By James M. Ridgway, Jr.

It was late August 1941, a time before television, computers, smart phones, the Internet and the all-engrossing social media with its Facebook and twitter. It was an age when preteens weren’t world wise. Sex and baby making were murky notions of little interest to non-adults

Some would say it was an age of innocence. But then every generation insists that it were born into an age of innocence — before the American fight for independence, before the bloody American Civil War, before the gruesome trench warfare and deadly gas attacks of World War One and of course before the concentration camps of World War Two.

As the girl wondered along the brown stone path that circled the lake down the street from her suburban home, she happened to glance up at the sky directly overhead. It was a particularly dark blue for what was normally a hot hazy day for the current season. The sun was bright and sizzling but the air, pushed along by a faint breeze, was cool and dry. Perhaps the most picture-perfect day, weather-wise, that the girl could ever imagine.

Yet all was not flawless. The far western horizon was ink black with periotic flashes of lightening followed a few seconds later by the low rumble of thunder. She did not ponder the contrast between near and far or any of its symbolic meanings, just that the storm might be upon the town in and hour or so.

As she skipped and hopped along her aimless course, she noticed a man sitting on one of the numerous benches that lined the lake pathway. As she drew nearer to him she thought him to be somewhere between the ages of twenty and fifty. She was not good at guessing the age of adults.

Just as she was about to pass him by, he called out to her, “You better pay heed that yonder storm, missy.”

Startled by the stranger’s words she turned and simply stared at him.

“Sorry miss, I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

She felt frozen in time. She knew that she was not supposed to talk to strangers — that real danger possibly lurked in the moment. She studied his attire and features. There was nothing reassuring about any of it, except his soft, steady eyes.

“Oh I live right down the street, “ she finally managed to expel from her mouth. She hoped that by telling the man that she was near her home it might provide some protection if needed. Yet as she stood in front of him dumbfounded, she felt no impulse to run or cry out for help.

Presently she found herself inexplicably seated on the far end of the stranger’s bench. “You’re not from around here are you mister?”

“No mam. I’m on my way across country — back home, you see.”

The girl was reassured to see other adults walking and sanding within hailing distance. And so curiosity got the better of her. “Where are you from?”

“Delaware, “ he replied.

Geography was not one of her strengths. All she knew was that it was a state somewhere on the east coast. But then how many nine-year-old girls care all that much about geography she thought to herself.

By his ragged look she supposed he must be hitchhiking across country.

“You see I’m returning home to join the Navy. My job in California kind of fell through.”

She could tell now just by the way he was so willing to talk to her that he was much younger than she has original perceived him to be — probably not all that much older than her oldest sister, but a lot more friendly.

She noticed that the wind was beginning to pick up and the thunder was growing louder. So she blurted it out, “ Would you like to ride out the storm at my house?” She had no idea how her mother would react to her inviting this stranger into their home.

“Oh, miss, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Sure, they won’t care,” she lied. By the way my name is Sara. What’s yours?”

“Dave,” he said, his face turning red as he wondered how he might rationally explain to a parent how it had come about that a child had invited him to her home.

It only required five minutes to reach the girl’s modest middle class home a few blocks away. Wait here she said before turning and going through the side door.

Dave could hear some high-pitched excited voices, but presently a stern looking would came outside with Sara at her side. “My daughter says you need a place to get out of the storm.”

“Yes that would be nice if you would be so kind, he said wondering how long it would take the cops to arrive.

As it turned out Sara was the youngest of four children. McKenzie, the first child was ten years older than Sara. She was as they say, a looker, nicely tall with long brown hair and perfectly fine features.

By the time the storm was at it full fury the entire family and “guest” Dave were gather around the dinner table fully consuming what for Dave seemed a feast of a meal.

Once Dave had been given a chance to wash away some of his travel grime it reveled a quite handsome boy-man of perhaps twenty. Dave’s good looks made no particular impression upon Sara, but she did notice an unusual intensity with which McKenzie looked upon the stranger. And when Sara headed to bed she noticed her sister and Dave in quiet conversion in the far corner of the living room.

A few weeks after the storm had passed and Dave had for some time continued on his way, Sara noticed that a stream of letters postmarked Wilmington Delaware began arriving for McKenzie. Her sister had been slated to start her freshman year of college but after a big fight between her sister and her parents, McKenzie instead took a cashier’s job at the local five and dime.

Finally one day when her outsized curiosity had gotten the better of her, Sara asked McKenzie what was going on with her and Dave and all those letters. After making Sara promise not to reveal a word she was about say, McKenzie said it had been love at first sight plus of course dozens of letters.

Sara was stunned by the whole affair. One minute she had befriended a perfect stranger and the next minute her sister was planning to run off and marry him. It seemed that Dave had indeed joined the Navy and was being sent to the west coast, or westward somewhere. On the way he would pick up McKenzie and they would get married and enjoy a short honeymoon before he was required to report for duty.

“Do mom and Dad know about this?”

“No silly, Why do you think I’m swearing you to secrecy?”

Since she had caused all this to happen, Sara did not know how to feel — happy, depressed, guilty or fearful. This was so very much unlike her levelheaded big sister — brilliant, beautiful, self-assured. Everyone said she was destined for grand things. Even young Sara understood that running off with a sailor, one that McKenzie hardly knew, was never a considered option for big sis.

And then it happened on October 10th. Her sister vanished leaving a small noted of explanation. This sent her parents, who had come to suspect something like this might be up, into a rage, a rage that Sara knew must be partly directed toward her.

A few weeks later a letter arrived from San Diageo California. McKenzie explained that she had never been so happy in her entire life except that Dave was being shipped to some place called Pearl Harbor, on an Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean upon which the US Navy had a large military base, and it was going to be a few months before she would be allowed to join him there.

After some time and the family storm had greatly subsided, McKenzie retuned home waiting for word from the Navy telling her that she would be permitted to join her husband in Hawaii. Dave was excited to be posted to the battleship Arizona. Being strapped for cash the Navy kept most of its big ships in port, so he and McKenzie would be able to spend lots of time together.

As the days moved into early December, however, Dave’s letters were becoming pessimistic. Being at the low end of the Navy’s pecking order, prospects for base housing were not as good as he had been lead to believe. Suddenly it seemed that he and McKenzie were worlds apart with no practical means to be joined.

When Sara retuned to school on Monday the 8th of December, the adult world was in turmoil. Every conversation was filled with words of war and the dirty Japanese, and most frightful of all it was center on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor — Dave’s Navy.

The front pages of newspapers were fill with pictures of twisted deformed ships and smoke and flames. McKenzie was beside herself with fear and anguish. Thousands had been killed and wounded in the surprise Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the largest portion of the casualties had been attributed to the men of the USS Arizona.

For the first time in her very young life Sara was brought to feel deeply about the meaning of life and how one almost insignificant event could lead to enormous consequences. Not so many months ago by sheer accident she had stumbled upon a complete stranger and now because of that chance encounter her sister’s life might forever be ruined and she herself drawn into a never ending guilt feeling because of it.

It was a week later when the near certain telegram arrived and life for Sara and her family was never the same again.

Jim Ridgway, Jr. military writer — author of the American Civil War classic, “Apprentice Killers: The War of Lincoln and Davis.” Christmas gift, yes!

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