Yesterday, like many people in the U.S. and in Europe, I spent time watching the very somber and poignant D-Day Remembrance ceremony held in Normandy, France. As I do each year, I also reflected on the military service of my father in this conflict. Being drafted into the army at age 20 changed him forever; I’m convinced it’s why he became such a stoic personality, although I heard very little (his choice) about what he went through.
Both of my grandfathers served in the previous war (WWI) also reluctant to talk about their experiences. But my grandmother (on my mother’s side) was always willing to recall her experience being “courted” by a “beau” who was a soldier. My grandmother, Beulah Howell, was born in 1898, near the end of a succession of 13 children. Seven of her siblings, six brothers and one sister, most of them older than she, died from either tuberculosis or influenza before Beulah was 20 years old. I think I was around 13 or 14 when she first told me the full story. The emotional devastation of these deaths impacted my grandmother and the rest of the family in ways that you’d imagine. But, for Beulah, the deaths also changed her thinking, driving her to what I absorbed as a kind of calculated fury to embrace life on her terms.
In 1918, a few months before WWI ended in November, my grandmother was 20 years old and enrolled in a Teacher’s College in Toole, Utah. It was July, and very warm. After her classes, she and a friend decided to walk to a Sweet Shop to get ice cream. My grandmother, so she told me, was completely dazzled by two uniformed soldiers who were in the shop, sitting at a table drinking iced tea. (To prove this point mid-story, grandmother Beulah whipped-out a picture of my grandfather in his uniform, before they were married; I had to admit, the guy she had in her sights was gorgeous). My grandmother (remember, this was 1918, and women did not behave this way, generally,) left her friend where they’d been seated and went to the soldiers’ table. She immediately engaged my future grandfather (who, she recalled to me, was very shy and somewhat taken aback by Beulah’s approach). Her “line” was shocking in its day, suggesting that the ice cream was delicious, and Wouldn’t he like to try some of hers? (as she extended her glass toward him). According to my grandmother, the soldier was immediately ‘smitten’ (her word). The two spoke long enough for my grandmother to explain who she was, where she lived, and that she’d welcome him “calling in” at her home.
My grandfather — Homer — wasted no time. He and his unit were on a brief leave in Toole. Less than a week later, Homer produced a ring and asked my grandmother to wear it until the war ended and he could return home to marry her. Sounds romantic, right? But here’s where my grandmother’s grit and no-nonsense approach to life’s realities kicked-in. Paraphrasing what she said to me, she responded to Homer’s proposal by saying, “Why on earth would I wear your ring, letting all the other boys know I’m spoken-for, when you might not even come back ?” Now, I’m guessing that there actually weren’t too many eligible men around, given the war, but my grandmother did tell me about an older gentleman, “with a big, expensive car”, that had been aggressively courting Beulah before Homer arrived on the scene. Apparently, he thought he was a Serious Contender.
At this point in the story, I was pretty stunned by my grandmother’s steely pragmatism and, what I would now call, a fairly cold-blooded attitude toward my future grandfather. Nevertheless, I could see her point. Without a ring on her finger, clearly signifying that Beulah belonged to him exclusively, Homer was put on “the back foot” (as we still say) and, according to my grandmother, more motivated to return to her. She confessed to me that she was completely in love with my grandfather, but felt she had to put practicality above passion. While Homer went back overseas, Beulah let herself be courted by the “rich man”. But when her soldier returned to her, they were immediately married. They stayed so, for almost 70 years, until my grandfather died.