All Write, Columns

The Final Reunion

Military spouses are experts at saying goodbye. Separation is a fact of life, and no one knew this better than the men and women featured in my book “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”

During World War II, these couples’ farewells were fraught with fear. There would be no emails. No texts. No FaceTime with the family. Letters and scant phone calls or occasional telegrams had to suffice.

But, oh, the reunions! Most of the 36 couples profiled in “War Bonds,” vividly remembered and described the moment they saw their spouses when they finally came home.

In the past six weeks, three of those brides experienced their final reunions with their husbands. This time they won’t have to say goodbye again.

Melba Jeanne Barton died Nov. 30. She and Don were married 67 years before he died in 2013. That eight-year separation marks the longest time they’d spent apart.

She’d met Don at a Grange dance two months after he’d returned from flying B-29s in the Pacific theater. He’d endured a horrific loss when the plane he piloted was hit in battle, and his young navigator was killed. Decades after the experience his eyes still filled with tears when he spoke of it.

“He was a nice kid – a real nice kid,” he’d said.

You might think Melba Jeanne would be immediately smitten by the dashing pilot. After all, he shared her Christian faith, and he was a great dancer. But Don was a farmer, and Melba Jeanne swore she’d never marry a farmer.

“Feeding chickens and milking cows – none of that stuff appealed to me,” she said.

But Don’s patient persistence and promises that she’d never have to do farm chores won her hand and her heart.

They raised three daughters on their family farm. And Melba Jeanne discovered the best benefit to being a farmer’s wife.

“On the farm, your husband is never far away. We’ve always done everything together,” she’d said.

Bonnie Shaw died on Dec. 5. She met her husband, Harvey at Central Valley High School when he was home on leave and visiting his siblings.

Despite his uniform, Harvey was just a boy himself. “I got stupid and quit school right in the middle of my sophomore year,” he recalled. “I just didn’t think. A few months later, I was in the Navy.”

He said goodbye to his family and set sail on the USS Kwajalein, but Bonnie didn’t forget about him. He returned home in 1946, and when Bonnie and her boyfriend broke up, Harvey wasted no time.

“When we finally got together, we just really fell in love,” she recalled.

And just like sailing the Pacific, their courtship wasn’t without bumps. Bonnie was a devout Catholic and Harvey was not. Unbeknownst to her, he began taking instruction at St. John Vianney, and they wed there in August 1950.

They spent 64 years together. Harvey died in 2014, not long before “War Bonds” was published.

When I’d called Bonnie shortly before his death she said. “He’s not doing very well, but he asks me to read him your column, and every time I do, he smiles.”

We both cried a bit then.

Bonnie gave Harvey nightly back rubs and the last words they whispered before falling asleep were “I love you.”

“Harvey is my heart,” she said.

Bonnie and Harvey Shaw, 2014

Lastly, Betty Ratzman died Dec. 26.

To know Betty was to love her. A prolific writer and avid letter-writer, Betty’s fierce intelligence and sharp wit delighted all who knew her. I treasure the letters I received from her.

Bett Ratzman with Cindy Hval at a taping of “Spokane Talks,” 2016.

In fact, she won her husband’s heart through the mail.

They’d met on a blind date in 1943, and when Dean Ratzman shipped out with the Navy, she told him not to get his hopes up.

He ignored her warning and treasured both her photo and the letters she wrote to him while he was at sea.

“You can find so much more about someone in letters,” he’d said.

They married in 1946 and spent 73 years together until Dean died in 2019.

Fit and active, the couple attended many “War Bonds” events, gladly meeting folks who marveled at their lasting love.

The last time I spoke with Betty shortly after Dean’s death, she wanted to know all about my sons and my cats. Then her quavery voice broke a bit.

“Oh, I miss Dean. I miss him so much,” she said.

Betty Ratzman, Cindy Hval, Dean Ratzman at a “War Bonds” event, 2015.

I miss Betty, and Bonnie and Melba Jeanne.

The “War Bonds” brides are at the heart of what made our country great. They endured separations and rationing. They tackled nontraditional jobs and learned new skills, to keep our country going during the war. They gave their husbands something to fight for and a reason to come home.

While I celebrate each couple’s heavenly reunion, I can’t help but think our world is diminished by their absence. I know my little corner of it is.

All Write, Columns

It’s the hardest part…

I sat in her kitchen, surrounded by fragrant braids of garlic. Plump and juicy just-picked tomatoes spilled from a bowl on her counter.

The garlic was famous, grown from seeds her father-in-law had sewn into his coat when he emigrated from Italy to the United States.

It was supposed to be a quick visit – just long enough to give her a hug and return some photos. But you didn’t visit Connie Disotell DiLuzio without being fed.

Connie died Nov. 23. When I saw her obituary, I remembered our last visit six years ago.

“Sit,” she insisted. “Have some biscotti.”

So, I sat.

She placed freshly baked biscotti on a plate and filled a ceramic mug with coffee.

“Eat,” she said. “You’re so busy with the book and those boys. You need to take care of yourself.”

“War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation,” had just been accepted for publication. Connie and her husband’s story is featured, and I was returning photos I’d included in the manuscript.

Ray had died not long after I interviewed them, and Connie loved to talk about their courtship.

They met in 1942, when he was home on leave from the Navy. Connie was just 15, but they corresponded as best they could during the war. He wanted to marry her when he got another brief leave, but she insisted they waited until she graduated from Rogers High School.

He waited, and they enjoyed 66 years together.

She told me how much she missed Ray.

“It’s hard, honey,” she said, as she hugged me goodbye. “It’s real hard.”025

Ray and Connie, January 2012

She wasn’t the only “War Bonds” bride I lost last year. In September, Marie Clemons died. Her husband, Rusty, preceded her in death in 2018. They were married 72 years.

They met when he was hanging out at his brother’s Colville restaurant. Rusty had just returned from 42 months of serving in the Pacific theater with the Army during World War ll.

Marie waitressed at the restaurant, but on this night the dishwasher hadn’t shown up, so she offered to scrub pots.

To Rusty’s surprise, he volunteered to help her.

“I don’t have a clue why I did that,” he recalled. “I never did like to wash dishes.”

That offer changed both of their lives.

“We got to holding hands,” Rusty said. “I don’t know whether it was during the wash or rinse cycle.”

After the interview I snapped their picture in their beautiful backyard, and Rusty pulled Marie close for a kiss.

Chpt 6 Clemons 2011 full view

Rusty and Marie

My schedule filled with “War Bonds” events after the book’s 2015 release, and when they heard I would be doing a signing at the Spokane Valley Barnes and Noble, they showed up to give me a hug.

“You did good, kid,” Rusty said.

Marie beamed.

“We’re just so proud of you,” she said.

It felt like I’d received my grandparents’ blessing.

Cindy with Rusty and Marie Clemons April, 2015

Rusty Clemons, Cindy Hval, Marie Clemons, April 2015

Scanning these obituaries reminds me of how many goodbyes I’ve said in recent years. I’m so aware that every point of contact might be the last.

That’s why I was delighted to see Walt Powers honored before an Eastern Washington University football game last fall. He and his wife, Myrt, were proud supporters of the university where he had taught for so long. He checked in with me via email after Myrt died in 2017.

“I’m healing daily, but I have a long way to go,” he wrote.

And I received a lovely letter from Betty Ratzman in September, not long after she lost her husband, Dean.

“I do miss him so much,” she wrote.

Betty also wanted to tell me that a copy of “War Bonds” had been placed in the new Orofino Historical Museum.

“Not my Auntie’s February 2015 autographed by Cindy Hval copy,” she assured me.

She concluded with a reminder.

“Watch the obits for me.”

How I dread seeing her name there. Out of the 36 couples featured in “War Bonds,” only 13 widows and widowers and one surviving couple remain.

Each loss feels like saying goodbye to a beloved family member.

I think of what Connie DiLuzio said about losing Ray.

“It’s hard, honey. It’s real hard.”

And I know exactly what she meant.

War Bonds

70th anniversary: ‘I’m not quite finished’

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Today War Bonds couple Dean and Betty Ratzman appeared with me on Spokane Talks Online.

You can watch the program here.

The Ratzmans are celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary on June 23!
My favorite moment of today’s program occurred when host, Kent Adams, said to Betty, “You put up with him for 70 years! Did it take that long to train him?

Betty, 91,  quickly replied, “I’m not quite finished.”

The wit of the Greatest Generation remains undiminished by age.
How I love these people!

War Bonds

And They Said He Wouldn’t Last

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Had a wonderful time at yesterday’s War Bonds reading. My special guests were Dean and Betty Ratzman, from Chapter 18.

Here’s an excerpt from their story:

While Dean wasn’t injured during the invasion, his health still took a beating. He contracted dengue fever several times during his stint in the islands. While in Saipan he got a hernia from lifting a large battery. Following surgery, he was sent to a hospital ship, the USS Sanctuary. There he received some startling news. Doctors aboard ship discovered Dean’s heart had been damaged during his bouts with fever.

When the ship docked in Oakland, physicians at the naval hospital diagnosed the 20-year-old sailor with two leaky heart valves. “The doctors said there wasn’t anything they could do,” Dean recalled. “They told me I probably wouldn’t live past middle age.”

…Betty recalled his proposal. “He told me the doctors said he wouldn’t live past 40. Then he asked me to marry him! I told him, ‘You’re not going to get out of it that easily!'”

Almost seven decades later, she smiled at her husband. “When you’re 20, 40 seems like forever. I figured I’d get another one (husband) after that.”

In June they’ll celebrate their 70th anniversary, so it looks like it will be awhile before Betty can replace him, and you know what? She’s just fine with that!

 

War Bonds

Meet a War Bonds couple!

If you’ve ever wanted to meet one of the couples you’ve read about in War Bonds, you’ll have the opportunity on Thursday, February 11.

Rockwood

The Ratzmans’ story is told in chapter 18 “Letters From Home.”

They are a delightful, sharp-witted couple who truly fell in love through the letters they exchanged while Dean was serving in the South Pacific.
Here’s an excerpt from their story:
But it was her letters that kept a young man far from home from feeling too lonely. “Betty is a great letter writer,” he said. “Her letters were a highlight for me– but I didn’t know who else she was writing to.” He shot her a sideways glance. “She was very patriotic.”

This is a great opportunity to purchase a copy of War Bonds and have it signed by one of the couples featured.

PS: Valentine’s Day is SUNDAY 😉

War Bonds

Why do you still cry?

“Why do you still cry? Aren’t you used to the stories by now?” my 15-year-old son asked.

He was curious. He’d just  attended a War Bonds reading with me at the North Spokane County Library because he’s taping a few video clips of my presentation.

The answer is, no, I’m really not “used to the stories.” For example, when I read about a POW’s reaction to seeing the American flag raised when his camp was liberated, I remember the tears that rolled down his wrinkled cheeks when he told me the story. I cried with him that day.

I’m tearing up just thinking about it, now. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read that paragraph without tears. These stories are true. These people are real. If their stories don’t evoke some kind of emotion in me, the writer, they’ll never resonate with you, the reader.

It was an especially moving reading for me  because Dean and Betty Ratzman were sitting in the front row.

War Bonds at the North Couny Lib with Dean and Betty Ratzman

Dean’s heart had been damaged by Dengue fever during the war in the Pacific. He was told he wouldn’t live past age 40. Yet there he sat in the front row with Betty, his wife of 69 years.

Tears of joy. Tears of sadness. And an awful lot of laughter.

How blessed I’ve been to hear these stories and to share them with the world. I hope I never get used them.