St. Patrick's Day, 1946
This is an excerpt from my historical novel (a work in progress) about my Dad and his Auntie, who he described as "the leading force in my life." The book is based on more than 1,000 letters, written primarily by Dad and Auntie, from 1914 to 1955. After college, Dad enlisted in the Army. Most of his service was in the 303rd Station Hospital, located on an estate, Lilford Hall, in Northamptonshire, England. In March 1946 he boarded the Sea Sturgeon in Le Havre, France and headed home, expecting to be greeted by his family when he arrived in New York.
As he walked the crowded deck of the Sea Sturgeon, HO (Buddy) enjoyed the early morning sun. Along with more than one thousand service men and women (and a few war brides), he was heading home. Bedecked in his warmest clothing to keep out the cold Atlantic breeze, he surveyed the endless horizon of ocean. At least a thousand miles remained before they reached New York.
Taking a long drag on his Camel, he wondered if Auntie might be having her first smoke of the morning. Her Lucky Strike would be poised between her long arthritic fingers with their perfectly manicured nails.
She’s likely already awake, packing for the trip to New York and worrying over all the details. It would be a blessed reunion with Auntie, Father, Pattie, and Alice.
Buddy recalled the game he and Auntie played when he was a young boy. She would spin the globe and he would close his eyes and put his finger down. Wherever it landed, they would plan an imaginary trip to that place. The first time they played, his finger landed in the middle of the Atlantic and Auntie told him he might take an ocean voyage some day and go to England. And so he had. It had been quite an adventure.
Maybe today she will think about me sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. She'll surely have Alice on her toes, making certain she has the right clothes for New York and that she doesn’t forget anything. How will she wrench Dad from his patients? I'm certain he wouldn't miss the fun.
The night before, back home in Kentucky, Harry [Buddy's father] had complained of back pain after a busy Saturday seeing patients. He retired early. Alice [Buddy's stepmother] had a new piece to play at church the next morning and was occupied at the baby grand. Katherine [his Auntie] stayed up late, working on the plans for Buddy’s arrival celebration in New York, and the party when they returned home. Pattie, his second cousin and Katherine's closest friend, had spent the day baking his favorite sweets – puddin' pies, brownies, and a bourbon cake and retired when they were cool.
At 3:00 a.m., Alice called for Katherine after she was awakened by the bed shaking and Harry moaning. She was hysterical, screaming loudly enough that Katherine heard her from her first-floor apartment behind the heavy oversized oak door.
Katherine moved as quickly as her crutch and arthritic legs would allow, up the winding staircase to the patriarch’s bedroom. She dreaded what she might see.
It was surely a fight…for his life…
Harry was in his nightclothes, tangled in the bed linens, one arm dangling over the side of the bed. Experienced with the sick and aged, Katherine knew enough to check for a pulse and determined that he was gone.
Her next thoughts were of Buddy’s homecoming that was about to be undone. In two days he would arrive in New York Harbor, expecting them to greet him, unaware that his Father had passed while he was aboard ship.
They would need to hold the funeral tomorrow so they could prepare for Buddy's arrival. Buddy wouldn't arrive in time to see his father buried.
Oh for heavens sake, Harry. You've ruined it. Not only are you absent for your son, but you will keep us all from enjoying the homecoming we’ve waited so long for.
Oblivious of Katherine's conversation with herself, Alice stood at the door of the bedroom whimpering, afraid to enter and not knowing what to do next.
“Honey, he’s gone. You are going to need to be strong now. We have things to take care of,” Katherine said.
“I’m going to call Dr. Garr while you get dressed. You can’t have people seeing you like this. There is nothing you can do for Harry. He’s the only one of us who isn’t in pain.”
“Bbbbut,,,what am I going to do?”
“Put on something dark and plain, but elegant. It is going to be a long day.”
Realizing Alice couldn’t possibly choose an appropriate dress in her muddled state, Katherine pulled out a somber black dress that would do for the day. She envisioned the list of visitors, trip to the funeral home, and all the crying that was to come. Thank goodness Harry didn't see patients on Sunday.
Katherine called the doctor and then Pattie. She began mentally undoing her carefully laid plans for celebration and replacing them with funeral arrangements. Her thoughts were of Buddy and the disappointment and sadness facing him on what should be the most important day of his year. While he and his father had never been close, they had shared many letters during Buddy's deployment and Harry had been excited about his only child returning from the war unscathed.
She returned to her room, swept aside her traveling wardrobe for a more suitable dress that was serious but fashionable. Pattie came in with a bag of hurriedly assembled food. There had been enough deaths these past few years that Pattie knew that they would have callers for days to come.
“I’ve no way to reach Mary Zella until she arrives to make breakfast,” Katherine began, explaining the obvious that their cook did not have a telephone in her home.
“Don’t you worry Katherine. We’ll tell her when she arrives. Come sit and let’s get some tea and a little something to eat.”
It was 4:00 am in Kentucky, 7:00 am in the middle of the Atlantic. No one realized it was St. Patrick’s Day.