A war bride remembers

Elise T. Chisolm

January 29, 1991|By Elise T. Chisolm

I HOPED I'd never have to write about being a war bride. It's a story of indecision, turmoil and fear of the unknown in a chaotic world that changed people's lives forever.

But young people, people about to get married, people who are draft age, are asking me ''What was it like?'' and ''Would you do it again?''

Yes, I would do it again.

What was it like? I was 18 and World War II was in full blast. Philadelphia, the city I grew up in, was geared for enemy attack. German U-boats swarmed the Atlantic Ocean. There was gas and food rationing. The specter of invasion lurked everywhere. There was, however, a camaraderie -- we were not a divided nation. That helped. Most of the boys I grew up with had already left the city for military duty.

Out of high school, I took a defense job and went to school at night, commuting on trains. I couldn't remember when life was carefree.

But there again, war changes everything. Entertainment was playing cards under a blackout light on my mother's double bed with other women and my mother.

On New Year's Eve 1942, a boy I'd been dating, a longtime friend, asked me to marry him. I said ''No.'' He was being shipped out. He was 19.

The next month, on Feb. 22, at a dance, I met a 23-year-old Navy ensign. He was handsome, --ing, and fun to be with. Yet he was quiet and laid back in that southwestern sort of way. I fell madly in love. After two weeks of constant dating, he asked me to marry him.

I told him he was crazy.

''Maybe when your ship comes back in or the war is over.''

But people were doing just that -- getting married before the war got any worse. There was a pervasive attitude that we could be a battered or defeated nation forever; no more men to love, no more chances for family life as we knew it. Or just no more life.

I dated him for six weeks of evenings, Saturdays and Sundays. While we courted, necked and made promises, he suddenly got his orders to report to the West Coast and then to the Pacific Fleet.

Meantime my mother, like most mothers, delved into his background like a spy. She found she had a best friend who was a friend of his aunt. So she delved deeper, as only a mother can.

He must have come up clean. She liked him a lot.

He left, and I did not go with him. My two best friends married their Army men at that time, but they had grown up with them.

I waited. I lived in a state of love and euphoria. His letters and calls came every day. He was in Tacoma, Wash., waiting for his ship, a carrier being built and outfitted at the Navy Yard.

''Come to Tacoma, I will be here a little longer,'' he would beg.

And I listened and thought as I drowned myself in my defense job and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Three months went by and I could wait no longer. No, I was not pregnant.

With my mother and my sister's support and love, I packed and headed alone for Tacoma, a speck on the map on the other side of the continent. I had a pass on the railroad, my family didn't. Essential travel only was allowed.

I was ecstatic, and so was he.

And now I come to the part I'm not proud of.

Enter the indecisive war bride.

Changing trains in Chicago, I got scared. I was lonely. I changed my mind.

I stayed overnight in a hotel to think some more. I'd never been west of West Philadelphia, and I really did not know him that well.

I bargained with God. ''If I marry him, will you promise to bring him back safely?''

After calling my mother, a women of great courage and intuition, I decided to go on.

We were married just a few months after we met, surrounded by new friends. We took a weekend honeymoon on a boat to Victoria, British Columbia. While the aircraft carrier was picking up its squadron, I got to travel up and down the West Coast with other Navy wives.

I'd never been happier.

And a few months after that, he was out to sea. From then on our life was a tapestry of waiting for shore leaves, listening for casualties, praying for more letters while he was in the thick of battle. The emotional roller coaster kept us going.

The tears, the joys, all the anxieties now seem to melt into one big historical block of terror and triumph.

Because he did come home. We were among the lucky ones.

And no, I didn't know him very well, I tell those who ask. But all that I did know about him, I liked and loved.

Yes, we were very young, but we grew up together, and that's the way it's been. We are now learning to grow old together, 47 years of marriage, four children and four grandchildren later.

Lastly, most young people have asked me, ''Didn't you take an awful chance?''

Yes, of course, we both did. We took a huge chance, but that's the basic thing you learn about war -- it is a terrible chance we all take, every time it happens.

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