“I know you love stories set in WWII era,” my writer friend, Cari, said recently, enthusing over her recent talk with her dad and mom about their memories of those days. “Want to join me while I interview them for more details? Their wartime courtship was just so sweet and I’d like to get some of it down, maybe write a story sometime…Dad’s stories might inspire you, too.”
Now anyone who knows me knows there’s just something about the ‘40’s that always captivates me. In my childhood, I devoured all the classic black and white movies playing on TV, and became mad about their well-known stars who were really more my grandparents’ age… Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Greer Garson, Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, William Powell and so many more… not to forget all the endearing character actors like Henry Travers (think angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,”) or Frank Morgan (the “wizard” behind the curtain in Oz) who added so much charm to innumerable roles. (Check out TCM’s great spotlights on these individual charmers called “Oh, What A Character!”– so fun. I often think it is these “side actors’ who really made those films and how we don’t seem to have such treasures in characters any more.) Loving this era…it’s no wonder that I recently wrote a historical fiction contest story based on some English children who evacuated to America for safety in 1939.
“I’d love to come!” I said, suggesting she bring a tape recorder so we could really take in their story as they talked. So it was that on one of 2010’s last snow-free days, Cari drove us out to her parents’ residential home in a nearby lakeshore town. A quaint colonial building on the outside, the inside was like a lovely hotel, with beautiful balustrades leading up to the rooms. At the far end of one floor, her parents had a light-filled corner apartment. Walking in was like stepping into a charming English-style cottage, complete with high ceilings, tall windows and a wonderful floor-to-ceiling library set in an alcove. After introductions and much ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the library (oh, have I not always dreamed of such bookshelves!) – heaven for writers and book lovers – Cari’s parents, Bob and Jeanne, led us out to their many-windowed sun porch to talk. The mini tape recorder set in place on a table before Bob, the stories began.
“Tell us about the time you arranged a pass, Dad,” my friend urged, “just to see Mom.”
Twinkle in eye, and denying the story was any big deal, Bob sheepishly admitted to a little finagling to see his best gal… I’ll leave the telling of that sweet story to his daughter to write up, but while he talked, my mind unreeled it all as one of those dear old films I love. I pictured him starring as a young American soldier back in a time when patriotic families often invited enlisted men to Sunday dinner…even strangers…treating anyone in uniform like family. I imagined the tender way that soldier and his girl might hold hands, possibly stop to enjoy a soda at the local fountain … (or maybe lasso the moon, like a young Jimmy Stewart promised high-schooler Donna Reed in good old Bedford Falls!)… simpler times.
At Cari’s encouraging, Bob left us a moment to rummage for his old war journal, then returned to read from his many entries – elegantly written passages, describing times and places, like snapshots into the things that had stood out in his mind. His entry about his journey home from the war sparkled with descriptive words about the way the Azores Islands looked…the winding roads, the sun-glittered sea…and the bunches of bananas he got for pennies.
“Ha!” Cari laughed. “Bananas, Dad?” Then to me, “He’s always been a banana lover!” We mused over how glorious fruit would seem to someone who had not tasted it in years.
“How could you keep such a journal in the middle of the war?” I wondered. “In a time when every letter home was censured…?” Again, the sheepish look, the admittance that he really wasn’t supposed to be writing things down back then…But he couldn’t seem to stop himself. So many of his written images brought the scenes vividly to mind, and I thought…hmmm… writing must run in this family.
Before we left, Jeanne pulled me aside confidingly to show me photos in an album. Shots from their recent trip reuniting them with many of the European people her husband had come to know in those once war-torn villages. She spoke of those who had organized their reunion, people who wanted to express their feeling for the Americans who had helped to liberate them, how they had even taken thought to provide wonderful old Big Band music for them… “It made us want to jitterbug again,” she said wistfully, “but of course…none of us can do that anymore!” She laughed it off, but I could see a bit of those old stars in her eyes.
“See these children?” she said, pointing out a photo “They are great, great grandchildren of the people Bob knew back then, and one of them came up to my husband to say ‘thanks…thanks for helping to set us free.’” Tears misted her eyes as she showed me their bright faces, told of the words the Europeans still felt and spoke after so many years…expressed awe that a child today would be the messenger of those words…
Together we pored over old snapshots…black and white. Sweet young faces. There’s just always something that delights me when I can spot an expression of the younger people-they-were in someone’s eyes and smiles…still there today. Some of their poses reminded me of similar photos of my own mom and dad, making me wonder what stories they could tell if it all hadn’t been so long ago…and we were meeting with them back in their own time somehow.
People and times were more dear back then, I thought. Simple elegance in character and heart. Men who took their girl’s arms as they walked, women who blushed over being caught in curlers. Soldiers who could somehow become one in heart with strangers they met in the war…and still feel that connection today. The 40’s era of the movies wasn’t just a glossed-over figment of a Capra-director’s mind. And I knew once more why I always love talking with people older than I. Why their stories of those years simply…capture my heart. Sure, they can’t always recall every detail…but the gist is lovely in the telling.
“I hope she wasn’t bored,” Jeanne whispered to Cari, as we left.
Bored? By living stories and words that put pictures in my heart? Never.
* black and white drawing provided by http://free-clipart.net/