"The night before Bob Shahan was expected to return home, his young wife, Janet, did not sleep. She sat by the window all night long, waiting for her husband," Christine N. Gordon wrote in a short autobiography about a couple she knew who had lived through World War II. Tech Sergeant Bob W. Shahan served in the Army from 1943 to 1946 in the European theatre, North Africa, and then Italy. He was later sent to the Philippines, where he remained until after the surrender of Japan. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor under combat, and he was one of the select few to see service in both the European and Pacific theatres of war. The more Gordon spoke with the Shahans and researched their story, the more she realized how much--and how little--had changed since a new generation of troops had gone off to fight; Gordon's own son, Robert, was a Marine who was deployed to Iraq. When he came home in February 2005, Gordon wrote a short story about the experience, weaving into the account descriptions of what Bob and Janet Shahan had endured six decades earlier. (Passages referring to the Shahans are in italics.) -- Andrew Carroll
A retired Army Major once told me that every war story is really a love story.
I never understood that comment until the weekend we welcomed home our son, Robert, a United States Marine, from the war in Iraq.
My husband Rob, our daughters, Theresa and Jennifer, and I arrive at the base in Yuma, Arizona the night before our son Robert's expected return. During those waiting hours, I think often of Mr. and Mrs. Shahan, a couple in their 80s, who live nearby in our town. I had worked on an autobiography about Mr. Shahan's service during WWII while our Robert was gone.
Mr. Robert W. Shahan served in the Army from 1943 to 1946 as Tech Sergeant in the European theatre, in North Africa and then Italy with the 5th Army Special Troops on bomb and mine removal. He was in Italy during the Po River Valley campaign, where he saw action and then was on detached service clearing mines for the British 8th Army. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor under combat. Mr. Shahan was one of the select few to see service in all theatres of the war. He was sent to the Pacific Theatre and assigned to the 56th Quartermaster Sales Company in the Philippines and remained until after the surrender of Japan.
The night before Bob Shahan returned home, his young wife, Janet, did not sleep. She sat by the window all night long.
Because these kind people shared their war story with me, I worry far less about my son's wife, Diana, than I would have otherwise. The night before our son's homecoming, Diana does not sleep either. At 10:00 p.m. we help her move the furniture in their bedroom. At 11:00 p.m. we hang pictures in the living room. At midnight she makes banana bread. At this point, I tell her she's on her own and go to bed in the guest room. She hangs wallpaper at 2:00 a.m. At 3:00 a.m. she displays his welcome home sign. At 4:00 she tries to sleep for two minutes and then says, "Ahh, forget it." At 4:03 she vacuums the living room, and on and on. At 6:00 I find her making coffee, dressed and ready to meet her husband.
Janet Shahan scrubbed everything within reach. Her aunt and grandparents carried on as usual and went to bed without her. She did not get to go to the hangar; she had to wait for her love to find his way to their doorstep. And so she waited.
I'd been told there would be food so we have not eaten. No sleep, no food, no way. I kill some time and go back to the car to forage for a couple of apples, a slightly flat soda and a half-filled bottle of warm water.
Only the ovens worked, so his meal on board consisted of baked liver, beans with dry cornbread and bologna and cheese sandwiches. Nine hundred beds for over two thousand men meant "hot bunking," a cozy term for the unfortunate condition of sharing a bunk with two others and sleeping in eight-hour rotating shifts. A third of the men were always on deck.
The whole way to the car and back I watch the sky as though Robert might parachute out and I'll be the only one to miss it. Just like at a baseball game when I'm buying peanuts as the homerun is hit. The crowd is cheering and I'm always standing there yelling, "What happened?" I don't want to be the one yelling, "What happened?" when my son's plane lands.
I settle in and look around us. I love these people. All ages, all colors, all religions, all with different ideas about the war. All American. We come with a common goal: to see our boys and girls. Birth, death, love, loss, children leaving, children coming home. All are universal experiences, but rarely do we share them with strangers. When we do, they are not strangers for long. I think of those caught in the nightmare of 9/ll. It seems they became a family in that tragedy.
Boys who started out clean with combed hair, are lying on their bellies, cars in hand, playing the age-old game I call "Crash!" The boys are happy. Wasn't it last week Robert played on the floor?
I look at Diana and the word that comes to mind is "miracle." She's our miracle. She smiles easily, laughs even easier. Our overly serious son needed her laughter. I reach for her hand to tell her "we made it" at the same time she reaches for a bottle of water. I embarrass myself.
We are told that the plane has been delayed another forty minutes.
The ship met with a beached Japanese sub in the San Francisco Bay. The sub, armed with torpedoes, came down from the Aleutian Islands with the orders to sink any vessel. The troop ship was detained even as they stood on deck looking at their homeland. The sight of the sub confirmed his feeling that it was all too good to be true. Something would keep him from her.
"Remember, honey. Some are not coming home. We can wait." I mean what I say and ignore the burning sun on my back.
At last the plane lands and again we are told to wait. The Marines must check in their weapons. The crowd is pushed back once, twice. Mothers and wives don't behave well. We continue to cross the new boundary we've been given. It's hard to hold back two hundred determined people. I spot a pregnant woman holding up a sign with an ultrasound photo of her cocooned baby.
I ask Diana for her camera. I can photograph them. It will be my gift. I stand on tiptoe to see over the crowds of people, the signs, the balloons. Diana begins to shake as the Marines deplane. It's still so far in the distance every single Marine looks like the next. Again, a painful wait as the troops line up military style. I want to scream. Why is there formality to the end? Let them run. I want everyone free to run.
I don't hear it but somewhere someone dismisses them. The crowd begins to shuffle. We make a plan. Stay put. Let him find us. The possibility of missing each other in this crowd is too great.
Diana stands trembling, her hands raised in a prayer to her lips. She says, " I can't see him."
"He's right there," Rob says.
She shakes her head. "I can't see him." She's whispering now.
I'm searching through the faces. I can't see him either. It's horrible. Where is he? I hold the camera ready. And then in the blur of faces there is one face I know. Serious. Sweet. Ours. Mine.
But Diana cannot see.
Rob is so patient with her. It is his son and instead of running to his boy, he waits with her. I love him for this more than I can say. "See, right there. He's coming this way."
Tears stream down her face.
I wave, call his name and grin. He sees me and nods. "Right there, honey," I say and raise the camera to take his photo. Until she makes the link I cannot have my son.
Like a little girl who can't see the constellation in the sky, she still doesn't see him. He can't be more than fifteen feet from us now, making his way through the crowd.
At last she says it, "I see him," and she moves toward him slowly. He walks to her. I fight my own hands as they begin to tremble. I take the photos of their reunion. His whole world lives in that embrace and we are not the center of it. I look around and see the few boys who are greeted solely by a superior officer and a handshake; I could not be happier for Robert.
I'm still snapping photos when Robert is left with his arms extended waiting for me. Rob has to push me toward him saying, "He's waiting for you."
"Oh," I say, embarrassed that I've gotten lost behind the camera. I grab him too hard around the neck and whisper in his ear. "Thank God you are home. We've all missed you so much."
I stand back to look at him. He's so handsome. Tan, blue eyes, tall. He's lost weight. I touch his face. "You look great."
He grins just a little.
Bob Shahan returned home with a weight loss of over 35 lbs. The army weighed him holding his boots so his weight loss wouldn't seem so drastic.
I'm completely irrational because the next thing I'm worried about is that my photos won't turn out because I'm shaking so much.
Diana lays her head on his shoulder and looks like she could curl up and sleep. The weight of the past six months is off her shoulders. It's been a hard and unexpectedly traumatic deployment. One night shortly after Robert left, she was pulled over by a man impersonating a police officer; miraculously, she was unharmed. Another time someone broke into the house on base (thankfully, she wasn't home) and just before his return, a dog attacked her, biting her upper arm. I think he was going for her throat.
Diana handled everything with courage and a sense of humor, and we found ways to joke about how she could best defend herself. The joking worked its way into a Christmas gift: a small iron frying pan she still keeps in her car. She once held it and said, "You wanna a piece of me?" Some women are Marines, carry a weapon, are trained to kill; other women survive the best they can and wait for their men to come home. Diana and I are the latter.
It's time to leave the hangar, and I look around. I don't know their names. But I know their faces and I know their joy. The little girl wearing a Lakers cheerleading outfit who suddenly got shy when she saw her daddy, the pregnant woman holding the sign, the Marine who kept wiping away his tears at the sight of his newborn, an old man who grabbed his son, clenched the back of his camies and held on...these images are seared into my memory.
Every little thing is a joy. Showing him our new car. Can he find it in the parking lot? What does he want to eat? Does it seem cold here? Hot?
Every little thing is a worry. I watch his face for the signs. Signs of pain, discomfort, sadness. I watch his face for the kind of hurt that doesn't go away with a good meal and a hot shower. I look for the sign that maybe I can't read the signs anymore. That is the one I fear the most.
We eat together, talk, and share photos. Robert has pictures of Iraq, including the desert sky, a mosque, and a fat rat named Chub-chub the Marines fed constantly. Our American boysthey are unique in the world. Robert appears healthy and I thank God for that.
In Italy, near the Po River Valley, his division had been under a barrage of fire. They took cover and waited in silence. In the blackness of night one voice announced loudly in perfect Winston Churchill, "We shall nevah surrendah." It had taken their last bit of will to not crack up and draw more fire.
Before we leave our son's home, I make the guest bed. I lay three small grapevine wreaths that Diana has strung together across the pillows and write a note to my son and my daughter. "Love lives in this house." When I return to the living room, Diana has fallen asleep on Robert's shoulder. It's time for us to go. I say goodbye too soon to my boy. Yet, I'm content. He's safe. He's with his beloved and he will sleep in his own bed tonight. He will come to visit soon, he promises. Marines keep their promises.
In the spring of 1946, Janet Shahan sat alone at the window. It had been a year and a half since she had seen him last. The sun had just come up and through the Los Angeles morning haze she saw what appeared to be a yellow cab. She's not sure what carried her, because she couldn't feel her legs. She grabbed the crystal doorknob, flung the door back and ran down the stairs into her husband's arms.
* * *
Christine N. Gordon is a writer and freelance editor. She is currently editing the life story of a Korean War veteran and finishing her second novel. She lives in Southern California with her husband and their two daughters. Their son Robert was honorably discharged from the Marine Corp in 2006 and is working as a firefighter in Yuma, Arizona. Christine can be reached at 732 Pike Drive, Hemet, CA 92544 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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