Many others have extolled the virtues of our parents and grandparents who survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II — saving America and the world from unspeakable evil. My mom and soldier dad were no exception in this Greatest Generation.
That is, except for the story of how they met and later married on July 4, 1944, about a month after D-Day. The story still polishes up like a bright new diamond of a tale.
My dad was born in 1916 in this country. He was the only child of a Roman Catholic German baron and his Episcopalian English-Irish bride, both legally naturalized citizens from their respective countries via Ellis Island. My mom was also born here in 1921 amid a slew of naturalized relatives from Roman Catholic northern Italy. As children and teens, five years apart in age, my parents never met as youngsters, though they both resided in and attended public school in Tenafly, New Jersey, a small, conservative and rural borough bustling with business and just a short trolley car, train, and ferry ride away from New York City.
A few years later, my mom’s first encounter with Dad occurred during the big-band era of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, in early 1940. Dad was a first-chair trumpet player and made a good living in local clubs (or “watering holes,” as they were called then). My young mom and her girlfriends were excited to learn that a young crooner named Frank Sinatra would be singing one wintry Saturday night — and made arrangements to book a table at the venue.
To their surprise, however, my mom wasn’t interested in Sinatra. Instead, she couldn’t take her eyes off one member of the brass: a handsome and brilliant trumpet player, my dad.
Although Mom was too shy to make the first move, she managed to get his name from the club’s owner and tucked it away for safekeeping. In those days, young women didn’t behave outside of traditional, family and faith-centered constraints when it came to introductions, let alone a potential date. Yet Mom was cut from a different cloth, with its almost bursting-at-the-seams independent American spirit. When she set her eyes on Dad that night, she wasn’t about to let him walk away.
She bided her time, and learned more about him through the local grapevine. Most of Dad’s friends were not only musicians but also accomplished equestrians who taught riding lessons on the side for extra money.
And that was her “in” — to save enough money to take riding lessons from Dad in Englewood Cliffs, where he worked part time. Lucky for her, she had a good job as a secretary at U.S. Steel in New York City while living with her parents.
No one “sat a horse” like my dad, and she had no better teacher. His problem, however, was an immediate attraction to Mom. He also wanted to strike out on his own and move out of his parents’ home in Tenafly to live freely of advice or judgment from others.
They dated for a while, but soon after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Dad was drafted into the Army as part of America’s entry into WWII. Surprisingly for him, though, their separation was tougher than he expected. “There was something about that young woman — beautiful, intelligent — but more,” he used to say when he recalled it all. (go to page 2 for the rest of the story) [lz_pagination]
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They wrote to one another, when possible, while he was sent abroad to fight in various places in Europe, but by 1943 he was stationed in Greenland. Also, by this time, my mom had been promoted to executive secretary at U.S. Steel. Her powerful boss looked upon my mom as a daughter, so much so that he wanted her to enter the “Miss U.S. Steel Beauty Contest” in New York City for the prize money. Thanks to both her looks and her brains — she won.
So with extra money and a strategic plan already set, she humbly requested that her boss at U.S. Steel help pull some strings with the Army to get her transportation to Greenland.
Somehow, she was given security clearance to fly with troops and supplies on a cargo plane to that country, over a treacherous Atlantic Ocean.
Years later, my sister and I still recall Dad’s telling (and retelling) of this story: “Guys came running into the barracks and said — ‘There’s this babe on the runway lookin’ like Hedy Lamarr or Vivien Leigh, and she’s asking for you, Eddie!’ When I got there, sure enough, your mother was standing on a 20-foot pile of icy snow, just like a movie star in a long fur coat. Jean had the moxie to pull off the impossible by herself. I saw her as a kind of soldier, like me. Yep — it was at that moment I knew no mission could fail with her at my side.”
They were married on July 4, 1944, in New York City. My dad took a short leave and wore his uniform, while my mom’s wedding dress was an aquamarine two-piece suit, with hat and veil, which she made at home on a Singer sewing machine. Family on both sides couldn’t comprehend the logic of these two marrying on Independence Day; the war was all but over by then and they had a myriad of wedding day options available to them.
But my mom and dad, who passed away recently at the age of 94 and 98 respectively, didn’t choose July 4 because Dad was on leave. They picked that day because of how much America’s day of independence meant to them.
The author, a retired attorney, is a published poet, writer, and columnist based in Arizona. [lz_pagination]