Charles C. Shaw, my father, was a World War II Marine. That memory, and all that goes with it, invariably unleashes deep emotions and the threat of tears because it embodies so much about the Greatest Generation guys, young men who considered their military service a badge of honor and who wore their military identity with quiet pride. I grew up knowing that the Marines were heroes because my dad told us about his “buddies.”
Charles & Ruth Shaw
Dad and my uncles were great story tellers. The four brothers were in different branches of the service, and the competition between them to prove which branch was “best” filled many a fascinating evening in my grandparents’ living room or out on the porch.
Childhood memories include sitting in the background hoping not to be noticed so that I could stay up past my bedtime to listen to their stories. Their tales were both funny and poignant; they glossed over the sacrifices made and they didn’t dwell on the horrific aspects of the war. But I could read between the lines, and I was so proud of my father and his brothers.
Even though nobody mentioned it, and I was a mere child, I knew that tragedy surrounded Uncle James’ experience in the Army, and I knew that the uncles’ raucous laughter covered deep emotions about harrowing experiences that they couldn’t talk about. But those Shaw brothers always saw humor in every situation and always expressed joy in living!
I pored over my dad’s postcards and his incredibly mushy letters to my mother. Those letters epitomized love and romance for me; as much as anything else I can remember, they shaped my view of what love and marriage are all about — wholehearted, passionate devotion to each other and intense longing to be together.
My mother’s trip from Georgia to San Diego to see my father off to action in the South Pacific was a pivotal event in their lives. Such a trip was a major undertaking in those days and indicates volumes about their relationship and the poignancy of such wartime separations. This was the first time I stayed with my grandmother — and one of the few times that I ever stayed with anyone other than my parents.
Pin-up girls were the rage among the guys in the barracks. That close-knit unit of men shared their photos and talked about the girls they would be leaving behind. They were all impossibly young, mostly nae, inexperienced and homesick. The pictures of mother and daddy in those early years of their marriage bring tears to my eyes. They were just kids — too young to be facing such a long separation. Daddy was heading overseas when he had never before even left his small hometown; he was about to endure combat duty, including the deaths and maiming of close buddies, when up to that point his life had been uneventful, peaceful and centered around his home and family.
Later, they would earn recognition as the “greatest generation,” but at the time, they were just small-town boys going a long way from home and leaving behind everything they loved and valued.
My mother, a genuine Georgia Peach, wasn’t yet twenty when she boarded that train headed to California on a journey to say goodbye and not knowing what daddy would face or whether he would return. She piled in a train car full of soldiers and their wives. These travelers were stuck together for a weary week in close quarters. Little wonder, I suppose, mother arrived in San Diego with a full-blown case of Scarlet Fever.
The reunion between the young husband and wife never happened because mother was quarantined immediately upon arrival in San Diego.
Daddy could only come over to the hospital grounds hoping to catch a glimpse of mother through the window. He found a wall outside mother’s hospital window from which he could climb up into a tree to look longingly inside and talk with her from a distance.
One afternoon, daddy brought his best buddy to see his “pin up girl.” When they arrived, mother was asleep. Daddy was bitterly disappointed because he had described mother’s beauty in glowing terms and he wanted to show off his wife to his friend. Sadly, all they could see through the window was mother’s feet.
We have laughed down through the years at the response of daddy’s friend. He loyally declared that mother “sure had pretty feet.” Even now, despite her age, at the beach or other situations where mother is barefoot, someone is sure to comment about her beautiful feet. When they do, all those stories from World War II flit through my mind, and I’m once again awed by those young people who devotedly preserved the freedom that we take so much for granted today. It is such a priceless freedom, and it angers me that millions don’t value it enough to go the polls and cast a ballot when my dad and millions of other GIs fought to keep that freedom alive . . . for the all the girls who loved them, then and now.