I wrote this as a gift for my parents in 1998. I think it’s appropriate to share on Memorial Day.
I don’t remember the day my dad came home from the war. But my parents remember. And they have told me the story so often I almost believe I can remember. I can see it all that clearly.
The year was 1951. The month was August. I was not yet two years old. Grandpa held me in his arms as we waved to the Santa Fe train rushing past. The tracks ran no more than seventy-five feet behind our house: a house that used to be a barn sitting at the edge of an orange grove in Anaheim, California.
My grandparents lived across the driveway in a farmhouse on this remnant of a ranch: an acre and a sixth. My mother and I shared a room in what had once been a barn, but was now a clean and cozy home. It was just my mother and me that year because my dad, a Marine Reservist, had been called to the war Korea.
As Grandpa held me in his arms in the clearing behind the house we would smile and wave at the engineer, hoping he’d blow his whistle. We’d wave at the man who sits in the caboose, hoping he’d wave back. We’d wave at the men in uniform coming home from a war in Korea.
With my dad away at that war in Korea, Grandpa was the man in my life that year. I was only six months old when my dad left and he’d been gone for a year. Mom says that I knew that my daddy was the picture of the smiling man in a uniform. A letter. The mailbox. Although strangely, when he finally arrived home, I looked up and called him Papa.
The night before, Papa had boarded a train in Oakland near San Francisco. He sat up in the old, silver chair car on the Santa Fe train and closed his eyes. His mind raced along the tracks, which would carry him home, past familiar place names. San Joaquin Valley. Tehachapi. Mojave. Barstow. Cajon. San Bernardino. Corona. Santa Ana. San Diego.
Papa tried to let the clickety-clack lull him to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. His mind was too full of memories from a year at war in foreign country and thoughts of home and what he’d missed most.
He and my mother had only been married for three years when he left. He smiled as he remembered how he’d met her: a blind date, arranged by his aunt, to which he had reluctantly agreed. They had become engaged within six weeks. Now they teased that since he’d been gone for a year, they’d have to wait until their 51st anniversary to celebrate their Golden Wedding.
Papa had written that Korea was a cold and wet place. First there would be mud and then there would be ice. One morning he had poured hot syrup on his pancakes but by the time he sat down to eat, the syrup was frozen.
Papa said that sometimes the letters and phone calls would make him and Mom feel better. But sometimes they would feel even worse— even further away from each other.
Finally the year was over and Papa got his orders to come home. He was told to report to a ship in Itami, Japan. That was the start of his journey back home.
Papa knew there would be little to do on board the ship. Most of the men would read or play cards or just look out to sea. So as soon as he checked in he reported to the Ship’s Baker. Not only would this duty keep him busy, but also he would be guaranteed plenty to eat. Each time he took the trash up on deck to dump it over the fantail, he would also sneak cakes, cookies, or sweet rolls to all his friends. Bakery duty guaranteed plenty of friends as well.
After two weeks at sea the ship finally docked at Treasure Island in San Francisco, right under the Bay Bridge. Papa learned he would be released from the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego. He called my mother to let her know where to meet him.
That night as Papa boarded the Santa Fe troop train in Oakland, Mom was giving me a bath and putting me to bed. She worried about what to wear to meet the train. She wanted to look pretty.
As I slept in my crib, hundreds of tired, anxious, happy Marines sat up all that long night and ate the sack lunches they had been given. “Sack lunches,” Papa jokes, “’cause every day was a picnic in the Marines.”
From Oakland and Stockton the Santa Fe train headed south and east to Fresno and Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley, the big central valley of California. Papa remembered the family trips and vacations that had taken him to these places.
It was dark as the train continued east to the Tehachapi Loop and the town of Mojave. The train changed lines at Barstow and was now headed southwest toward Victorville and the Cajon Pass. He looked out the window but could only see his own reflection there.
Neither Papa on the train nor Mom at home had much success in getting to sleep that night.
Finally, after a long, uncomfortable night the sun was coming up. The Santa Fe train reached San Bernardino, just east of Anaheim. Papa knew he was really close now. Everything was beginning to feel so familiar. The weight and smell of the air. The San Bernardino Mountains. The palm trees and orange groves of Riverside and Corona. The clear blue sky. The Santa Ana Canyon.
Papa even vaguely remembered the Santa Fe route. One branch would take him to Fullerton before heading to Santa Ana. The other would take him directly south, right past our little ranch. He’d know for sure when the train reached the tiny town of Atwood.
Meanwhile Mom was making my breakfast and getting me dressed. She brushed her brown hair and put on lipstick. She dabbed a bit of her favorite Chantilly perfume behind each ear and checked the mirror one last time. “Not bad,” she thought. Maybe she was a little nervous.
At mid-morning Papa’s train was pulling through the Santa Ana Canyon while Mom was putting her overnight bag into the back seat of the car. She handed me over to Grandpa and pulled the car out of the gravel driveway for the two-hour drive to San Diego.
I fussed a bit at being left behind, reaching for Mom as she drove off down the road. Perhaps that’s why Grandpa, with me in his arms, walked toward the railroad tracks. Maybe he thought he could distract me.
“Train should be along here any minute” Grandpa assured me. “Maybe they’ll blow the whistle for us.”
Finally Papa’s train reached the tiny town of Atwood. The tracks branched off toward Santa Ana just as he’d hoped. Suddenly he knew that in just a few minutes the train would pass right by our house: the house that used to be a barn sitting at the edge of an orange grove. A lump rose in his throat.
“It will be good to see the old place again,” Papa thought. “Too bad the train can’t just stop right here. Then I wouldn’t have to ride all the way to San Diego.”
Papa’s heart beat faster. He edged closer to the window. He was almost home. Safe. Just a glimpse of the little ranch would let him know it was real.
Orange trees rushed past the train windows. More and more trees until finally, yes, there it was! The little crossing at East North Street. The barn red house in the little clearing. And as Papa’s train sped past bound for San Diego…
…there we were, standing in the clearing: an old man and a chubby, round-faced girl, smiling and waving at the engineer, hoping he’d blow the whistle, at the man in the caboose, hoping he’d wave back and at the men in uniform coming home from a war in Korea, not knowing Papa was waving back.