Sweethearts reuniting after 48 years

May 15, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

Ray Vasby is crazy in love with a widow who was his British sweetheart before the Allies invaded Normandy, before the war that brought them together pushed them apart.

A month after a phone call from a woman he hasn't seen in almost 50 years, the 68-year-old retired yacht builder is so excited he can hardly sleep, stop himself from breaking out in tears, sit still, or keep anything on his stomach except bananas and a little orange juice.

"I feel resurrected," said Mr. Vasby.

"She called me on Easter and said: 'I bet you'll never guess who this is,' " he said. "It was like an electric shock going through me. I started to shake and I couldn't stop, all these old memories were just flooding in. I'm still walking off the ground. We've been writing and calling two to three times a day since Easter."

"She says she's all in love, and I guarantee you, I'm in love," he said. "It's nuttier when you're old than when you're young."

Love, says Ray Vasby, "must have a lot of good stuff in it."

Before his phone rang on Easter Sunday, Ray Vasby's legs were so weak they could hardly carry him across his kitchen.

Discharged from a veterans' hospital about a month ago with leaky heart valves and high blood pressure, Mr. Vasby went home to Dundalk convinced that his life was just about over. "I was in bad shape," he said. "I couldn't even walk."

Yesterday, the old soldier's legs were up to supporting him, a pair of heavy bags, and a bushel of high hopes he carried to the Greyhound bus station on Fayette Street.

He boarded a bus for South Carolina to be reunited with a womanwho had once accepted his proposal of marriage.

A dozen hours away in Columbia, S.C., a 65-year-old retired K mart manager named Patsy Holmes had her hair done up nice, put on a new dress, and waited for a bus from Baltimore to pull into town.

They met in 1943

In 1943, as a 21-year-old from Clermont, Iowa, assigned to the TC 42nd Infantry, Mr. Vasby was stationed near an English village called Great Saham about 70 miles northeast of London. There he met a teen-ager "with hair like ginger" named Olga Patricia Dulcibul Sewell.

He called her Ginger, bought her phonograph records, and they held hands on long moonlit walks in a courtship that lasted for months as German bombs fell on Britain.

In June of '44, before Mr. Vasby was ordered into France to lay telephone cable for the invading Allies, he bought his girl a ring and she accepted. That is when, Ms. Holmes said yesterday, she made "the biggest mistake of my life."

"Ray went into France into all that heavy fighting and the months slipped by," she said. "I didn't hear from him for all that time and I didn't have the sense to know that he couldn't write. I was just a kid and I was very naive, and I met another American soldier and wrote Ray a Dear John letter. He was furious. He had painted my name on his Jeep and after he called and I told him I was going to marry someone else, he took it off."

That marriage produced four children and ended in divorce. A second husband died four years ago.

And, Ms. Holmes says, although she discarded Mr. Vasby's ring and broke the old records so she wouldn't be reminded of him, she thought of him often over the years, calling his mother once to see if he'd made it home from the war.

After the war, a stint in counter-intelligence school at Fort Holabird brought Mr. Vasby to Maryland. For most of the 45 years, he and his late wife, Betty, raised a family of five on Maxwell Avenue, and the couple kept an unlisted phone number. A few years ago, Mr. Vasby decided to put the number back in the book.

On Easter Sunday, an operator passed the number along to Patsy Holmes calling from South Carolina.

"A friend came by with a copy of British Heritage magazine, and it had a story in it about reunions of American soldiers and the families they knew during the war," said Ms. Holmes. "That set me off again and I wondered, 'Maybe he's still there.' "

And there he was, a widower home alone because a holiday dinner at his daughter's house had been canceled.

Said Ms. Holmes: "He picked up the phone, and I told him: 'All these 50 years, Ray Vasby, I have loved you.' "

'You can't hold a grudge'

Before the 10:40 a.m. bus to Washington and points south left Baltimore yesterday, Mr. Vasby sat in a plastic chair, wearing a VFW Post No. 6694 baseball cap studded with patriotic buttons. He looked through a briefcase packed with gifts for his sweetheart: a wristwatch, a miniature TV, and a black-and-white photograph of a much skinnier Ray Vasby in an Army uniform.

There were also a few of the love letters delivered to Maxwell Avenue since Easter, letters that sound as if they were written by a teen-ager, longhand paragraphs that talk about dreams and fairy tales.

From one of the letters, the old soldier pulled a half-foot rope of copper colored hair, a lock of tresses cut from Ms. Holmes' head a half-century earlier during her romance with Mr. Vasby.

Holding it up in front of him, nearly mesmerized by its hue, Mr. Vasby talked of marriage and refused to blame Ms. Holmes for breaking his heart.

"You can't hold a grudge after you get this old," he said. "Anyway, nothing's kosher during war. You have to live through something like that to believe it. I let her get away from me once, but it's not going to happen again. This is an adventure and I haven't had one of those for years. I don't think either of us have much time left."

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