In honor of Memorial Day weekend, I’m sharing a FREE short story, inspired by my grandparents who met and fell in love during wartime in 1944. They’re still married today and will be celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary this year.
They met at Camp Robinson. My grandfather was an officer and my grandmother was with the USO organizing a dance for the military base.
Last Dance – By Lisa Kessler
I always meant to come back here.
As years crept by, I never forgot that dance. It was a planned mixer for the young officers at Camp Robinson to meet and socialize with the local sorority in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
Now I hardly recognize it.
In my day, we lived in wooden single-story barracks that were more like tiny cottages, all lined up in perfect rows. World War II was in full swing back then, and I had enlisted in the military with all of my buddies from school. I enjoyed my days there. The training was rough, but the camaraderie felt like family. Serving the country I loved and believed in made me proud. Fresh out of high school, and I already felt like a man.
Times were simpler back then. I know it’s an old man’s folly to say that, but it’s the God’s honest truth. We weren’t faced with so many options back then. We were expected to get out of school, get married, and work to support our families.
So when I attended the Sweetheart’s Dance in 1944, I wasn’t looking for a fling. I was looking for forever.
But that was a long time ago.
I lowered myself onto a shady bench, leaning heavily on my cane. Hard to believe I once danced the jitterbug with such gusto. Time is a bitch. She steals away your youth before you notice it’s missing, and once it’s gone you can’t ever get it back.
I met my girl here on Valentine’s Day in 1944. The mess hall where the dance took place is long gone, replaced by a new prefabricated metal building. At least they put a plaque out front to remember the intrepid old mess hall building that fed over 25,000 young American men while we trained in the art of war.
When I close my eyes, I can see the landscape as it was, clear crisp colors without the haze of cataracts clouding my view. She was wearing a yellow dress with a yellow rose clipped in her hair.
My old mouth still curls up into a smile at the thought of her. My first true love.
Our eyes met across the smoke filled room and my heart skipped a beat. My God she was an angel. I mustered my courage, puffed out my chest, and walked over to take her hand.
“Good evening, Miss. I’m Private Walker.”
Her hand felt so perfect inside of mine. Her cheeks flushed with color, and I was sure I’d never seen anything so beautiful in all my life.
“Pleased to meet you, Private Walker. I’m Betty Joe Crawford.”
“Could I have this dance, Betty Joe?”
She nodded and we stepped onto the dance floor.
A cool breeze brushed over me on the bench, and with my eyes still closed, I was certain I could smell the rose in her hair and the faint scent of her Shalimar perfume. In my mind, I could hear the band and I saw Betty Joe’s eyes light up when they started Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.
Man, that girl could cut a rug.
We danced the night away. Laughing as we hopped around to Shoo Shoo Baby, and gasping when we finished the jitterbug. What a night! We ended the perfect evening slow dancing, cheek to cheek, to Bing Crosby’s latest hit, I’ll Be Seeing You.
I wasn’t ready for the night to end.
“Can I see you again, Betty Joe?”
Her cheeks flushed again as she looked up at me. “I don’t even know your first name, Private Walker.”
“Billy. Billy Walker. I’m from California.”
Her smile made my knees wobble, and her dark brown eyes sparkled up at me. “I would love to see you again, William Walker.”
That was the first time anyone had ever called me William.
I wanted to kiss her in the worst way, but there were chaperones ushering everyone out, and I didn’t want to embarrass Betty Joe. Instead we planned to meet at the malt shop the very next evening.
We had a date every night for the next six weeks before I transferred overseas. I ended up in the Battle of Cassino in Italy. As part of the artillery, we shelled the Nazis for days through heavy thunderstorms. A few of my friends ended up with pneumonia. Gary Shore never recovered.
On the bench, I coughed, my ancient lungs rasped and burned, but I didn’t open my eyes. I wasn’t ready to leave the past just yet. The ache in my chest smoldered, but I pushed it away and focused on my days in Italy in 1944.
I wrote to Betty Joe every night. I told her about the battle, and later I wrote to her about watching Mt. Vesuvius erupt. I’d never seen anything like it. I wrote a letter about the rain and the snow, even shared my review of Irving Berlin’s new show “This is the Army.” He brought it all the way over to Italy for us. Most importantly I wrote about how much I missed her, and loved her. I couldn’t wait to get back home.
But one day I received a letter that wasn’t in her handwriting.
No, I didn’t want to remember this part. I struggled to open my eyes, but I couldn’t. My heart fluttered. I couldn’t catch my breath. I coughed, and for a moment I saw the metal building, but my eyes drifted closed again.
Lost in my memories, I was opening the letter from Mr. and Mrs. Crawford. Their dearest Betty Joe was dying of tuberculosis. She asked them to write this letter to let me know I would always have her undying love.
Back on the bench, I felt a hot tear spill down my cheek, but I was too weak to lift my hand to wipe it away.
“William? William, is that you?”
It was so dark. I couldn’t see a thing, but I knew that voice. I hadn’t heard it in over sixty years, but without a doubt, I knew it was Betty Joe. I tried to answer her, but my body wouldn’t respond. I couldn’t make a sound. My lungs burned.
Part of me panicked, while another part of me welcomed the inevitable. In the distance a familiar melody caressed my ears. Our song. One last breath heaved from my tired lungs, and then my eyes fluttered open and I could see again. No haze of cataracts, no glasses, and there, not a hundred feet from me, was Betty Joe. She smiled at me in her yellow dress with a rose in her hair, and somewhere Bing was singing our song.
I glanced back over my shoulder and saw a time worn old body I hardly recognized, slumped over on the bench with a bittersweet smile on his lips and a tear still shining on his cheek.
Turning back toward her voice, I realized the arthritis that had pained my knees for the past twenty years was gone. I was free.
“I’ve missed you, William.”
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get back.”
She smiled and touched my cheek. “You were always worth waiting for.”
I took Betty Joe into my arms and kissed her while Bing crooned:
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day,
In everything that’s light and gay,
I’ll always think of you that way.
I’ll find you in the mornin’ sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you…
I was finally home.
~~~ The End ~~~