – a strange environment altogether, led to the demise of their relationship. She took her young brood back to her home country, and they were all raised in London.
In a few sentences, it sounds like a simple path. In reality, it was a hard experience for all who were involved. The older kids were well aware that they were leaving their father. It’s likely that they had never met their grandparents in England at that point, and they landed in a culture (and language) very different from what they were familiar with.
Not to mention that the wife was still very young and as a Catholic going through a divorce, the homecoming could not have been very well-received.
Thankfully, however, time healed some wounds. Enough so that the children visited their father and his new family in America, and he visited them in England.
It was on one of those trans-Atlantic flights that I accompanied him.
I may have been too young to know what was really going on, but I got to know my half-siblings as brother and sister, and their mother as a generous, kind, forgiving, and welcoming friend.
As life has gone on, I have come to understand that many, many of those wounds never healed. Many questions were never answered, nor even acknowledged. The appreciation of the gift of this family has matured in the knowing that we don’t know the whole story, and never will.