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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008 10:22 am

The War Years

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We were fishing down at Rawlins’ off a sandbar that extended into a bar pit near the Illinois River. It was an autumn day with puffy clouds in the sky placed just right. We were watching the lazy current move the willow leaves back and forth. Leaves from the cottonwood trees fell on the water and went drifting by. We imagined them to be boats and ships sailing away to their destinations on an October day. It was probably in the fall of 1944, the war years and I was about 11 years old.

We fished. They weren’t biting very good but we fished anyway. It was a pleasant thing to do on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Dad and Olin visited. We three boys were happy to be fishing and close to the water.

It was mid-afternoon when Etta came walking over the sand levee barefoot and in a hurry. She was alone and walked straight to the men. They talked with anxious voices. Us kids couldn’t hear what they were saying but it was something serious.

Seems as though someone had come out from town. They knew a telegram had arrived at the post office. They knew it was Sunday. They thought the message was important enough to track down the recipient. It was for Marie French, our mother. She could go to the post office and get it if she could raise the postmaster. Olin knew the postmaster.

Dad told us to keep on fishing and that he’d be back in a while. He and Olin hurried back to the house. Dad, Mom and Olin got in Olin’s Ford car and drove into town to the postmaster’s house. He was ready for them. They went to the post office. He handed Mom the telegram.

With shaking hands she opened it. Her brother Sam, an air force bomber pilot, had been shot down over Turkey and was missing in action. All her fears came welling up inside her. The worst had happened.

Us kids had given up fishing early in the afternoon. When Mom and Dad and Olin got back from town we knew something bad had happened. Mom was so quiet and her eyes were red.

We kept to ourselves going home that night in our old Chevy through the deep sand by Treadway’s corner, over the Sixth Street levee and on up the bottom road to home. There was a chill in the air. There was no talking. It was a night you were glad to crawl into bed.

Weeks passed. Three weeks passed. We learned that Sam had been captured by the Germans and was in a prisoner of war camp. He was alive at least. We were much relieved. But Mom had another brother, Gus, who was in the navy and fighting in the Philippines. He was a worry but he wrote now and then and he wasn’t in dangerous fighting.

She had another brother, Babe. He was in the infantry and was in the worst battles of all in Europe — Utah Beach, Normandy, the Ardennes, the Rhine River. His platoon would go in and they’d all be killed but 10. He would be one of the 10 that lived. It was like that in many of his battles. Mom would get a censored letter after the battle was over saying that he was all right, but she would worry. She would worry that he wouldn’t be so lucky next time.

Christmas was coming. How would she send a Christmas gift to someone in a prisoner of war camp? How would Christmas greetings find their way to the Philippines? How would she send Christmas cheer to someone in a foxhole in Europe? It was a heavy time. The war news in the papers was not good.

One time in late November we all had sat down at the supper table. It had been a difficult day, a short day. It was dark out and the light from the Aladdin lamp didn’t drive the darkness from the corners of the room.

We were about to eat; Dad, brothers Jack and Bill, the twin sisters and me with Mom beside me. She had fixed supper but couldn’t eat. She stared in thought a moment, then she put her hands over her face and broke down in tears — quietly at first, then with more intensity. We all put down our forks; Dad, the twins, the brothers, all of us. We sat there with our heads bowed. It was silent except for Mom’s crying. In a while Mother composed herself. We all looked up and started eating. We talked little.

We realized the load that Mom had been carrying. We five kids and Dad were enough, but when you added three brothers in the war to her worries, it was just too much to bear.

From that day on, we each in our own way tried to make life easier for Mom. We didn’t gripe about chores but did them gladly. Mom and I did the dishes. It was fun. She washed, I dried. I looked forward to spending time with Mom. We didn’t talk about what we wanted for Christmas. It would be a different kind of Christmas for us. We knew Mom would do the best she could with the money she had. We got mostly socks and clothes because toys had a steep luxury tax, but we got a few.

Mom was a good cook and she used all her talents on a scrumptious Christmas dinner. We all ate till we could eat no more and it was delicious. We were happy and well fed. Going into winter and a new year, we were a family intact. We were all glad for one another, the brothers, the sisters and Mom and Dad too. It would be a better year.

Roy L. French is 75 years old and lives with his wife, Barbara, in Virginia, Ill. He had a stroke about 18 months ago but he has recovered enough to run his Caraway Seed antiques and gift store three days a week on Virginia’s courthouse square. He has to write with his left hand, but it hasn’t deterred his ability to spell out a Christmas story for Illinois Times, something he has done for more years than we care to count. He has the time now to put his many stories together in book form, maybe by next Christmas.

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