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.

Columns

Missing Milo

He joined our family on a beautiful spring evening. Nine years later, he left us on a cold November morning.

None of us have gotten used to the silence his absence left behind.

Milo James, a svelte tuxedo cat, was our family’s first pet – unless you count sea monkeys and goldfish.

We’d intended to adopt an older female cat. Preferably a white, fluffy, princess-y type feline, because I’d grown tired of being the only girl in our house.

But a hyperactive ball of dusty gray fluff caught my eye at the pet adoption event. He was literally bouncing off the walls.

“My goodness!” I said. “This little guy needs Ritalin.”

He jumped. He hopped. He spun in circles. In short, he was just like the rest of the boys in my house.

“No,” Derek said. “Not that one.”

I dutifully looked at the other cats, but I couldn’t help wondering if all Milo’s frantic activity was just a desperate plea for attention.

“I want to hold him,” I said.

“Not a good idea,” Derek replied.

But a store employee unlocked Milo’s cage. I picked him up, fully expecting him to squirm, or scratch, or climb up my hair, but instead he laid his head on my shoulder and sighed.

“Let’s go pick out a bed for our new cat,” Derek told the boys.

That playful kitten grew into a sleek, bossy cat who quickly took charge of the household. He was a creature of order and habit. He expected breakfast to be on time, at the same time every morning, and the ruckus he raised if it wasn’t, was impossible to sleep through.

When it was bedtime, all I had to say was, “Night night, Milo,” and he ran downstairs to the boy’s room he’d chosen as his own.

He never slept in that fancy cat bed. Not once. Why would he when the other beds in the house were bigger and contained warm humans to snuggle with?

Milo appointed himself the household greeter. His was the first face each of us saw when we returned from work or school.

Milo James (2)

But he did have some less charming habits.

He was a committed and dedicated swiper, and he focused his attention on my desk. Anything left unsecured was fair game. Most mornings I come down to my desk and find my notebooks, calendar, pens, post-it notes and mouse on the floor.

Sam would catch him in the act and yell, “Milo! Leave Mom’s desk alone!”

Milo would gaze at him, unblinking, and proceed to knock everything to the floor.

He was also a prodigious and sloppy sneezer. Few things are more disgusting than stepping on a spot of cat snot in your bare feet first thing in the morning.

For someone with sneezing issues, he was mightily offended if anyone in his vicinity did the same. A sneeze from one of us prompted a loud yowling lecture, followed by an annoyed exit.

He didn’t like change of any kind. Re-arranging the furniture elicited anxious mutterings, so imagine his reaction seven years ago when we brought home a tiny tabby kitten named Thor.

Milo sulked for days. He hid under our bed and refused to come out, until hunger finally made slink downstairs.

Thor became his devoted, annoying acolyte, and Milo eventually tolerated his presence.

Two weeks ago Milo got sick. Really sick. I rushed him to the vet and was told his bladder was completely blocked. Urinary problems are common in boy cats who only eat dry food, and Milo turned up his nose at wet food or treats. He was a stubborn creature of habit.

His illness resulted in a four-night stay at the Pet Emergency Hospital. He seemed to rally, and we brought him home on a Monday evening.

He made his rounds. Cuddled with each of us, and spent the night on the couch curled up with Thor. But in the morning he was worse. Much worse. He hid under Zach’s bed or in his laundry basket. He refused to eat.

A miserable week passed, with daily trips to the vet. It was too much for Milo, who hated any kind of disruption to his schedule.

He grew silent. We grew sad.

And one evening the four of us made the choice to let him go. It was an agonizing decision, but Milo let us know he was done. He was sick. He was tired. He wanted to go.

So, on a Friday morning we gathered around him in the vet’s office. We held him. Kissed him. Told him how much we loved him.

He laid his head in my hand as the vet gave him the first injection. My face was the last thing he saw and the last thing he heard was my voice telling him what a good boy he was.

Turns out Milo didn’t have nine lives. He only had one. And we are forever grateful that he spent it with us.

Columns

Saying goodbye to Betty

Today’s Spokeman Review column.

Betty Schott (seated) wears a lei at a ceremony in 2014 to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I loved to listen to her talk.

Though soft-spoken, Betty Schott, 98, had a sharp mind and an even sharper sense of humor. She smiled easily, laughed often, and called me “honey.”

But when her husband of 76 years died in May 2014, her smile faded and the quips didn’t come as quickly.

Adjusting to life without her beloved wearied her.

On Sunday, Betty died, 80 years and one day from the anniversary of her first date with Warren Schott.

I met the Schotts in 2007 when I interviewed them for my Love Story series. It was the start of a friendship that spanned eight years and immeasurably enriched my life.

From the beginning, a no-nonsense Warren assured me their story was no romantic tale. In fact, all those years ago, when a friend offered to set him up on a blind date with Betty, Warren scoffed, “Don’t do me any favors.”

He was a young sailor, not in the least interested in finding true love. But on July 4, 1935, love found him in the form of a beautiful, petite North Central High School graduate named Betty Forest.

They were married April 2, 1938, at the Wee Kirk O’ the Heather chapel at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

When I attended their 75th anniversary celebration, Betty quipped, “Well, we got married in a cemetery and honeymooned in Death Valley, so we got all that out of the way!”

But as Pearl Harbor survivors, the Schotts saw more than their share of death.

Warren had been sent to the Naval Air Station at Pearl Harbor shortly after their marriage. Betty was determined to join him and worked until she earned her passage. She arrived on Ford Island in 1939 and they settled into a tiny apartment near Battleship Row.

Their bedroom overlooked the island’s runway, so they were accustomed to noise, but the sounds that woke them on Dec. 7, 1941, were unlike any they’d heard before.

Betty pulled on her robe and looked out the bathroom window. “Warren!” she called, “there’s smoke and fire at the end of the runway.”

Warren went to another window and spotted a plane flying low overhead. “I saw the red balls on the wings of the plane,” he said. “I watched that plane torpedo the USS Utah. I said, ‘Betty, we’re at war!’ ”

While Betty filled fire extinguishers with other civilians in a supply warehouse, Warren had the grim job of pulling the dead and injured from the harbor. The men he pulled out of the water were covered in oil. Afterward, Betty discovered, “They got rid of every towel in my house trying to help clean them up. Finally they took down my kitchen curtains and used them.”

Over the years, they talked about everything, but on one topic Warren remained silent. “He never talked about the people he pulled out of the oily water that morning,” Betty said. “Never.”

It was often painful for them to share their memories. “Slamming a door for days after the attack would make you jump,” Betty said, recalling the terrible noise and confusion they experienced.

But the Schotts felt it was their duty to tell their story and to honor those who died that day.

Though they didn’t think their 76-year marriage was anything remarkable, they were tickled that their story was included in “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.”

When I visited with Betty in December while working on a story about the 73rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I returned some photos she’d let me use for the book.

She reached up and patted my cheek with her soft, timeworn hand. “I’m so proud of you, honey,” she said. And it felt like I’d received a blessing from my grandmother.

What I remember most was my last visit to her home – the home Warren had built, the home they’d shared for 65 years.

The plaque I’d seen years earlier still hung in the kitchen. It read, “Happiness is being married to your best friend.”

Warren’s death had left her adrift. She missed him so much, and she swore sometimes she could still see him sitting in his chair. She’d blink or turn her head and he’d be gone, but his presence was so real to her, his voice so compelling. Her own voice quavered when she said, “Every night at 11 p.m., he’d say, ‘Honey, now it’s time to go to bed.’ ”

That’s why I would not be at all surprised if on Sunday morning, Betty heard him whisper, “Honey, now it’s time to come on home.”

And of course she went to him. How could she not? She said, “He’s been my best friend for 77 years.”

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

War Bonds

Saying goodbye is the hardest part

When you write a book about WWll veterans who are in their 80’s and 90’s you know your time with them is limited, but it doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier.

Betty Schott died on July 5. She and her husband, Warren, survived Pearl Harbor together and their marriage spanned 76 years.

Betty 2Warren and Betty Schott appearing in the Armed Forces Lilac Parade in Spokane, May 2010.

In this week’s Spokesman Review column I say goodbye to Betty, one of the sweetest, wisest, kindest women I’ve ever known.

Her last words to me were, “I’m so proud of you, honey.”

You can read the column here.  Or here.