One month ago, I was called away from a church project. Grandpa was in ICU with an infection, a blood pressure of 60/30. My dad and his sister, Francie, had responsibilities at church that day, and they couldn’t stay with him. I dropped everything and hurried to the hospital.
Along the way, I stopped at home and chose a thick binder. It is one of three collections of letters Grandpa wrote my grandma in the early years of their marriage, and it was marked “War Letters 1941-42.”
I’m not sure why I felt compelled to bring these with me to the hospital. Grandpa was on the edge of death. Perhaps I felt that I could transmit some of the spirit of these letters back into the man who seemed an empty shell of himself, ravaged by his current condition as well as several years of dementia.
When I got to his room, I was struck by how sick he looked. His cheeks were pinched in, his eyes were glazed, and his open mouth took irregular, raspy breaths. The letters were disorganized. I rearranged them until I could have a sense of order. I skipped over the letters from March Field in Muroc, California, and looked for the letters that marked his journey across the Pacific in January of 1942. I began to read to him.
I read of his trip from San Francisco to Australia (it is hard to determine how long it took, because the dates were all cut out by Army censors). He performed an appendectomy on board the boat, but it was an otherwise uneventful trip, with so many medical personnel on board, that he was only on duty every third day. There was much of the mundane: requests for Grandma to send him razors, magazines, and socks.
There was one letter that I was unable to finish that day: a letter that left me too emotional to continue. It was postmarked January 11, 1942, the day he shipped out with little warning. It was a fond, eloquent goodbye to my grandma. Yet reading it there, amidst the constant beep of the monitors, it felt like a goodbye to me, too, along with anyone else who had loved him.
The spirit of 29-year-old Grandpa poured out of the pages I read: his sarcastic sense of humor (he admonishes Grandma, a saintly Christian woman if I’ve ever known one, to “BE NICE!”); and his love of wordplay. These things helped me to love all the more the 95-year-old shell of this great man.
Lt. A.G. Dittes[As it would turn out, Grandpa went first to northern Australia. His unit was an engineering company, which built roads, ports and airstrips as the front against Japan moved north. Eventually finished his service overseas in Papua New Guinea. He returned home in 1943.]
January 11, 1942
Well, I guess the time has come for me to say that the time has come for a little boat to go sailing over the blue waters, etc., etc. I am glad that I was able to get you off on the train as I did, because the next day (today) we were advised not to bring our wives over on the island. So, you can see that it was for the best…..you would have been sitting over there at the hotel wondering what to do, and it would have been quite heart-breaking all the way through. As it was, it was bad enough. I saw some people come off the train just before the train went off, indicating that I could have done the same thing myself. I waited on the outside till the train left. I looked into all of the windows, and behind the curtains, as best as possible, but was unable to see you behind any of them. When the train finally left, I really felt quite bad. I knew that the person who meant the most to me in this world had just pulled away for a long long time. Well, I guess I might say that it is all my fault in having joined the army in the first place; but I realize that it would have been only a mater of time until I would have had to go, and probably be taken in an outfit that would be a very dangerous one. As I have told you previously, the head officers of this outfit take a rather jovial outlook of it all, and from that I gather that we won’t be going anywhere’s near a dangerous zone of action.
I am hoping very much that we do get stationed in South America, near a large city,
as was suggested by the colonel. That would make the problem of your coming down to see me easy, as we discussed in the restaurant on our last day together here yesterday. As I have already told you, the thing to do is to get a book on Spanish, and learn the stuff, and find out how to get a plane to south American countries. Once we get stationed, we will be at our location for quite some time, and if things are going then as they are at present, it won’t be long until they send us back to the states. Well, let’s hope for the best for the country, and for our own personal selves. I know that I want to do what is expected of me, and do my ordinary duty like any other honest citizens, but I also want to be home with you, and to make a nice home for you, so that you won’t be alone as you are now. Well, as I see things, it won’t be too long until that happy event takes place.
I want you to take good care of yourself physically, as well as in every other way. Eat three good meals each day, and get good exercise, and visit with all of your nice female relatives, and have a good time with them. Go to all the amusements that you want to go to. Buy all the clothes that you see and desire. Travel to Colorado, and to your mother in Chicago, and have a good time. Be happy, and gay…..do your work as a nurse as you desire, and as you see a need for your services. No doubt you will see several situations where nursing care is a real necessity and the people can’t pay, and I think that it would be very nice if you would help out, since you are not entirely dependent (if at all) on a nurse’s salary…
[The letter breaks into a discussion of receiving shares of Grandpa’s army checks, recollections of their time in San Francisco together, and directions on how to handle family members.]
…Above all, I want you to be NICE (Just as I have always said it!)
Well, Elinor, sweetheart, I hope that you get my many cards, and that you soon become adjusted to not having me around all the time. Remember what I told you about how nice a job I have, and the conveniences that are given me, and all of that…..you saw most of it for yourself…..so don’t worry too much about what a mess I am in, etc., etc. I sort of take this like a little spot of adventure to brighten up an otherwise orderly medical life. I also consider it a terrible shattering blow to my present marital status, and condition, but know that it won’t be too long until that situation is remedied.
So, little Elinor sweetheart, for the moment I say so-long, “till we meet again” and so
forth, and so on. Give my regards to your mother and father, and to Aunt Lou and Genevieve and Pudd, and to Uncle Tony and Aunt Elizabeth, and all…..also remember me to the Dybdalls, and tell them that we will go on that weekend trip some day when he finishes interning. Saw the show tonight at the post theatre, and it was one of those gangster thrillers, in which the gangsters rounded up a bunch of fifth columnists, and everybody had a good time. There was lots of shooting and fighting, and in the end, all of the bad people were very unhappy.
I hope you are very happy at Glendale, and that you keep busy and active, and happy, and above all, keep in good spirits, and keep in good physical shape, because we want to do a lot of things when I get back.
--don’t forget that I love you very, very much and will be always thinking of you.
Very best wishes, and very best love
P.S. I think I love you
2 P.S. I am pretty sure
that I love you
3 P.S. I am quite certain that I love you
4 P.S. I am very certain that I do love you.
5 P.S. I know I love you.
6 P.S. Be sure to be nice, and to talk nice—for ever in ever [sic] be seeing you soon, little pal
Your sweetheart, etc., etc.------Al.