Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memorial Day


I've written before about the veterans in my family tree for Armistice Day last November.  But I left one out and this weekend's holiday is a good time to remember him.

My father's sister, Caralou, married Charles Chapman after graduating from Miami University in Oxford, OH.  My grandmother had gone there for a year, and my father followed suit, graduating from Miami probably 8 years later (he spent 2 years in the middle of his college career in the Army).  Caralou graduated either in '39 or '40 and I think she and Uncle Chuck were married before World War II was declared by the United States in 1941.  Uncle Chuck enlisted in the Air Force.  It was the Army Air Corps or Force at the time--the Air Force did not become a separate branch of the service until 1947.  It appears from the mat that surrounds the photograph I've posted above, that Uncle Chuck was stationed in California, as the photographer is Austin Studios, California.

 I was on the enclosed back porch of  my great Aunt Bebe's house in Paulding Ohio, late one evening in August, 1978.  The family had all gathered in Paulding to celebrate my grandmother's 80th birthday.  Uncle Chuck and my father and my brother, Mark, and I were all sitting out ton the porch, having just one more drink, when Chuck and  Dad started talking about their World War II experiences.  I had never heard any stories of the war from anyone in my extended family prior to this.  But enough time had elapsed, perhaps, that they felt more free to tell war stories.  My father's were mainly of major delays on long, crowded troop trains--first to Texas where he received his basic training, and then on to South Carolina where he was stationed for the duration of the war.  He had trained as a medic, but his eyesight was so bad, the Army would not send him overseas. 

Uncle Chuck's story was a revelation for me.  From his initial posting to California, Chuck had been sent to England to fly bombers.  He didn't see much action because he was involved in a horrific accident on the ground when his plane caught fire (the details are gone now with the passage of  30+ years) that left him with burns all over his body and face. His eyebrows and his eyelids were burned off entirely. He had to place sterile cotton over his eyes at night to sleep. He was returned to New York to convalesce and to be operated on in some of the first plastic surgery ever done.  The doctors replaced his eyelids with skin grafts taken from his body, and it worked!  Until that night, I had never noticed the brownish scars that were around Uncle Chuck's eyes and on his forehead.  Time's passage had lightened the keloids and unless you looked closely, you really didn't see them.  However, at that time, immediately after the accident, he said, he looked monstrous.  But Caralou, who had joined him in New York, steadfastly stood by his side during this period.  When they would walk down the streets in NYC together, people would visibly flinch when they caught sight of Chuck's face with his burns and his missing eyelids.  Caralou staunchly ignored the reactions of  the passers by, and continued talking to Chuck as if there was nothing wrong.  Uncle Chuck confided to me that he would do anything in the world for his wife as a result of her loyalty to him at the worst point of his life.

And he did.  After his discharge, Uncle Chuck became a geologist and they moved to Casper, Wyoming where he worked for many years in the oil industry.  They never had children, just a succession of white miniature poodles named "Boo."  When Caralou died, Uncle Chuck endowed a hospice program in Casper and a piano scholarship at Casper College in Caralou's name.  At his death, these endowments were renamed for both of them.

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