Newport News, Virginia – September 1, 1944
“The heart has its reason of which the mind knows nothing.”
Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662)
Nora Lee stepped off the bus and into the inky black fumes that spewed from its exhaust as it pulled away. No need to be annoyed, she thought. She was coming home from work, after a double shift on the drill press and was wearing her scrubby denims and wrinkled shirt. It was only when she was all decked out and perfumed up for a date that those bus fumes really drove her crazy. She began to walk toward the apartment.
Nora Lee loved Hilton Village and always enjoyed the walk from the bus stop. The village was built in World War I to provide housing for the shipbuilders and their families. It was modeled after a typical early-English village. The houses were styled after the Jacobethan and Colonial revival designs of the time. There were over a dozen variations of size, color and style randomly scattered. Some of the houses were sheathed with stucco and others with shingles or clapboards. The steeply pitched slate roofs were styled in both gambrel and gable. It never ceased to amaze Nora that she would notice something new about the houses of the quaint village each time she walked to and from the bus stop. She was thoroughly enjoying her stroll home on this cool, brisk late summer afternoon.
The Western Union bike rider broke her daydream. He was coming in her direction. The other women on the steps of the houses were familiar with him. They kept shouting as he passed by. “Keep on going!” “Don’t stop here you little shit!” “Move along!” The solemn rider always had a grim look on his face as he peddled his bike, head down with the brim of his policeman-style cap pulled low over his eyes. The basket attached to the handlebars was full of dark yellow envelopes. His brownish tan uniform lent some official bearing to his rather undesirable job of delivering bad news to the families of fighting men. As he drew nearer to her, peddling furiously to the negative chants of angry citizens, Nora added her insults to the chorus.
“Keep on going that way, bastard!” Nora threw her thumb over her shoulder in a hitchhiker gesture.
He lifted his head ever so slightly to look at her as he churned his legs faster. His shoulders were hunched as if he expected to be hit with flying debris. There was a look of dread in his eyes. The volume of telegrams had increased considerably since D-Day. The paper torrent of heartbreak had hardly let up since the casualty reports started pouring in and the young delivery boy had been busy and stressed.
Nora immediately felt guilty and somewhat ashamed for adding to his anxiety. Poor Boy. He’s only doing his job. But there was something else about the look in his eyes. It was more than just anxiety. She studied the mental picture of his face and suddenly realized the look he gave her was dread mixed with recognition. He knew where she lived!
She immediately started running. The little bastard delivered a damn telegram to my apartment. She turned the corner, came to her apartment and bounded up the steps, tripping in her haste. She pushed through the outer door and up the stairs. The apartment door was ajar and she saw Macie sitting on a kitchen chair, her face in one hand and a tear stained crunch of telegram paper squashed in the other.
“Oh, no…Sweetie,” Nora moaned softly. “No!”
Nora dropped to her knees and embraced Macie who reached out and hugged her tight. Macie was shaking and trying to catch her breath. They sobbed together silently for a few minutes until Macie finally stopped shaking. Nora pulled up a chair and put her arm around Macie’s neck in a soft embrace. She held her face cheek to cheek with Macie’s and tasted her bitter, salty tears.
After a few minutes Nora asked, “What’s it say?”
Macie held up her fist and Nora gently peeled back the fingers that had compacted the telegram. With one hand she struggled to flatten the crumpled paper on her knee while still holding Macie in her other arm. She finally spread it out enough to be able to read it. She blinked through her own tear filled eyes in an effort to focus.
The bold letters at the top read WESTERN UNION. Directly beneath the oversized letters read A. N. Williams, President. What am I reading? She scolded herself silently and ignored the instruction blocks on either side of the top of the telegram as well as the coding strip across the center of the page.
MISS MACIE VANCE
819 PALEN AVENUE HAMPTION, VA
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO INFORM YOU THAT PRIVATE JOHN KILROY WAS REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION ON OR ABOUT 6 JUNE 1944 IN THE EUROPEAN THEATRE OF OPERATIONS. WHEN FURTHER INFORMATION IS RECEIVED YOU WILL BE INFORMED.
L MCNAIR COMMANDING GENERAL
ARMY GROUND FORCES
“Oh, God,” Nora murmured softly. She threw the telegram on the kitchen table and sniffled. “Macie, this is awful. I’m so sorry!”
“He’s gone, Nora. I know it.” Macie dried her tears with a soaked handkerchief. She was breathing better now, still labored but without the violent involuntary shakes and shudders.
Nora gathered herself “I’d love to give you some hope, Sweetie, but this is not good.” She waved the telegram. “Take it from me. False hope is the worst punishment you can put yourself through. I wish I would have moved on sooner.”
Macie nodded. She understood. Slowly, her breathing steadied and a strange calm settled over her. “I got a letter the other day from Mrs. Gillaspie in Bedford. She wrote that on a Sunday in July, the Western Union operator in Green’s Drug Store signed on and got a message from the regional office in Roanoke simply saying ‘We have casualties’. She then started receiving the telegrams addressed to the boys’ next of kin. Day after day more telegrams would come in with more names of the dead. Over twenty of our hometown boys killed on D-Day. She wrote me some of the names. I knew so many of them. Too many killed. D-Day was a nightmare for our small town.” She sniffled and wiped her nose. “I haven’t received a letter from Jake since before the invasion. I know Jake didn’t survive. I just know it.”
“You’re probably right and I’m so sorry for you.” Nora hesitated. “This may sound cold, and I don’t mean it to be, but you have to be practical.” Nora paused, searching for the right words. “You still have Derek and I wouldn’t let him get away if I were you. Now let’s wash your face and clean you up. You’ve cried enough for one day.”
Macie had been in a confused state of panic until Nora came home. Nora’s advice made sense and pushed Macie over the edge. She called Derek and he arrived just as Macie finished cleaning herself up.
“We’re going for a walk,” Macie declared to both of them as she grabbed Derek’s arm and hustled him out the door.
They walked down to the street toward the waterfront in silence. All Derek knew was Macie had received bad news about Jake. He didn’t want to press her for information and judging by the grip she held on his arm, she needed someone to lean on at that moment. That was fine with him. He would gladly be there for her. Derek had long ago fallen hopelessly in love with Macie and would do whatever she needed him to do.
They walked quietly through Riverfront Park and along the waterfront. The sun was low and the sea breeze was soft and cool. The only sounds were the lapping of the waves, the caw of the seagulls and the distant warning gongs of the buoys.
She stopped at the railing and looked out over the busy river traffic. “Derek, I need to ask you something.”
“Remember when you told me you would be there for me if anything happened to Jake?”
Derek stiffened. He certainly remembered that awkward conversation. For over a year he had buried that embarrassing moment in the deep recesses of his memory. He recalled feeling like a vulture circling over dead remains. She had given him a look of deep disappointment. Or maybe he just imagined it because he was so ashamed of himself. He never mentioned that conversation again and was delighted she never did either. And now it was she who brought it up again.
“Yes, I remember, Macie.”
“Did you mean it?” She turned from gazing out over the water and looked directly into his eyes. “I mean do you still feel that way?”
Derek nodded. “Yes, I meant it. And I still do.”
She tightened her grip on his arm. “Thanks, Derek. That’s all I needed to know.”