All Write, Columns

Losing my heroes

Ray, Milt, Dean, Harold.

Their names are as old-fashioned as the values they held dear – patriotism, service, commitment and lifelong love.

In the past few months, four members of the Greatest Generation died. Three of them are featured in my book, “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”

“I’m losing all my heroes,” I said to my husband.

“But aren’t you glad you found them?” he replied.

Actually, most of them found me whether through the newspaper or mutual friends. And one by one they shared their stories with me and with my readers. Stories of war, wounds, absence and loss, as well as tales of love found, new generations birthed, homes built and communities enriched.

Ray Garland’s recent death generated a lot of media coverage and rightly so. He was the last surviving military member of the Lilac City Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Association. His eyewitness account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his compelling memories of surviving brutal battles and freezing cold during the Korean War are a vital part of our historical narrative.

On the day the story I wrote about Ray’s death was published, I got a note from a pastor in Coeur d’Alene telling me about the death of Milt Stafford.

Stafford, who before the war had never set foot outside of Idaho, served in Africa and Italy during World War ll. In “War Bonds,” he recalled the invasion of Sicily – the first time he saw dead bodies strewn across a battlefield.

“I saw a lot of stuff I didn’t want to see,” he said. “It was hell on wheels.”

But it wasn’t battle memories that made the combat vet cry, it was the memory of a little girl.

“Her parents had been killed by the Germans, and she came to the camp begging for food,” Stafford recalled.

He thought she was about 3 or 4 years old, and he and his buddy Willard “adopted” her. They fed her, clothed her and when the shelling started (which it did most every day) they made sure she was in the foxhole with them. They never knew her name.

When the war ended, Stafford took her to the U.S. embassy in Milan. He never saw her again, but she haunted him.

“I think about her every day,” he told me. “I wonder, did she find a family? Is she alive?”

Chpt 2 Milt with little girl, Italy, 194

Milt Stafford with little girl. Italy 1944.

I would have been honored to attend Stafford’s memorial, but I had another funeral to attend that day.

Dean Ratzman, another “War Bonds” alum, had died.

Spending time with Ratzman and his wife, Betty, always involved lively banter and engaging conversation.

Several bouts of dengue fever while serving in the South Pacific had damaged Dean’s heart, and when he proposed to Betty, he told her that doctors said he likely wouldn’t live past middle age.

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

As I hugged Betty at the funeral, I could only imagine the enormity of her loss. The couple would have celebrated their 74th wedding anniversary in June.

CHpt 18 Dean Ratzman 1943

Dean Ratzman, 1943

Some months earlier, I’d read about the death of Harold Smart.

When I interviewed Harold and Peggy Smart in their Pullman home, Harold was still so smitten with her, that even after 70 years together, he didn’t let go of her hand, and frequently interrupted our conversation to say, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Sadly, Peggy died before “War Bonds” was published. Harold was nervous about loaning me their photos to copy for use in the book.

“You’ll bring them right back?” he asked. “They’re precious to me.”

Reading his obituary, I was delighted to discover a sweet connection. When Harold had moved to Orchard Crest in Spokane, he met Louise McKay, a “War Bonds” widow, and they became friends.

Chpt 22 Harold Smart, 1943Harold Smart, 1943

How wonderful to know these two with so much in common had found comfort in their friendship.

While the loss of these men saddens me, I know how lucky I’ve been to have met them. Heroes can be hard to find, but I’ve been blessed to know so many.

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.

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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.