Service and Sacrifice

Now and then my husband reflects on the military friends he’s lost. Most of them I knew only from stories he told me of things they did or said. He remembers everything, but what I remember most about his time in the U.S. Marine Corps was his deployment to the Persian Gulf in 1990 and the things that happened during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

HMM-164 1990-1991, USS Okinawa, My husband in the fourth one back from the first man on the left.

There’s no equivalent to saying goodbye to someone who is leaving for a military deployment. It’s hard to explain what it feels like if you’ve never served or never loved someone who has. On the day Bruce left I felt pride mixed with fear, insecurity, and uncertainty, but mostly love and a fervent hope he’d come home safely.

Bruce and I have talked about his time in the military. He misses it because he had a mission, and it gave his life purpose. He served something greater than himself. His service gave me that also, but these days I don’t miss it, especially at Memorial Day. Because I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My husband came back. What I feel now is gratitude.

Left to right: Bruce, JT, Pinkie, Nozzle and

I still remember holding my baby son in May of 1990 and standing beside the helicopter carrier, , helicopters, to say goodbye to Bruce for what we thought would be a routine six month deployment. He left in May and was to be home by Christmas, my son’s first. Our son was five months old. Bruce didn’t return for ten months. His Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) was the first to go to the Persian Gulf and the last to come home.

Bruce beside a CH-46, somewhere in the Philippines.

Back then we lived in California, far from my family, and I was alone with a five month old baby. That was a time of long-distance phone calls, film cameras, and daily newspapers. CNN was brand new, the first 24 hour news channel. The only source of communication between my husband and me were letters and packages sent across the miles. Sometimes they arrived in order, sometimes not. Sometimes they got dropped in the ocean.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Our son, wearing a flight suit made by Gramma Josie, while Dad was deployed.

While Bruce was deployed, I became an active member of the HMM-164 “wives’ club.” We were all lonely, and as usual in times when people are tested by shared uncertainty and fear, (rather like now) we grew close. We protected each other when we could and shared each other’s grief when we couldn’t. We operated a phone tree and distributed whatever news needed to be spread the old fashioned way–by phone. When bad news came, we supported each other.

In early October, bad news came. I don’t remember what time I received the call, but I remember the words. “There’s been a mishap. Two helicopters are missing. They can’t find the crews.” I remember how I felt. Stunned there had been a crash, then grateful because I knew my husband was safe, then guilty and heartbroken because someone I knew had lost a loved one. They would receive a visit.

This is what happened. “At approximately 0415 on 8 October 1990, two UH-1N helicopters from HMM-164 launched from the USS Okinawa for an “at sea NVG [Night Vision Goggle] training operation” off the coast of Oman [North Arabian Sea].  At approximately 0513 the two helicopters disappeared from radar and failed to respond to radio calls.  Observers on the flight deck saw a ball of fire dropping into the sea.  Search efforts recovered very little wreckage and no sign of aircrew.  All were declared missing at sea.  The eight men aboard were considered the first casualties of Operation Desert Shield.
The eight aircrew were:
Capt W. Cronin
Capt G. Dillon
Capt K. Dolvin
Capt W. Hurley
Sgt K Keller
Sgt J Kilkus
Cpl T Romei
L/Cpl T. Adams”

I didn’t know until later that Captain William Hurley slept in the rack above my husband’s, that they knew each other, joked with each other, laughed together, shared pork rinds and packages from home. He was from the Chicago area like my husband, and according to a Chicago Tribune article, his sister said that he admired the marriage his parents had and that he “hoped one day he could be to someone what they`d been to each other all these years.”

Captain William Hurley, USMC

While the men were still deployed, a memorial was held on base for the families of these men. I’ve never attended anything that so affected me before or since.

I’ve been forever grateful for my husband’s survival all these years. Before we married, my pastor counseled me that my husband was the kind of man who, if he wasn’t flying helicopters for a living, would be racing cars or riding motorcycles or pursuing some other dangerous occupation. In fact, 10 of the 52 pilots in his squadron have since died from plane crashes, only two of them civilian crashes.

Those men were good people. People who join the military are the best kind of people–they are heroes who run toward trouble to keep the rest of us safe. They didn’t want to die. But they also knew every single day that dying was a possibility.

Welcome home parade in Orange County

My husband thinks of those men, especially Bill, his roommate on the ship, every year. Rarely does he say anything. That’s not his way. But occasionally he’ll remember something about his days aboard the Okinawa, and he’ll share snippets with me. I know he thinks of them and others who’ve passed away and left their families behind.

Inspired by History

To research the setting for my historical novel, my husband and I took a long weekend trip to Charleston, South Carolina several years ago. Since I’m from the South, I was anticipating uncomfortably hot, humid weather and lots of snakes as we traipsed around historic plantations in July, but amazingly, we arrived during a spell of comfortable temperatures and low humidity. I took it as a sign that my research would go well.

Fleet Landing, Charleston

While in Charleston, we enjoyed drinks at Fleet Landing, a place my husband still waxes poetic about when I mention the place, and had lunch on the patio at 82 Queen. Sometimes I still dream of the she crab soup I ate there. I do miss the seafood down south!

Camellia japonica “Reine des Fleurs”

We also visited the spectacular Middleton Place. The original main house and the north flanker were burned by Union troops in 1865, but the gardens are magnificent! In 1786, the French botanist and explorer, André Michaux gave the Middletons a house gift of camellias, the first to be grown in an American garden. One of the cultivars he gave them, Camellia japonica “Reine des Fleurs” is pictured above. In my book, there is also a camellia garden.

Drayton Hall the way it looked in 1869

The place where my imagination took flight and the experience of walking the land and entering the house made a lasting impression on me, however, was Drayton Hall, once a plantation on the Ashley River but which is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was built during colonial times on the Ashley River and has stood through the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In fact, it was the only plantation house on the Ashley River not destroyed by Union troops. It has even survived hurricanes and earthquakes. Yes, Charleston has earthquakes.

Until the 1970s Drayton Hall was owned by the Drayton family, the same people who built the plantation and lived and worked at Drayton Hall, but another family, the Bowens, lived and worked there even longer than the Draytons. Their history parallels that of the Draytons. They came to the U.S. from Barbados and lived and worked at Drayton Hall. Mr. Richmond Bowen was the last of them. He worked as the gatekeeper and unofficial historian. Through his legacy, the work of enslaved people and their sacrifices were recognized in the African American cemetery and history at Drayton Hall.

The beautiful Drayton Hall

Drayton Hall so captured my imagination that I decided to loosely base the location in my novel on it. I use elements from other places and earlier times, including putting a spring house and chapel on the grounds, similar to the one at Middleton Place. In short, I weave history into my story and blur the lines of what’s real and imagined as many writers do.

Middleton Place spring house( below) and chapel (above)

Despite River Oaks being inspired by Drayton Hall, the events in my book are products of my imagination. They are rooted in history and inspired by the research I’ve done on phosphate mining on the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, the grounds of Drayton Hall and Middleton Place, and Charleston during Reconstruction. I also fudge the years things happen to suit my story.

Phosphate mining at Drayton Hall

I often feel overwhelmed when I think of trying to capture the essence of this area, the time, and the people who might have lived and loved there, but when I do, I remember why history, especially Southern history, fascinates me.

People like the Draytons and the Bowens have weathered wars, poverty, hunger, disease, and other tragedies, but somehow have survived to remain rooted in the South for over two hundred years. Why is that? Why not move on to better places? That is what I contemplate as I write this book. Why does this place, any place, mean so much?

Southerners are the only people who’ve lost a war on American soil, and Southerners, black and white, had to rebuild their lives and reconcile their losses. I’m awed at their survival and determination to make a life when their way of life was gone. I think more than anything, that is what drives the story I’m writing. I hope my book will in a small way do their struggle justice.

THE END Is Near

I’m near the end of my manuscript…again. Several years ago, I completed the original manuscript, work-shopped it at a conference, revised it with two other writers, and started the query process to find an agent. So this is the second time I’ve approached THE END, and I can’t tell you how ready I am to finish this book and send it out into the world for the second time.

The idea for this book, which I call FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS, came to me years ago during a class I took called How to Teach Creative Writing. That was back when I was taking classes to renew my teaching license. Each of us each took turns coming up with lessons for the class. When it was my friend Elizabeth’s turn to teach , she handed us cards from the 1970s board game Masterpiece.

The card she handed me, Paris Street, Rainy Day by the French Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte, sparked my original idea, but since then, the story has evolved–as stories do–so that almost nothing remains of that original idea. When I queried agents, I had requests for partials and a few requests for full manuscripts, but no one fell in love with my book the way I’d hoped. Before I sent the full manuscript to an agent I thought would be a perfect fit for FAITH, I sent it to an editor for a critique.

To make a long, painful story short, the editor absolutely hated my story and advised me to completely rewrite it and change everything. Devastated, I put the book away for about a year. When I could look at her critique without feeling hopeless and angry, I examined her advice and found nuggets I could use. I’ve spent the last year or so re-imagining plot, character, and point of view. Now, FAITH is almost ready to go out into the world with a more thoughtful and well-organized plot, deeper characterization, and dual points of view.

After attending a webinar with Abigail Perry through Women’s Fiction Writers Association I’ve been studying the Story Grid universe as a tool for revision and scene analysis. Once I understand Value shift so I can complete the Story Grid foolscap for my manuscript, I’ll have a blue print to stick to as I write the 15,000 more words until THE END. I’m almost there. Stay tuned…