Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Very Special Wedding

Not all family history is ancient history.  Once in a while an event takes place that makes me think, “This story should be told.  This story should be written down and remembered.”  One such story in our family is that of Frank and Nancy’s wedding.

Shortly after my mid-life wedding in 2007, my sister met a man named Frank.  Both had been previously married (and had their hearts broken).  It was true love, and they got engaged in 2008. 
Nancy had been living in California for decades by then and had deep roots there, as did Frank.  But as they planned their wedding, she was continually saddened by the thought that our bedridden mother would not be able to attend. 

Mom lived in Illinois, as I do.  She had missed my wedding the previous year, being too frail to attend (as well as being legally blind and nearly deaf).  When I got married in 2007, I went over to her house in my wedding dress, along with Nancy in her maid-of-honor dress.  “Mom, I’m getting married today!” I told her.  Her face lit up with a smile as she touched the fabric of my dress.  I wasn’t sure if she would remember that day, but I wanted to give her what I could.

As Nancy sadly planned her motherless wedding, it was Frank who came up with the idea.  He said to his beloved that if her mother couldn’t come to the wedding—they would move the wedding to her mother.  Mom lived in a large, bright room with our sister-in-law Susie by this time.  When presented with the idea of hosting the wedding, Susie said that she would be delighted.

 And so it was…  On December 26, 2008, we all gathered in Mom’s large room at Susie’s house.  The room had been festooned with lots of white netting, white lights, and white candles.  There were about 20 chairs set up at one end of the room.  At the other end, next to the fireplace, there was a ivy-covered arch.  And just a few steps away was my mother, tucked in under an afghan in her special chair, which was turned towards the arch for the ceremony.  She was wearing a wrist corsage of red roses that matched her daughter’s wedding bouquet.

Five of Frank and Nancy’s six children were able to attend.  Rather than a best man and maid of honor, the five children stood on each side of the couple as they were wed.  My friend Karen, an ordained minister, officiated the ceremony, and our niece Sarah and her husband Russ read the scripture.  It was beautiful and magical and just perfect.

This may not be an old story, but it’s a story that should be remembered and passed down in the family... my family.  Well done, Frank and Nancy—and happy sixth anniversary!


Monday, December 8, 2014

A Young Soldier's "Personal Affairs"

After my father’s death in 1993, my sister and I sat on the floor of the living room one evening, going through boxes and drawers of his military papers, deciding what to keep.  We found a booklet entitled “Personal Affairs of Military Personnel and Dependents”—this is the front cover.  There are some notes in my father’s handwriting, which read as follows:

“Note:  In [the] event of my untimely demise, Be sure to collect these 4:

1.  Insurance,

2.  6 months gratuity ($900) lump sum;

3.  My back accrued pay.  (2. and 3. Not automatic—action must be initiated by you.  See inside of book for details.)

4.  Grab my money out of the bank (using enclosed power of attorney) before they freeze it.  The enclosed Power of Attorney lasts no longer than I do, but if you get it out before they know I’m gone, it will save trouble.  Otherwise file my will and they will come across.

This book will answer a lot of questions.”

I guess this is consistent with the fact that Dad was a business major in college before the war!  

The booklet had three pages of information about his final wishes and was meant to be left with his next of kin—in his case, his mother.  In my imagination I am picturing a roomful of recruits, headed for overseas, sitting at tables and filling in this booklet, thinking about their own deaths possibly for the first time, as it sunk in that yes, they were headed for the front lines of what we now call World War Two and might never return.

Page 1 gives basic information, including that he is 21 years old.  He carries $10,000 of life insurance, payable to his mother Sara, with his father as Contingent Beneficiary.  (That’s the equivalent of about $133,000 today.)  This optional insurance cost him $6.50 a month out of his pay—but his parents were not well off financially, and that money would have meant a lot to them—a chance to buy their own farm instead of renting, for example.

From his army pay of $150 per month (about $2,000 today), he had $50 a month sent to his bank at home, and another $18.75 taken out to buy War Bonds.  The booklet said, “If I am reported missing, missing in action, interned in a neutral country, or captured or besieged by enemy forces, the allotments out of my pay for insurance and support of my relatives will be paid by the government for 12 months.”

Page 1 of the form goes on to say that Dad had executed a will and Power of Attorney and mailed them to his father in Big Rock, Illinois.

Page 2 has blanks to fill in where he might have a Safe Deposit Box, where he left personal papers, and what debts he owed (none).  Then it says, “If I die in the line of duty, from wounds, or illness, or other causes, I have designated [here he filled in his mother’s name] as a dependent to receive  the six months’ gratuity pay awarded by the government.”  Dad hand-write off to the side, “$900.”  It then had a place for the soldier to list where they had bank accounts. 

Page 3 gets even more “real.”  It says, “I desire that my permanent place of burial be at ________.”  (Dad wrote in, “No Preference.”)  It goes on to say, “If I die abroad, my remains will be returned to the United States by the Government after the War, but not earlier.”  It goes on to give other instructions to the family as to how to retrieve the body and receive funds for burial expenses and a possible pension.  Copies of any marriage records and birth certificates of children are then asked for.

In the photo, taken at his parents’ new home in Big Rock, Illinois before he went overseas, Dad (far right) is posing with his father, little brother Richard, little sister Janet, and mother.   Perhaps his sister Helen is the one taking the picture.  He was just twenty years old when he was drafted—barely out of his teens—but forced to think about “the event of his untimely demise.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

Forgiveness and Friendship

I have written quite a bit about my father and his service in the U.S. Army in World War II.  This story took place a few years later.

After the war, my father was required to be in the U.S. Army Reserves for a number of years, and go to training camp for a few weeks in the summer.  In fact, he once told me that he very nearly ended up in the Korean War—but his card didn’t get chosen during the random drawing of one in three cards in the file. 

In the late 1940s he met my mother, Adra, and they were married in 1950.  They moved into an apartment at 620 Archer Avenue in Aurora—the downstairs of an old white frame house which has since been torn down.  (The first photo shows Robert and Adra on the front porch.)  Both had jobs within walking distance—Dad at a steel storage company called Equipto, and Mom at another steel storage company down the street called All-Steel.  

Into the upstairs apartment moved a young married couple very much like themselves—but yet so different.  Hartwig and Frieda were recent immigrants; they had arrived in the U.S. from Austria in 1952.  The 1930s had been a bad time to be a young man in Austria.  Hartwig, being five years younger than my father and therefore too young to be drafted into Hitler’s Army, ended up in an organization called the Hitler Youth.  He would have been 15 years old when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

I wanted to find out more about being a young person in Nazi Germany and Austria.  I found this quote from Adolf Hitler on the History Learning Site.  He said this of German schoolchildren:  “The weak must be chiselled away.  I want young men and women who can suffer pain.  A young German must be as swift as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp's steel.”

The U.S. Holocaust Museum website had this quote: 

“These boys and girls enter our organizations at ten years of age, and often for the first time get a little fresh air; after four years of the Young Folk they go on to the Hitler Youth, where we have them for another four years… And even if they are still not complete National Socialists [Nazis], they go to Labor Service and are smoothed out there for another six, seven months…  And whatever class consciousness or social status might still be left…  the Wehrmacht [German armed forces] will take care of that.”—Adolf Hitler (1938)

But back to my story:  Hartwig and Frieda moved into the apartment above my parents.  This would have been in the early 1950s.  Even in my childhood in the 1960s, my father still referred to the Germans as “Krauts”—an old habit that died hard, after spending a year of his life on the front lines shooting Germans at every opportunity and in nearly continual fear for his life.  Dad continued to have nightmares about the war for twenty years after he came home.

But somehow, the two couples ended up friends.  I wonder if they ever talked about the war, or Hitler, or what it was like in Austria in the 1940s?  I don’t know.  I do know that Hartwig worked as a night watchman in a nearby factory, while he taught himself English and studied engineering books.  Eventually he got a better job there as a spot welder, then a maintenance electrician, then a mechanic, and then an engineer.  He and Frieda had four children and had a good life in America.

But more importantly to this story—Hartwig and Frieda wanted to put their past behind them and become American citizens.  To do that, they needed American citizens to be their sponsors.  And who were the sponsors for Hartwig and Frieda?  My parents.

I remember, even after each couple purchased their own home in the later 1950s, my father and I dropping by their home or Hartwig dropping by ours.  I am so very glad that those two young couples, in their own small way, were a part of the healing, friendship, and forgiveness that needed to take place after one of the worst wars in modern history.