Oh, to receive a note to signal the heart of your love still beats half a world away. Loretta spent weeks not knowing whether or not Harold was alive, only MIA in the summer of 1943. She held onto hope and still wrote, even though the letters were returned. She still put her love out on paper and sent it away and prayed an envelope would reach his eyes. What bittersweet relief to know your husband is alive, but captive. Shaken. Injured, probably. Trapped behind an electric fence.
Hi you Kid,
What’s cookin? Tell your boyfriend in the dirty brown uniform I was asking for him. (huh huh!)
The Mississippi heat slapped Harold clear across the face. He and the rest of the men squinted as they hopped off the bus and out into the open air. It was surprisingly refreshing to exit the bus and feel whatever excuse of a fresh breeze came in off the water. Harold quite enjoyed being near water again, even if he was all the way in Biloxi. The salt smelled different than back home, but the sounds of the bay were welcome. Harold grabbed his pack along with the rest of the group and headed for the barracks.
As he walked, Harold gazed in wonder at the planes scattered around the airfield. He saw a couple of P-51 Mustangs – with their sleek, thin bodies and almost centrally located cockpits. The guys who flew those must have had a lot of fun tearing up the skies, he thought. Mustangs had incredible fire power and speed – it was no wonder the Royal Air Force purchased so many of them from the United States the year before. He saw a Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk make its way down the tarmac into holding for maintenance. They looked mean, meaner than the Mustang, despite their name. Harold had an appreciation for the artistic craft that went into painting the noses of these planes to look like angry mouths with giant, sharp teeth; he was glad he was fighting for their side.
Ahead of him, in a large open hangar, there she was – the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. She was a massive ship, with four engines, turret guns, a bomb bay, and a beautiful, ten-panel plexiglass nose. Other than Loretta, Harold felt love at first sight when he walked past this machine. As a member of the Air Force, he hoped the B-17 would be his assignment. Harold could think of nothing better than working on these machines. His feet kept him forward towards his barracks, while his eyes stayed fixed on the Fortress.
“Red!” Harold was pulled from his daydream by the call of an old nickname. He turned his gaze ahead and was met with the sight of a familiar face coming towards him.
“Red! I knew it was you! I’ll be damned, come here!” Jack Thompson, Harold’s long-time friend from Jamaica, was stationed at Keesler. Of course he was, Harold thought – he couldn’t believe he didn’t connect the dots on the train ride down.
The two shook hands and gave a brotherly embrace. Harold placed his pack down at his feet for a moment while Jack took a step back, his arms extended in front of him, holding Harold’s arms.
“Boy is it just swell to see a familiar face! Couldn’t miss that mop of hair though! I didn’t think I’d find you so soon on day one. How was the ride down?” Jack was giddy at the sight of his long lost brother from Jamaica. The Thompson boys – Jack and Ned – were both enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Harold figured eventually he’d cross paths with one of them and was glad that it happened sooner than later.
“Ride could’ve been better, but it wasn’t bad. Plenty of cards, plenty of windows to stare out of.” Jack laughed and clapped Harold on the shoulder.
“How’s your old lady?”
“Loretta is doing well. In fact, I have a letter to send off to her. Would you show me to the mailroom?” Harold patted his shirt pocket where the letter sat, and smiled at the thought of his love back home. Jack obliged.
My Dearest Doll,
I’m at the USO in New Orleans now wishing you were with me. I love you lots dear, and miss you very much. There’s a dance going on now, but I’m not dancing and I won’t, I’d rather write to you. I’d like to tell you “I love you” the remaining lines of this letter but maybe you’d think I was silly; so I’m going to tell you about my trip here.
I typed out mine and my buddy’s passes and got the Sarg’s signature. It felt good to use the typewriter, and it brought back memories of me typing over your house. We took a bus to Gulfport and from there got on route 90 where we waited for a lift. I could have taken a train, but I thought I’d save the 2.50 bucks. We were at the corner at 3 o’clock PM. Our first ride was gotten at 3:20 by a colored chauffeur in a 1941 Pontiac. We had the radio going and I listened to some music for 1 hour. The stations were from New York, and the songs were swell. One tune was “I want my Mommer,” and there was a song I don’t believe I’ve heard before; it was “I love you” or something. Naturally I was thinking of you.
After an hour of riding, he turned off route 90, so we got out. About 10 minutes later we were picked up by a salesman who brought us all the way into New Orleans. All toll, we covered 92 miles. We arrived home about 5:30.
I took a walk to the dock, and looked at the muddy Mississippi River. (I spit in it) ain’t I awful? Can I tell that to our children? It was swell first sitting there and watching the water run and the ferries coming and going. After that I came here to the USO and met some of my friends from camp. It is sort of a meeting place; like Nachlin’s used to be.
After that, we all went down to the block and ate. I enjoyed my supper. Now I’m back again at the USO.
The folks down here are nice to us boys in the service. There are a lot of sailors here too.
Well Doll, now can I tell you? I love you. I will. My sweetheart I love you with all my life.
As would the sky miss the stars, so I miss you. You’re the star in my blue heaven. You’re my heaven. You’re everything to me. I love you sweetheart.
Well sweets, good nite. Your loving honey. Love, Ha xxxxxx P.S. I love you
I love love letters, but I especially love old post cards. Oftentimes the innuendos are a little harder to find, and you’ll see what I mean as I post more. They’re clever and cute, and a good amount of them praise women with thick legs (yay!). My nan signing so many letters as “Chubby” makes me laugh. Growing up, she and my grandpa would switch every other day between hot and cold breakfasts. Either a bowl of cereal, then the next day they’d have eggs, etc. Her cereal choice was always Wheaties, “Because they’re good for you.” When she was done with her good-for-you cereal, Nan would finish off with either two Oreo cookies or two Mallomars. And I wonder where I get my sweet tooth from…
April 24, 1942
Excuse [my] writing because I’m riding [on] a train. My destination is [Keesler] Field Miss; where Gerry used to be. I think I’ll be in the ground crew of the Air Force. I’ll like that. I left Camp Upton at 11:00 AM Friday. We don’t expect to leave the train till Sunday 1 PM. I’m playing cards and having fun with the fellows; no girls and no beer since Sunday. I miss you very much and wish you could be here with me.
I was really homesick. The Army keeps me pretty busy and I don’t have much time to think about things. Of course I don’t forget you, I never will. You occupy my mind every night, and my heart all the time. It must be that I love you. How could anyone help it, you’re so swell and nice and even beautiful. I love you doll.
I would like you to thank the family for me for the presents I received. [They’re] swell. Give them my regards and wish them health. I’m sorry I couldn’t call you last night, but I only received your message at 8:30. I called up home and told them I was leaving; I had hopes that Herb would look up the train and tell you when I would arrive at Jamaica. Got to Jamaica about noon and I was looking for someone to be at the station. I wasn’t disappointed altogether, though, because I saw my home and the vicinity I used to reside in. That was the only time.
The Pullman will be around soon to make my bed so I’ll see, kiss, and hold you in my dreams. Good night Doll and dream of me.
I’ll remain your Honey Sweets.
P.S. I love you with all my life.
Harold was called to train for the second World War on April 20. His brother, Arthur, was called to the Pacific on March 16. Both brothers were caught with feelings of excitement and fear. It was the longest they would ever be apart in their 22 years. They each had their girls at home, they had jobs; they were now going to go defend those jobs, defend their loved ones back in Queens. Loretta waited until her love was beyond her sight before she turned away back into the doorway of the now-empty home and wept. Her tears were mostly those of pride, but also of uncertainty. She never wanted to think the worst – but it was war. She hoped and prayed with all she had that Harold would return home safe from wherever he was called to, but a small flame – a small pin prick in the back on her mind kept asking, what if he doesn’t?
Newly engaged and with dreams of a cottage on the water, Loretta’s mind swirled at the idea of Harold risking his life – of her not having him to share the rest of her life with. She couldn’t imagine it. Even in a place like New York, with all the people and new faces to be seen each day, she couldn’t envision anyone else by her side other than Harold. She knew she wouldn’t go on without him, so she decided that he would have no other choice but to return home to her. Eventually, she rose from her chair, wiped her tears, and smoothed out the front of her dress. This was no way to think, she thought. Besides, she took comfort in knowing that Harold was in the company of familiar faces, like Jack and Ned.
There were the Schwerdt boys – and then there were Jack and Ned. They all grew up around each other, through the Depression, school, holidays; the boys were simply one large extended family. The brothers were many, even with their different last names. Harold, Arthur, Jack, and Ned were determined from their boyhood to be men in uniform – not just for the discipline and the looks, but because throughout their lives the military was something that seemed to always be constant regardless of the economics. Born in the 1920s, one of the most prosperous times for the United States, these young men experienced an absolutely tragic economic downfall before any of them reached double digits. Harold and Arthur had to watch their family of eleven struggle and work to keep a roof over their heads; their father going from milkman to brewer, musical performer to handyman – anything to put food on the table. They helped, sure, but as children they were wary of what their lives would entail when they were their father’s age. So – at least for the twins – a life in the military would guarantee steady pay; they could honor their country, and also take care of their loved ones.
Harold sat in his train car as it pulled away from Jamaica Station. He was leaving the haze of New York for the unknown. As men hung out the traincar windows and kissed their girls goodbye, he sat quietly, staring out into the crowd. Deep down, Harold wished his gal would be on the platform, waiting anxiously to see him off one last time, but he knew there was a good chance that his brother wouldn’t receive his message in time. The train jerked forward and as it did he rubbed his hands along the tops of his thighs. This is really it, he thought. Soon, Harold would be somewhere in the south. Then, the midwest. Then Maine. Then – the far reaches of the world, fighting the Axis Powers, killing the enemy, ending the war (he hoped). What a strange time, he thought, to go from the little block in Jamaica to being away from his family, Loretta – Artie – with no real end in sight. The only certainty Harold had was of his train’s destination.
He realized he’d been gripping his knees for quite some time. Calmly, he picked up a hand and smoothed back his hair. Harold watched as the buildings became smaller and took out a pencil and paper to write Loretta. Sending her parcels always brought him comfort because he knew the enthusiasm she had when reading his notes. She really was swell, he thought, and he knew he’d have to make it home to her once all this was over.
That evening Harold found himself unable to sleep. The train rocked in a way that was similar to his summers on the boat, but it was more jarring than anything. He tried to persuade himself to sleep on the memories of water lapping against the hull of the old boat, and would soon drift off into a light slumber until the train rocked too much in one direction and he was again jolted awake by the sound of metal on metal.
“Damn it all,” he said to himself as he rolled over, trying to sleep and failing again. Only a couple of days left of this, he thought. Harold knew eventually he’d have to adjust to the methodical cranking and panging of machinery now that he was officially off to the call of duty. He had to sleep with the busy sounds of Jamaica outside his bedroom window night after night as a boy, but this was different. Too loud a bang, too bright a flash, and it could mean death. He thought fondly of the summer before at the rental home. Loretta and Jeanne visited him, Arthur, and the rest of the boys for some fishing and barbeque. He loved watching Loretta work on a tan that was fruitless, for she was entirely Irish and could manage no more than a pink hue. Pink, like her favorite strawberry ice cream. He smiled. He missed her and their ice cream dates. It made his stomach queasy, thinking about how much uncertainty surrounded the war; the train jerking around didn’t help, either.
Harold got up from the bed and opened his car door. A Pullman was walking down the hallway towards him.
“Can’t sleep, sir?” He flashed a smile and tipped his porter’s cap. Harold returned the smile.
“Can’t seem to, no. I have my sea legs but I am yet to find my train legs.” The porter laughed and patted Harold on the shoulder.
“Well, sir, I sometimes find myself working near-on four hundred hours a month on these trains and I have to tell you, there are times when I don’t think I have my train legs!” They shared a laugh and Harold felt at ease to be in decent company.
“The name’s Harold. What do they call you?” He extended a hand and shook the porter’s. The porter returned with a firm grip.
“My name is Charles. Pleasure to meet you Harold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to make rounds up and down this train. Better keep the momentum up before I lose my train legs.” Charles flashed another smile to Harold. “You get some sleep now, sir. Try counting sheep.”
Harold took the advice and excused himself back into his car. His bunkmate lay silent and peacefully asleep – how Harold wished he could do the same. He lay on his back and pulled the blankets up to his chin; scratchy but warm. Then he began to count sheep in his head like Charles suggested – one, two, three…
An always that predates Professor Snape. The envelope is from a letter he wrote her before they were married. But I just love the ending of this telegram. She wrote it to him when he was a prisoner of war.
May 20, 1940
After receiving your swell letter I sort of feel ashamed of myself for not writing sooner. I know you will understand when I say it’s not because I didn’t want to write but because I don’t have enough time to write, so I’ll just let it got here. O.K. Now you will have to excuse the pencil because I can’t get any ink at the present, and then you’ll have to excuse the penmanship because I’m sitting on the deck and writing on my knee. There’s a dam lot of apologies doing on, isn’t there? I know they’re not necessary kid, but if I feel like apologizing, let me. Dot all.
I just wrote a letter to Mom about my rifle practice today and instead of repeating it to you kid, do me a favor and read her letter when you go over to the house. I won’t have enough time to repeat it now. The first thing I want to tell you is that I graduate May 26th and that will be a day I’ll never forget. I’ve been here for more than a month already. This Sunday I go on liberty again and I’m going to have a good time in Milwaukee because the company started to break up today. All men going to cooks school left tonight on about an hour’s notice. I made signalman school but I don’t know where it is or when I go. That is whether I get a leave or not before I go. My buddy, and he’s a damn good guy, made gunners mate school and that’s the reason for a good time Sunday. I like it here and I feel swell. I must admit I’m a little homesick. Nobody could have a better reason than Butch, Ha, or myself.
As Loretta waded her way through Arthur’s misspellings and scratchy pencil handwriting, she smiled. She remembered fondly the letter she wrote him earlier and was relieved that it was received well and that Arthur was simply too busy to respond. Even though it never worked between them, and she was now Harold’s girl, Loretta always loved the other twin. How could she not? He was her beau in every way – except his handwriting… and maybe personality, as she thought on it more. Arthur, always the funny man, could have been seen as younger than his twin by years, even younger than Loretta, with his personality. She always admired that about him, but she admired Harold’s seriousness more. She gently folded the letter and placed it in the old envelope box that she kept in a drawer in her bedroom for days where she felt like revisiting memories. Loretta threw on a pair of shoes, found a hat, and stepped out for the short, warm walk to Harold’s mother’s house to read about Artie’s day at rifle practice; Mrs. Schwerdt was probably very proud of her youngest.
Harold wasn’t away training for the Army just yet. He was working in the city as a sales clerk. He thought it was responsible to try and take a couple of classes of night school and work during the day in order to set up funds for him and Loretta. Although she was only 18, Harold was 20 – and a man by his own eyes – and that meant he needed to have a plan for a future with the woman he knew he was going to spend his life with. The war certainly wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down; the United States seemed closer and closer to declaring war themselves, and even though Harold always wanted to be an Army man, he didn’t want to have to fight anyone. “Not very Christian,” his mother said one day. But he would, to protect his home.
Loretta made it to Harold’s home and sat with Jeanne – Arthur’s love – and Eleanor, of course. They read over again his experiences in rifle practice. Loretta beamed when she saw the way Jeanne’s eyes lit up when she spoke of Artie – for all his jokes, he certainly took love seriously, just like his brother. They were going to be together for a long time, Loretta thought to herself. And she thought to the dreams of a small cottage like she and Harold talked about – filled with loved ones and warm summers, fires and cookouts. She couldn’t wait for the rest of her life to begin.
“I’d even marry you on a Tuesday, you know.”
August 31, 1938
Dear Honey, My Honey,
I would have wrote you sooner, but I didn’t get your letter until yesterday; although it has been down the post office since Saturday. I was glad to get your letter and still happier after I read it. It was very interesting to know that I am tied down; if you will consider yourself tied down, so will I. You know, we better be careful or soon, if you’ll let me know in your next letter, we will be going steady.
To change the subject, Monday we went out in a motor boat and went fishing. When I got home, Eddie was here to greet us. He came out with Harry at about four o’clock. We’ve been having a lot of fun with Eddie. Tuesday we went out in the same boat and went dragging for killies (bait fish). Eddie came along; he’s staying for the week. He’s a bum though, he stole my bed; now he bunks in with Otz [Arthur].
So, with nothing else to write about I’ll close as:
Steady Ha and your Honey, Love,
xxxxx P.S. I miss you a whole lot.
My regards to all. So long.
Tied down, not unlike the boat at the end of the dock, bobbing up and down in the shiny black water. The boat wasn’t captive, it wasn’t a prisoner of the dock. Rather, it was exactly where it was supposed to be. The boat was safe against the wood pilings, buffered with a couple of buoys so as to not scratch the surface.
When Harold was a boy he learned that in order to properly tie a boat to a dock, it was important to leave enough slack for the tides. Just enough rope to let the boat drift along the water, move with the changing sea levels, and still remain close to home. If the rope was too tight, and the water came too high, the bow would be pulled under, and the boat would sink. Harold was the boat at the end of the dock, and Loretta knew exactly the right way to keep him feeling close and safe.
“No gal’s gonna tie me down,” Arthur said to Harold, matter of factly.
“What about Jeanne?” Harold nodded his head towards Arthur and raised his eyebrows.
“She hasn’t tied me down, I just don’t want to leave. That’s my choice.” Arthur played a defensive tone back at his brother, although Harold knew he wasn’t being serious. He laughed at how matter of fact Arthur tried to be sometimes.
“Alright, alright,” he said. “Do you think I should marry her before I enlist?” Harold turned his attention more seriously towards Arthur. He valued his other half’s opinions more than anything.
“What if you croak in training?” As he said this, Arthur slid himself down in his lawn chair enough to reach Harold’s with the tip of his foot and gave a light shove. Arthur chuckled then said, earnestly, “Why rush love, Ha?”
“Profound for once, Otz,” Harold replied. He did want to marry Loretta sooner than later, but Arthur was right – something Harold didn’t often admit.
The sun was beginning to set on the brothers’ last night at the summer home. September showed itself with a breeze that took the humidity with it as it crossed the yard, over the water and past beyond where they could see. The fire Harold started crackled low and deliberate, not ready to extinguish; Harold didn’t want it to end either, if he was being honest with himself. He wanted to linger a while longer with the fresh feeling of being tied down and what felt like the final summer of his youth. He didn’t fear change, but Harold was no stranger to uncertainty of what was beyond the summer house, and Queens, and seeing Loretta whenever he wanted.
“So when we get home, are we heading straight down to our respective enlisting offices? I’ve been thinking of saving a little nest egg before shipping off anywhere.” Harold prodded at the fire a little, trying to push some life back into it.
“That’s a good question,” Arthur began, “and a good idea too, I suppose. Who knows when the next war will be.”
They finished the rest of their evening in mostly silence until the fire in front of them all but went out. Harold doused it and followed Arthur back into the house. The bags they brought sat neat along the wall next to the door, ready to leave. Arthur finished cleaning whatever was left in the sink and Harold began to rummage around the fridge for a late night sandwich. He pulled out leftover lunch meat, potato bread, mayonnaise, and cheese. Arthur turned around and watched him take out a plate and a butter knife from the drawer.
“Are you pulling my leg? I just finished the last of the dishes.”
“I’ll make you a sandwich too if you want.”
“Well alright then,” he said. He twisted his mouth around as if he was trying to decide if he really wanted a sandwich. Of course he did. “But don’t bother with a plate. I’ll just eat it over the sink.”
Harold laughed and nodded, and got out some more potato bread. They ate in silence in the kitchen, Harold at the table and Arthur hovering over the sink. The yellow light above them hummed like the bugs did outside, and the brothers were at peace. It was these simple, quiet moments, Harold thought, that were the most important. When he and his brother could just get away from the loud, crowded bustling of Queens – of working in the city – and enjoy the hum of the bugs.
Arthur finished his sandwich and said, “Do you think we’ll look the same when we’re old men?”
“No, you’ll be uglier,” Harold said. He let go of one, deep belly laugh before getting up to return his plate to the sink.
“How do you figure?” Arthur began, “we look the same now.”
“Yeah but you’re older so you’ll probably have more wrinkles than me by that point, Otz.”
“I’m not older by much!”
“Yeah, well, you liked to tell everyone you were the older brother when we were kids, so you’re older and you’ll have more wrinkles than me.”
“Oh yeah? Well you can clean your own plate then.” Arthur’s cheeks matched the color of his hair and Harold stood at the sink laughing at his brother while he cleaned the plate and butter knife.
“At least we’re both good-looking now,” he said.
Arthur’s demeanor quickly changed and he stuck out his chest, flexing his arms. “That’s right,” he said with a grunt, “two of the toughest-looking fellas in Jamaica.”
“Alright, now, put them away,” Harold said as he placed the dishes in the drainboard. He carefully hung the dishrag back over the top of the faucet and dried his hands before folding the towel and placing it next to the sink.
“Tomorrow’s back to reality,” he sighed. “Back to finding a job and figuring out when we’re going to training.”
“It’ll work out, baby brother,” Arthur said with a wink.
July 25, 1938
Received your letter, about time. Don’t faint when you see the postage on this letter but I’m here at last, Lake Ronkonkoma. If I weren’t sure of going till Saturday night. Lil Bretz and Schulman, Jeanne, Evelyn, Lil’s sister-in-law, Irene, and myself are here. Boy! Am I happy now except for –
Well, I’m glad to hear you are all well, anyhow. I guess I still miss you, alright! Alright! I do. My! But you write nice letters. You’ll have to write more
letters often. Hmmm! Annamae delivered your message. Thanks a lot. I was rather disappointed at not going out to your place. But this was the only week the girls could go out. As for being lonesome, I guess I am. Now, I get some satisfaction with the others as they’re away from their honeys also, but not as long as I have been away from you.
Annamae told me of the terrible storms you had out there. My goodness, if I was there I’d be six feet under today. (Boy! I bet you’re sorry I wasn’t there.) So far, we’ve had swell weather here. Perhaps we will be out to your place this coming Sunday – I hope so. Gosh! I’ll forget what you look like (God forbid, not that). How could I ever forget that face? Ahem! Well, Honey, hoping you’ll write soon as I’m anxious to hear from you again, I’ll close.
swoon! xxxxx Love with kisses
P.S. Ha, answer as soon as you can so I can have the pleasure of reading (ahem!) your letter while at the lake.
To Helen Hunt
In Seaford, Harold was eager to have Loretta as his girlfriend – his steady girl – and the summer of 1938 seemed like the perfect time to act. He found himself sitting outside by a fire, his brother – his best friend – close by – thinking about just how swell everything felt in that moment. The water was calm that day, and even though it was the end of August the setting sun felt just as hot as it had been in July. It was the summer that would never end.
“Do ya think we’ll always have summers like this, Ha?” Artie leaned far back into his seat and stretched his legs out in front of him by the fire. “You think we’ll always be able to feel so free?”
“I’d say so, Otz.” Harold took a sip of his beer. He leaned over the side of his chair to grab another piece of wood to throw onto the fire. “Someday.”
“You and Loretta Reilly are getting pretty serious,” Artie said with a smirk. He shook his beer can at Harold, spilling a little on the grass.
“Sounds like it’s your beer talking. But yes, I love that girl. Truly. She speaks her mind, she’s courageous, and those legs!” Harold exhaled, enamored.
“Don’t make me jealous now or I’ll start to impersonate you.” Harold laughed as Artie did a melodramatic impression of a boy in love.
“You won’t want to impersonate me when I’m in the Army, saving lives, and you’ll be on a boat somewhere.”
“You’re right,” Artie agreed, “I’d rather be on a boat than in the mud somewhere.”
“I’m thinking planes, actually.” Harold looked up at the sky. Empty except for the stars.
“Yeah. Big engines, and the freedom of it all.”
“That does sound nice, brother. Me, free on the water and you, free in the skies.” Artie was solemn for a moment, rare for him. He looked into the bonfire and finished the last of his beer.
“Well,” Harold began, “we’ve got a long day of not doing a whole lot of anything tomorrow. I’m off to bed. You boys put the fire out, would ya?” Harold dumped the remainder of his beer out next to his chair and took the empty can with him as he walked up to the cottage.
He was made aware of the sunburn on his shoulders as it held him in a tight embrace with the creeping chill of a summer night. He thought of Loretta, and how school was about to start for her again. She was going to be sixteen in a couple of weeks. He planned to make her his girl and celebrate – somewhere nice, nicer than the dozens of movie dates and ice cream shop visits. He’d saved some money up working in the sewers of Manhattan just for the occasion. Harold then thought of Arthur outside, warming himself by the fire. He thought about how they knew they were both destined to be military men, and although it would be an excellent journey, they would be the farthest apart they’d ever been.