For Want Of A Letter
“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”
As the airplane banked, preparing to land at Washington National Airport (later renamed “Reagan National Airport), I could clearly see the Washington Monument lying horizontal in the “Reflecting Pool.” While admiring its splendor my thoughts went back many years to a time when I was a naïve young soldier whose uniform sleeves bore no stripes. A brisk January day in 1955 and the moment when I was seeing that spire for the first time through the windshield of my 1948 Kaiser.
Today, though, on a spring day in 1975, I was a middle-aged man, a Ph.D. with a responsible position - no longer naïve – in fact now cynical in too many ways – coming to the seat of our government in my role as an Administrator for Youngstown (Ohio) State University’s School of Education. I would be spending the next day in the office of some nameless bureaucrat in the Department of Education hammering out the conditions and particulars of a multi-million-dollar grant being made to establish a “Teacher Corps” project in that university. Quite a different mission from that I had in January, 1955, when I was a commonplace young soldier of low rank arriving there to attend the U.S. Navy School of Music
As I herded my Kaiser into the labyrinth of Washington’s streets making my way to the Anacostia Naval Base, I was proud and thrilled that I was about to become a member of a small group of soldiers chosen from among all bands in the U.S. Army to be “attached” to the Navy for a six-month tour of duty as a student in their School of Music. I was looking forward to both the school and the opportunity to be an extended-stay tourist in our capitol. Thrilled and filled with anticipation, but without the slightest foreshadowing, feelings, or hint that I was about to meet a young lady who but for the sluggishness of the United States Postal Service, might well have become the love of my life.
My arrival in the capitol in 1975 was quite different. This time as I disembarked the plane I was all business. I had no time to dwell on thoughts of or wonder about that young soldier of 1955 and the attractive young lady he courted. This time I had come there to “pull the handle” on the “slot machine” the Department of Education had become for those who could “line up the cherries” by writing grants detailing grandiose plans that required lavish funding. My attaché case was filled with pounds of paper which laid out such plans. Implementing such splendiferous plans awaited only a large check from the Department of Education. Like a politician facing an inquisitor I would spend the evening preparing to be glib in answering the questions I presupposed he would be asking before allocating the funds.
When I reported to the U.S. Navy School of Music I joined the company of a quintessentially diverse gaggle of young soldiers. I soon found it was going to be quite broadening to a young man who had been born in the wilds of Oklahoma and nurtured in a small town in Kansas. The largest city I’d been in, other than simply passing through on the way elsewhere, was Wichita and in the mid-twentieth century the “culture” of Wichita was more akin to my hometown than to a large city. Now I was going to share a barracks with young men from almost every state in the union.
Our “class” was diverse in more ways than our geographic origins. Our backgrounds couldn’t have been more disparate. I made friends with a soldier whose “hometown” was New York City and another young man who – long before the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” dictum was laid onto our military, identified himself as a homosexual. (The word “gay” had not yet been corrupted by becoming a euphemism for a homosexual person.) He was absolutely discreet while living in our barracks, although he did once comment that, for him it was like “living in a harem.” We laughed at that rather than feeling any animosity, which I believe is probative of the belief that heterosexuals and homosexuals would live in harmony if neither attempted to force their lifestyle onto those who do not share it. Among my circle of friends there was a Puerto Rican from the Fourth Army Band stationed in San Antonio, and a “surfer-type” Californian from the Sixth Army Band who called San Francisco’s “Presidio” home. There were guys from Airborne and Infantry Division Bands. It was a kaleidoscope of America and we would share a barracks and a good part of our lives for six months.
Other than “Ken,” our resident homosexual, we were all decidedly hormonally driven heterosexuals and being young men barely out of our teens we were eager to test the prevalent theory that Washington, D.C. was populated by many more females than males, which we believed would put us in the position of being “buyers” in a decidedly “buyer’s market.”
The overabundance of military installations in and around the District of Columbia created a disproportionate ratio of servicemen to civilians among young men. With that imbalance I found we were not treated as “royally” as we had been in Chicago. Chicago was a city in which during the Korean War era servicemen were “kings.” Here in the capitol there were no free movie or concert tickets, no welcoming USO, nor friendly folks in bars eager to buy a soldier a drink. But within a couple of weeks I found a church that sponsored dances for servicemen. They didn’t provide hostesses as the Chicago USO did but in some manner they made it known that eligible young ladies were most welcome, either as a “date” or as an unattached young lady. The guys had to have military ID cards so the net effect was similar to Chicago’s USO. Girls circulated among the boys or stood near the dance floor waiting for an invitation to dance and the boys cruised around looking to make that eye contact which carried a message. And that is where I met Patricia, or “Pat” as she preferred to be called, an Irish lass with a last name that left no doubt as to her lineage.
But Pat was nowhere in my mind that spring afternoon in 1975 as I reviewed my documents, satisfying myself that I was well-prepared for the next day’s appointment. After assuring myself I was ready to dazzle the bureaucrat I had to convince, I went downstairs for dinner in the hotel restaurant. After dinner I sat for a time enjoying a nice aperitif and allowed my reverie to drift back to those long-departed days and the Irish girl I had met and romanced. A little over twenty years had passed since I last saw her. Those years had opened a wide chasm between the balding, overweight man of 1974 with an attractive wife and five bright children back home in Ohio, and the tall, trim, blonde, blue-eyed young Aryan of 1954 who had met and entered into a serious relationship with an equally trim, attractive, petite, brown-eyed, brunette Irish girl named Patricia.
With the effects of a nice dinner, a shot of Drambuie, a belief that things would go well the next morning and the remembrance of myself as a young soldier dating a nice girl, I was feeling quite mellow that evening in 1974 when I left the restaurant. I strolled the sidewalks while enjoying an after-dinner cigar and observed the passing scene. “Ghosts” whispered to me, tugged at my coattails as I walked. But search as I might, my memory had been wiped clean of that young Irish girl’s face. I wouldn’t have recognized Pat had she passed within a few feet of me. But as I looked at the familiar buildings and unfamiliar people, I wondered. . . ours had been a meaningful budding relationship that came to an ending which, ultimately, neither of us wanted . . . where had life taken her? Had she found love? Did she have kids? Was she still attractive? Was she enjoying a happy life? As I walked those questions faded with the dying glow of my cigar. I returned to my room, made a final review of the proposal I intended to “sell,” and went to bed.
The person I huddled with the following morning in a small office nestled in the convoluted maze that housed the Department of Education was duty-bound to make changes and debate fine points of our plan to establish a Teacher Corps in Youngstown, Ohio and I expected that. After a couple of hours, he was satisfied that he’d had enough input and the government’s money would be spent judiciously by the university. Thus assured that whatever criteria some policy book on the shelf in his office would be met, he signed off on it. I would return to the university bearing gifts. A multi-million-dollar program would be launched through cooperative efforts between the university and the Youngstown Public School System.
I returned to the airport pleased. I had succeeded. The weeks I had spent researching and writing the proposal and the time I’d spent preparing to “sell” it, had been worthwhile. I had some time to while away before my plane left so I went into one of the bar and grill kind of places that are found in all major airports to have a late lunch and celebratory martini. I chose a seat from which I could look out over the Potomac, ordered a martini and while contemplating the toothpick-impaled olive my thoughts again went back to those days so many years ago when I was a young, unattached soldier filled with potential.
Inevitably I began thinking of that long-ago Irish girl whose face I could no longer form in my memory. After meeting her at that church dance we began dating regularly. Movies, visiting monuments and museums, walking through beautiful Rock Creek Park on warm Sunday afternoons, learning about one another, and, yes, “parking” at the end of some of our dates on “Hains Point,” where we exchanged chaste kisses, softly spoken endearments and romantic music from the car’s radio. It was very enticing but the boundaries were clear in both our minds. She was a charming, respectable young lady and I was a respectful young man. We reined in our youthful libidos because we cared for one another.
We dated steadily for several weeks, both knowing the inevitable day when I would graduate from the Navy’s school was drawing closer each day. It was “The elephant in the room.” Neither of us wanted to acknowledge it but we both knew that after that day I would have to return to my post at Ft. Sheridan IL. I believe we each privately wondered if our feelings were real enough, strong enough to endure a long separation; a relationship fueled for the most part by letters. Email wasn’t yet even dreamed of and long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive for run-of-the-mill people. Our communication would be only as swift and regular as a six-cent “airmail” stamp could make it. My imminent departure was a subject to be avoided – almost.
Pat finally poked the elephant. One evening while parked in front of her house saying our “Goodnights,” she sat longer than usual before saying, “I’d better go in.” With downcast eyes and regret in her voice she said that since we were soon destined to part it was best if we no longer saw each other. Wanting to prolong our time together I protested, but she prevailed. I walked her to her door for the last time, said not “Goodnight,” but “Goodbye” then walked slowly to my car. The drive back to my barracks was funereal.
The remaining days of my time in the school of music were joyless and dead. We completed the course of study and had a graduation ceremony followed by a “Pass in Review” type military exercise on the parade ground. Then it was time to go. I no longer belonged there. I placed my few belongings into the1941 Chrysler Club Coupe for which I had traded my Kaiser, drove out of Anacostia Naval Base’s gate for the last time and headed west. I entered the Blue Ridge Parkway at Front Royal VA to enjoy the beautiful scenery, stopping at some of the more scenic overlooks to soak in the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley,desperately wishing each time I had someone with whom I could share my thoughts and feelings and feeling empty because I didn’t. But being young I was emotionally resilient. As the hours passed and the distance between us lengthened, I, with tender thoughts, tried to put “my” Irish colleen into my heart as a lovely memory whose continued life could be nothing more than that.
I arrived in my Kansas hometown a few days later where I found absolutely nothing to do to occupy my time there. “My” hometown now existed only in my memory. Young people from small towns tend to scatter to the four winds after graduating high school and people soon forget them. I was lonely and depressed. It was almost with a sense of relief that the time came for me to drive back to Ft. Sheridan. I was coming to feel comfortable in Chicago and remembered its USO as being an attractive place. I made a slow trip of it and once again, as when I first entered Washington, D.C., I returned to Chicago with no premonition of what awaited me there.
On my first day on duty after reporting back to my unit, we had a mail call along about mid-morning. Since I’d been out-of-touch for more than a week the mail clerk called my name and passed letters back to me several times. They were uniformly mundane until “the one” was placed in my hand. Its postmark showed that it had left the sender’s hand some time ago. It had been forwarded by the Anacostia Naval Base’s mail clerk the day AFTER I had left. In the upper left hand corner of the envelope I saw the name: “Miss Pat O’Donnell.”
It would be difficult to describe the emotions I felt as I took that small envelope in hand and carefully opened it. Inside was a one-page letter written on matching stationery in small, feminine handwriting. It was a testament to all the sad “might-have-beens” that ever happened in this world. Now, sixty years later I can’t begin to quote her words but the message they conveyed has always stayed with me. She spoke of our last date and of her decision to end our relationship; told how she came to believe she had made a mistake and . . . (and these exact words I do remember) . . . In a plaintive tone she wrote: “Can’t a girl change her mind?” Those six words were the most gut-wrenching phrase I had ever heard. I stood on the periphery of the guys getting their mail, dumfounded, speechless, with tears in my eyes. What might my life have been had that letter arrived at the Naval Base Post Office only twenty-four hours earlier?
Then, because she knew her letter might not reach me before I left, she wrote a few words of endearment; ending by quoting this old Gaelic blessing.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
It was a heart-felt doxology, not to God but to a relationship that did not die a natural death.
Had this story ended here it would be a tragedy as compelling as any about which Shakespeare has written, but it didn’t. I believe my feelings for Pat O’Donnell were strong and sincere as were hers for me, but in retrospect I believe she may have been put into my life as a taste of what awaited me. I had been roughly treated by two girls I had previously dated. Pat had shown me that I could attract a worthwhile girl’s affection and that there were girls who could be trusted with my “heart.”
But “For Want of a Letter” my life would have been different. Better? Worse? I will leave that question to be answered by a power much greater than I. A power that can see “The Road Not Taken.”
Do I regret that her letter arrived too late? I will answer by using the lyrics of the Broadway song, “Some Enchanted Evening, from the musical "South Pacific." In that song the Emile deBecque, a French Planter sings of Ensign Nellie Forbush this way, “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow you know.” But unlike the hapless planter of “South Pacific, I “Never let her go.” I pursued her, I wooed her, I won her and she has been my “girl,” my “companion,” “mother to our five children, and my “wife” for soon-to-be 60 years.
You see, shortly after my relocation back to Ft. Sheridan I walked up the stairs to the familiar Chicago USO. What happened there I have written about in a previous story entitled “The Twain Did Meet.” And that was, for me, “The Road Taken.” Where the "The Road Not Taken" would have taken me I will leave as a question. The Road I did take has been far smoother than I deserved.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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