My Daddy: Another Tragic WWII Love Story
When I was a girl I use to love to sing the old folk song “My Old Man”, because it reminded me of my dad – my hero. My dad was a union organizer. He organized workers in the coal mines in Harlan County, Kentucky, back in the days when that could – and often did – get a man killed.
When he arrived, the union was segregated – whites only. He told them he would not be involved in a segregated union; he said if people of all races were not welcome, he would not be there either. The miners needed him, and they knew it, so he won that fight, and the black folks who had been brought in to break the union joined it instead.
Once the union was organized and working, Daddy left Kentucky and went back to school at the University of Texas. It was there that he met my mother, aged seventeen, and the prettiest and sweetest girl he had ever met. She took him home to the West Texas farm owned by her parents, who did not exactly welcome him with open arms.
My Pappa had plans for his oldest daughter, and they did not include having her marry a radical Yankee ten years older than she was. She was going to study home economics and become the local Home Demonstration Agent and, in good time, marry a local farmer and live close by her parents.
Daddy managed to win him over doing two things. Pappa had a colt he needed to break, and Daddy offered to help. Surprisingly, he rode the colt, and was as gentle with him as Pappa himself would have been. That night Pappa hosted a poker game in the barn – it had to be in the barn because my grandmother did not hold with gambling. Daddy won, not only Pappa’s money, but also beat the other farmers who were Pappa’s poker playing cronies.
After that, Pappa developed a liking for the young radical student who could gentle a colt and play a mean game of poker, but that didn’t mean he was going to let him marry his daughter without a fight. My mother would finish college first, he decreed. Then – well, then they would see about it. He figured that his Mary-Louise would get over this Yankee by then, and would be ready to come home and settle down.
In the meantime, Nazism and Fascism were taking over Europe. Daddy was horrified at the defeat of the Spanish loyalists, at what was happening in Germany to Jews, to trade-unionists, and to decent, ordinary people. He left school just before D-Day and went into the army. Mary-Louise graduated as a medical technologist, and soon after, joined him in California, where he was stationed at Fort Ord. They were married immediately, and, after my birth, lived together for a short time before he was sent overseas.
Because he had studied microbiology in college, he was trained as a medic. He landed on the beach in Normandy on D-Day +2. As a medic, he saved as many lives as he could, but it nearly broke his heart that he couldn’t save more. He developed a passionate hatred of war and the slaughter it entailed.
During the time he was overseas, his beloved Mary-Louise, developed a brain tumor. Letters telling him that she was ill never reached him until it was too late.
Here is what he wrote, after hearing of her death :
- September 14, 1944
- I made a pilgrimage to the great Cathedral at Canterbury, England, in memory of my beloved wife, Mary-Louise, who departed this life Sept. 2, 1944. This day was also my 29th birthday. This is written in Canterbury on the same day, after reading John 14 and before going to bed.
He came home a sad and wounded man; his health was never good afterward, and he died young. Nevertheless, he left a mark on everyone who knew him, and, thirty-five years after his death, he is still remembered with great love, not least of all by his daughters.
Rest in peace, Daddy. I will always love you.
My Old Man – by Jean Boudin and Paul Kent
- My old man was a man like Lincoln;
My old man he wasn’t big and strong,
But my old man was just like Lincoln,
Because he knew the right from wrong.
My old man; he punched a steel press;
Couldn’t afford to buy his wife a fancy gown;
All he had was trouble and distress,
And the folks that he loved in that little steel town.
Folks got laid off; pay checks grew thinner.
But that steel boss kept on getting fat.
Couldn’t buy no milk; kids had no dinner.
Steel boss said, “I don’t care about that.”
My old man heard his children crying;
He saw his neighbor’s wife just sway and fall.
My old man wasn’t one for dying.
He sent out a union call.
Steel bosses heard about that meeting.
They sent their goons and ginks and thugs to town.
Tossed some tear gas for a greeting;
Took my old man and clubbed him down.
They took him off behind the quarry.
The asked for names; he gave them his alone.
The night was cold; the sky was starry
When they crushed his skull with a ton of stone.
My old man was a man like Lincoln
Because he fought to make his union strong.
He lived and died just like Lincoln
Fighting to keep the right from wrong.