My father, Carl Carpenter, was seventeen years old and a junior in St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Clayton, New York when he enrolled in the National Guard to “make a buck on a Saturday morning.” Every weekend he and a bunch of guys from Clayton hitchhiked to Armory Square in Watertown, New York (home of Fort Drum) for training by Cliff Good, the Captain of the Guard and owner of the Texaco station in Clayton.
Cliff put us through our paces. When he yelled, “Bear arms, men!” we rolled up our shirt sleeves and showed each other our biceps. See we didn’t have any guns, just broomsticks. We trained with broomsticks. After training we’d sweep of the Square and take the money home to our mothers. It was a whole lot of fun.
He was eighteen when the National Guard was rolled into the 187th Battalion of the US Army and shipped him out to Indiana, Oklahoma and finally to the big base out in Riverside, California. There he met the person who would change his life, Jimmy Forbes.
Jimmy had a real way with the women.
“Carl, would do me a favor? he asked me one day.
“What can I do for you, Jim?”
“Well, I’m going out with these two sisters and it’s a little bit more than I can handle. Would you go out with the younger sister?”
I put my hand over my heart and said, “Jim, you know I’d do anything for my country.”
But after a while that girl told me she couldn’t go out with me anymore.
“Why not?” I asked.
“My husband’s coming home from Hawaii next week and I have to spend some time with him!” was her logical explanation.
I told Jimmy about it and he said, “Carl, there’s plenty of fish in that ocean. I’ll take care of you.” And that’s how I met your mother.
Thus began my parents love affair. They met on a blind date under the marquee of The Mask of Zorro. He wooed her in 1940 but did not wed her until 1946. My father spent 1940-1945 on Luzon Island, where he was a foot soldier and a flame thrower. The flame thrower had a 68 pound fuel pack filled with gas and napalm strapped to his back. He had malaria and dysentary and bad knees and C rations but the hope of love sustained him.
I thought about your mother all the time. I wrote her and asked her to marry me. When she said yes I wrote my mother and asked her to buy a wedding ring and send it to Josephine. My mother wrote me later and said, “Carl, make sure you come home because you have a lot to look forward to.”
My father was wounded in the war. His knees betrayed him in the Philippines when he was just twenty two years old and from then on he was punctured, poked, sliced, sutured and stitched at the Veteran’s Hospital in Syracuse, NY. He had PTSD. Noises upset him and made him jump and sweat. He was violent and suffered emotional and physical pain. He couldn’t work. We were poor. Despite the many operations on his legs my father was 100% disabled at the age of 53. His active service in World War II was over long before I was a twinkle in his eye but the effect of war on our family psyche was deep. He was in his seventies when he told me his story. Over the course of many months my father slowly invited me into his life as an eighteen year old young man from Clayton going to war. Week after week, I witnessed his story and created a piece entitled Love is War from his memories to honor him and my mother.
How can war be love? When at the end of his telling my father said,
Y’know, people ask me, “Carl, don’t you hate the war?” and I always say, “No, I don’t hate the war. The war brought me your mother and without your mother I wouldn’t of have you kids and without you kids I’d just be another guy from Clayton lookin’ for fun.
My parents were married sixty two years, give or take a day. Stories, like friends and flowers, take time to open. Being patient and persistent pays off as you witness the experience of others. StoryCorps says, “Listening is an act of love” and I believe it’s true. Click on the StoryCorps link to listen to more military stories.