Grandmother’s Stories

I remember being fascinated by the stories my grandmother told of her early days. Horses and wagons. Moving to Kansas in a covered wagon. The tornado which destroyed their farmhouse a few months before my dad was born. The floods they endured after record cloudbursts up-river.

What kind of stories will I be able to tell my grandchildren? Or my children theirs? What could happen if we don’t take immediate steps to change the direction we’re headed? These might become the good old days of fairy tales and adventure stories.

Just imagine. . .

The silver-haired woman smoothed locks of the squirming girl child in front of her. “Hold still, Cam, dear. Two minutes. I’ll get your braids done.”

“Aw, Gran,” the child protested. “I hate when you fix my hair. It hurts.”

“The longer we wait, the more it will hurt. Shush now and sit still.” She combed the locks with knobby fingers, veins of age rising on the backs of her hands. “If only I had a comb.” The woman sighed.

“What’s a comb, Gran?”

“It’s a tool to help work out the knots in a little girl’s hair.”

“You used to have a comb, didn’t you? Years ago, when you were little?”

“I had many things, Cam.”

“Tell me.”

“We had plenty of combs and brushes for our hair. And our teeth.”

“Teeth! You combed knots out of your teeth?”

Gran laughed. “Not exactly. We brushed our teeth to keep them healthy.”

“So they wouldn’t fall out of your mouth, right?”

“You remember, child. Yes. We had a lot of things you’d never believe.”

“Like what?”

“Like cars, to drive us wherever we wanted to go.”

“On wheels?”

“With rubber tires. And we had a whole house for every family. And plenty to eat, with appliances to fix our food.”

“What’s a ‘plance’?”

Gran laughed. “Appliance,” she pronounced the word carefully. “Appliances were tools for a house. There were refrigerators for cooling our food to keep it from spoiling, and stoves to cook our meals. We had tools that would chop our food, or mix it up so we could bake cakes and pies in our ovens.”

The old woman’s fingers worked quickly, easing tangles from the child’s hair. She traced a part down the middle of her granddaughter’s head and tossed half the tresses to the front, across Cam’s chest.

“Tell me about the water,” Cam said.

“Oh yes. There was water, running from faucets in the kitchens and bathrooms—water to wash our food—and the dishes we ate on. We had water to wash ourselves. Even our hair!”

“You washed hair?”

“My yes. There’s nothing that feels so fine as a soft and silky head of clean hair.”

“And you could wash every day?”

“Every single day. Twice if we wanted to.”

“What about the flushes?”

“Our fancy toilets? Every family had one or two in their houses—special thrones for a privy. And you could flick the handle on the tank and flush your products down with swirling water.”

“Like magic.”

“It seems so now, little Cam. It didn’t seem magical to me then. When you have so much that is right at your fingertips, you get lazy. And you take it all for granted.”

“Like it will always be there?”

“Exactly. Like it was always there and always will be. Then something happens that shakes you awake and you realize how lucky you have been.”

Gran finished the second braid, knotted the grimy ends and tied a bit of twine around it.

“Tell me the story again, Gran. Tell me about how you lost my grandpa.”

Gran removed a polished stick from her own silver hair and shook her locks until they cascaded around her shoulders. “What—has Philip given you a day off?”

Cam grinned. “He’s off somewhere with the scouts. Tell me the story again.”

“About Grandpa Stefano?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. That story.” Gran combed her own hair, smoothed it into one long tress and twisted it to the top of her head. Holding it with one hand, she fished the polished stick from her worn skirt pocket and worked it through the twist until her hair was again secured neatly on top of her head. “I think you’ve heard this tale before. Where should I begin?”

“Where you always do.”

“Of course. It’s always best to begin at the beginning. Come with me, Cam. Let’s walk.”

Imagine the wasteland where Cam and her grandmother would walk. Then think of the huge wildfires we’ve seen each of the last two springs. Think of the erratic and unpredictable weather patterns. Think of the epidemic of earthquakes influenced by fracking procedures. We could be one, maybe two, generations from a life very different from what we now know. Our choices matter very  much.

Vote, while you still can. Vote for a candidate who respects the voices of the little guys. If we can’t change our leadership, our landscape and our future could look very bleak.

 

Hiroshima. . .Now

(One month ago today, we walked through the museum and around the grounds of the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan. That was before the inauguration of a dangerous leader in the US who seems oblivious to lessons of the past. Over the last month, I have struggled with a search for the most appropriate words to describe our experience in Hiroshima, as humbling as it was awe-inspiring, and as terrifying as it was motivating. Our entire trip to Japan for a visit to our US military family, was in the shadow of ominous historical events that predate my years, but which my parents lived through and knew intimately.)

On a driving tour of the US Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, several landmarks were pointed out. Most were fairly recent constructions, but one, in particular, stands out in my mind. It was not new, and had been part of the original military post, back when the base belonged to the Japanese military establishment.

Building where the attack on Pearl Harbor was planned.
Building where the attack on Pearl Harbor was planned.

“That’s where they planned Pearl Harbor,” we were told by our marine corps son-in-law. The origin of the attack which drew the US into the war–the beginning of the end of my uncle’s life–was here in this building. Part of world history collided with my family history. This  tidbit of information put our walking tour of the Hiroshima Peace Park into a personal perspective.

Hiroshima’s Peace Park covers a huge area, crosses several fingers of the bay, and showcases one building which sustained major structural damage on the fateful day of the bomb. Genbaku Dome, preserved forever as a reminder of the horrors of nuclear war, once was a modern building designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel. Completed in 1915, it was only thirty years old at the time of the bomb.

The dome before August 6, 1945.
The dome before August 6, 1945.

“The A-Bomb Dome is the ruins of the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotion Hall which was destroyed by the first atomic bomb ever to be used in the history of humankind on August 6, 1945. (8:15 am) The atomic bomb was detonated in the air at an altitude of approximately 600 meters almost right over the hall. The explosion of a single bomb claimed the lives of over 200,000 people and the city area of about 2 km radius was turned into ashes. In order to have this tragic fact known to succeeding generations and to make it a lesson for humankind, the reinforcement work of the ruins has been done by the contributions of many people who desire peace within and out of the country. The ruins shall be preserved forever.    August 6, 1967   Hiroshima City”        (Inscription engraved on a monument at the site)

Genbaku Dome today
Genbaku Dome today

Contributions from many Japanese people and others around the world dedicated to peace have preserved the ruins of this building.

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“As a historical witness that conveys the tragedy of suffering the first atomic bomb in human history and as a symbol that vows to faithfully seek the abolition of nuclear weapons and everlasting world peace, Genbaku Dome was added to the World Heritage List in accordance with the ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage (World Heritage Convention)’                      December 7, 1996, Hiroshima City”                                                                  (Inscription engraved on a monument at the site)

It has received four major restorations to preserve its bombed-out condition from further crumbling. These occurred in 1967, 1990, 2003 and 2016.

Genbaku Dome, the A-bomb Dome
Genbaku Dome, the A-bomb Dome, from a viewpoint on the targeted bridge.
This t-shaped bridge was reportedly the target of the bomb in 1945. Detonation almost directly above the bridge damaged, but did not destroy the structure. It was still usable afterward as this photo shows.
This t-shaped bridge was reportedly the target of the bomb in 1945. Detonation almost directly above the bridge damaged, but did not destroy the structure. It was still usable afterward as this photo shows. The dome would be to the left of this photo.
The uniquely shaped bridge today.
The uniquely shaped bridge today.

 

From one bridge to the other at Genbaku Dome
From one bridge to the other at Genbaku Dome

The other end of the Peace Park houses a massive museum. A short walk brings visitors across one of several available bridges and along a mall featuring the Pond of Peace above which a platform showcases the Flame of Peace.

The Flame of Peace
The Flame of Peace

“Symbolizing the universal desire for a world free from nuclear weapons, the flame will burn until the day when all such weapons shall have disappeared from the earth.” The flaming monument burns continuously, reminding visitors of the somber promise and the huge sacrifice this community made. The reverent mood of the park made the day’s overcast sky an appropriate backdrop for our visit.

Beyond the pond, visitors find an artistic stone cenotaph, adorned by fresh floral bouquets. President Obama spoke here in May 2016.

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Inside the museum visitors are able to amble through displays that include a panorama of the A-bomb detonation, items fused by the intense heat of the bomb, a room dedicated to education about the lingering dangers of radiation, and paper cranes.

Model of the A-bomb detonation in the museum
Model of the A-bomb detonation in the museum. Note the unique t-shaped bridge to the right of the dome. Much of the area on the point of land is now part of the Peace Park.

 

Replica of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima
Replica of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Today’s bombs would be much more efficient.

 

Origami cranes have become symbols of peace, largely through the efforts of a little Japanese girl named Sadako. She was only two years old in August of 1945. Though she survived the bomb blast, a few years afterward she developed leukemia, a common occurrence for the survivors who were exposed to immense levels of radiation.

Sadako set out to fold 1000 paper cranes, hoping that the legend of wishes being granted to a person who would fold 1000 origami cranes would heal her. That was her wish. But it was not to be. Sadako died of her cancer in October 1955. Ten years after the bombing it claimed yet another victim.

I was five-months old at the time she died. It has only recently impressed me how close to the actual event we were. Ten years. One decade. That hardly seems long at all now that I’ve lived six decades.

Sadako’s cranes have become a world-recognized symbol of the hope for peace. The park in Hiroshima has peace cranes scattered in many places. A few of Sadako’s original cranes are preserved and displayed under glass in the museum.

A few of Sadako's original origami cranes, preserved in the museum
A few of Sadako’s original origami cranes, preserved in the museum

 

Another glass-topped display features two new cranes, folded in May 2016 by the visiting US president, Barack Obama.

Museum display of President Obama's visit, May 27, 2016
Museum display of President Obama’s visit, May 27, 2016

 

The peace cranes folded and given by Barack Obama during his visit to Hiroshima
The peace cranes folded and given by Barack Obama during his visit to Hiroshima

There are strung garlands of thouands of cranes draped on a park sculpture, and cranes hung from the trees.

Colorful paper cranes strung together and draped onto this shrine for peace
Colorful paper cranes strung together and draped onto this shrine for peace

 

Peace cranes in the trees
Peace cranes in the trees

There was even one live crane seeming to survey the scene below from a perch on the rafters of the burned out Genbaku Dome, looking for peace even today.

 

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View from the Museum to the Dome
View from the Museum to the Dome, past the Cenotaph, the Pond of Peace and the Flame of Peace

Extending to either direction between the dome and the museum are a number of special exhibits. A children’s memorial, dedicated to the memory of Sadako; a peace bell inviting visitors to swing the gong and feel the reverberations; a memorial to the victims of the atomic bomb; fountains flowing with precious water, keeping the hope of peace alive.

Memorial to the victims
Memorial to the victims

 

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The Hiroshima Peace Park is one great reminder about the horrors of war. When ranked among the developments of humanity, war is one with purposes of destruction, domination and retribution. It lies at the bottom of the list of our achievements. On the other hand, the Hiroshima Peace Park celebrates some of the best that humanity has to offer–beauty, creativity, art, and the resilience of life, a gift of hope for those who will come after us.

Peace, where art thou?
Peace, where art thou?

Next:

Lessons from Hiroshima

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiroshima. . .Then

A month ago, we walked through the museum and around the grounds of the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan. That was before the inauguration of a dangerous leader in the US who seems oblivious to lessons of the past. Over the last month, I have struggled with a search for the most appropriate words to describe our experience in Hiroshima, as humbling as it was awe-inspiring, and as terrifying as it was motivating. Our entire trip to Japan for a visit to our US military family, was in the shadow of ominous historical events that predate my years, but which my parents lived through and knew intimately.

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Peace Museum, 2017. English message on left. Japanese message on right.

 

“To remember Hiroshima is to commit oneself to peace,” as Pope John Paul said on the 25th of February in 1981.

Peace. . . A condition marked by freedom from oppression, harmony in relationships, and agreement to end hostilities, a definition according to my desk dictionary. It is also a condition that is perhaps as far removed from reality today as it was 75 years ago.

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The US was drawn into active participation in World War II after Japan bombed Navy ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

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USS Shaw exploding in Pearl Harbor.

My uncle Lester, the older brother of my father, was in his third month of training for service with the US Navy at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. He hastily jotted a note of reassurance to his family, and sent it home via air mail. Not to worry, he wrote, he was all right. However things were likely to change given the course of events, and his Christmas leave was likely to be cancelled.

It was. Lester made it home for one last visit the following summer before losing his life, almost a year to the day after Pearl Harbor. The big war impacted my own family in ways we still feel after 75 years, as surely as it left an impact on countless other American, European, Russian, and Japanese people.

Hiroshima before August 1945
Hiroshima before August 1945

About 3 ½ years after the attack at Pearl Harbor, and many battles later, The US took the fight onto Japanese soil.

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With the horrific bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki a week later, the war ended. The Japanese people had changed forever.

Hiroshima before the bomb
Hiroshima before the bomb

At 8:15 in the morning, as civilians scurried to their daily work, school children settled into their first class, and businesses opened for shoppers, the world’s first atomic bomb was unleashed in the air 600 meters above downtown Hiroshima. In an instant, the city lay in smoldering ruins.

HIroshima after the bomb
Hiroshima after the bomb

An estimated 200,000 people perished. Most were civilians, including the school children. A number of US prisoners of war and Korean natives working in Hiroshima also were lost.

After the bomb
After the bomb
Aftermath of the bomb
Aftermath of the bomb
Destruction
Destruction

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This unique t-shaped bridge is reported to have been the target of the A-bomb. It was still standing after the blast, and could be used, as seen here.

The detonation of the atomic bomb over a bridge in Hiroshima triggered the end of the war and was heralded with great celebration in this country. It was only later, after the destruction became apparent, that we realized what had been unleashed in Japan.

Washington Post edition with news of the bomb
Washington Post edition with news of the bomb, August 7, 1945
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The Evening Star, Washington DC August 14, 1945

Seven decades later, Hiroshima is again a bustling, modern city, undistinguished from many other cities around the world, except for its World Heritage site, commemorating the bomb and a pledge to world peace that this kind of destruction will never happen again.

from a museum sculpture
from a museum sculpture

 

Next:

Hiroshima. . .Now

 

 

“Under a Winfield Kansas Moon”

The Walnut Valley Festival, 2016, came to a close Sunday, September 18.

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Hardy folks who stayed the course through a week of weather contrasts once again headed home after filling their souls with uplifting music and cameraderie. After downpours upriver flooded the traditional Walnut Grove and Pecan Grove campgrounds, campers re-located to various places including the city lake. Folks braved more rain Thursday and Friday, to welcome sunshine on Saturday all day long. Children exhausted themselves with outdoor play on the hillside at Stage 2. And the musicians raised roars from audiences hungry for a fix of favorite musical entertainers.

I was reminded again how this festival is a most appropriate setting for several final scenes in Sundrop Sonata.  Music brings harmony to our lives in more ways than one.

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As darkness descended over the festival grounds, a full moon rose over Stage 1 during the final 2016 set of John McCutcheon, Tom Chapin and a whole group of related friends making music for their fans. Their new song, written especially for this year’s festival, says it all.

(Chorus)

“Under a Winfield, Kansas moon

This is our Walnut Valley tune.

We come together to sing it again

It’s great to see you my friend.”

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Ripples Through the Generations

            It is now seventy-two years after the accident in the whale boat, three times the span of Lester’s short life. What happened to the folks during those ensuing decades?

            Shortly after World War II had ended, the family received medals Lester had been awarded posthumously for his dedicated service. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore a decade had passed, Frances and Gloyd were blessed with a boy and a girl. the first children of the next generation. Born just three years after Lester’s death, Frances named her son David Lester in honor of her brother.

            OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn that first decade, Lester’s father Charley died of heart disease. “He took Lester’s death hard,” Wallace told us, “and never got over it.” Wallace was convinced the accident in Narragansett Bay was a contributing factor in his father’s death.

            Sometime in that first decade, Josephine met and eventually married another man. The home wedding was attended by well-wishing members of Lester’s family, and officiated by his aunt Mabel, the first woman in Kansas to be an ordained pastor of the Methodist Church. Though Lester’s mother kept in touch with Josephine for many years, they eventually lost contact.

Josephine's wedding. Lester's aunt Mabel officiated.
Josephine’s wedding. Lester’s aunt Mabel officiated.

            Before ten years had passed, Wallace, a high school senior in 1942, had gone to college, met and married the woman who would be his faithful partner for fifty-three years, Helen Peterson.

The wedding of Wallace and Helen. The two youngest children belong to Frances and Gloyd.
The wedding of Wallace and Helen. The two youngest children belong to Frances and Gloyd.

            In the second decade beyond Lester’s death, Wallace and Helen welcomed three daughters to the family.

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            In that second decade, Lester’s sister Frances met him at the pearly gates, a victim of cancer. She left her school-age children in Gloyd’s care. Her son David, Lester’s only nephew, enlisted in the US Navy upon his graduation. He began an involvement with the navy that continued through the rest of his life, with active duty and the naval reserves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA            Lester’s mother Georgia persevered with a broken heart. Though she had lost much in a few short years, she devoted herself to her remaining children, and then her grandchildren. She was a trusted and beloved friend to many people. After Charley’s death, she managed the farm with astute business sense. She rarely spoke of Lester, but he was never far from her thoughts. His portrait hung on her living room wall for decades after she moved the farm house to town. She guarded her memories, stored the photos and other memorabilia in the attic, and mourned privately.

            Still there were times when she mentioned her son, and alluded to his sunny personality, always with a tenderness in her voice, and a reverence that spoke volumes about the depth of her love and her loss. I recall waking in the middle of the night during a visit to her house to hear her sobbing alone in the darkness of her own bedroom. She died fifty years after Lester, in her 99th year, to finally join those who had preceded her.

            Perhaps young Paul suffered as much as anyone from his brother’s tragic death. Only seven years old at the time, Paul grew up in a house shadowed by grief. His father was never the same. His mother carried on the best she could. But her heart was wounded. Maybe Paul never even remembered, in the end, what life had been like before Lester’s death. He grew up, left home, attended college for a while, and spent most of his life alone, bouncing between jobs in the kitchens of various Kansas City restaurants. He died alone and nearly penniless at the age of seventy.

            Lester became a legend in the family. Life moved on. He was gone, but not forgotten.

            That brings me to the point of this whole project with the letters from 1942. Lester Franklin Harris was a good man. Through his twenty-four years of life, and his sudden, unexpected death, he impacted the world around him. Like pebbles tossed into a still pond, the ripples started during his life continue to spread outward, undulating through generations of people who weren’t even alive when Lester left this world.

            If he were still alive today, my uncle Lester would be 96. My cousins, sisters and I would have grown up to know the good-natured generous soul others loved, but we never had that opportunity. We knew him only through the occasional story, a fond remembrance or gifts shared once in a while.

            When I was establishing my piano repair shop, my father  (Lester’s brother Wallace) gave me a portable shop vise. In a voice filled with reverence and love, he explained, “This belonged to Lester. I want you to have it.” Lester’s vise has assisted me with numerous projects over the years.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

            In the late summer of 2013, my cousin David Lester Pickett passed away at the age of 68. At the family dinner following his service, his widow handed me a small new testament, covered in a zippered canvas case. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt had been a gift to Lester when he enlisted in the US Navy. In my imagination, I saw our grandmother passing this booklet to David when he entered the navy, with the same sense of reverence and honor that my father displayed with he passed the vise to me.

            Over the years, the fresh wounds that jolted the hearts of my family in 1942 had two effects. Either they contributed to a sad life and an early grave, or the wounds healed. Scars would never disappear, for Lester would never be forgotten. His mother and his siblings had to learn how to carry those scars like badges earned in the storms of life.

Lester's flag.
Lester’s flag.

My grandmother learned how to laugh again. My favorite memory of her is her belly-busting, whole-hearted laughter. But she never forgot Lester. She kept his letters, the flag which accompanied him home, a box full of cards and notes, two memory books from the funerals, the medals, a photo album and a few personal items. Upon her death, the memory box passed to Wallace. Upon his death, it passed to me. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUntil 2010 I had no idea the letters existed. But when I read the words written in his own polished penmanship, Lester has come alive for me after seven decades.

            None of her grandchildren knew our beloved Grandma Georgia before her heart was scarred with grief. I wonder what we missed. What was she like before? Who would she have been if Lester had lived?

            The love my family felt for him and their grief at his loss crossed generations to impact those of us who never knew him. That experience in 1942 led them to support me with compassion and empathy when I struggled with a series of losses four decades later. That, in the end, is the greatest honor we can give to those whom we have loved and lost: to use the pain, and the healing, to assist others when they face their own storms in life. None are immune to grief. When you love somebody, you risk the pain of loss. If we can honor those memories with compassion to others, then the world will be better for it.

            Ripples from Lester’s life continue to spread towards the horizon in every direction. He was a good man, and the world is a better place because he lived.

Lester Franklin Harris
Lester Franklin Harris

(Lester’s World War II memorabilia will be displayed in the Dunlap, Kansas historical museum housed in the former Dunlap Methodist Church.)

Western Union Telegrams, December 1942

The day was drawing to a close on December 4. Chores were nearly done when a lone vehicle approached the farm home of Lester’s family. The driver bore a telegram for CF Harris from Arlington, Va.

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The Navy department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Lester Frank Harris fireman first class US Naval reserve is missing following the capsizing of a motor whale boat in Narragansett Bay on December second. If remains are recovered you will be notified and every effort will be made to conform to your wishes regarding disposition. Further details probably will be communicated to you by his commanding officer. Sincere sympathy extended to you in your great sorrow.             

     Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of naval personnel

Even without today’s social media, news of the family’s unfolding sorrow spread like wildfire in the close-knit farming community. Hardly a soul remained who hadn’t heard the news when a second telegram arrived on December 10, the birthday of Lester’s sister Frances.

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Supplementing our dispatch of Dec 4 1942 The bureau of Naval personnel  has been informed that your son Lester Frank Harris fireman first class USNR previously reported as missing lost his life in line of duty as result of submersion when a motor whale boat capsized December second. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARecovery of remains is not probable. Further details will be sent you by his commanding officer. Sincere sympathy extended to you in your great loss

                 Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of naval personnel

Refusing to believe the news could possibly be true, the folks carried on, rising each day with the hope that Lester would contact them and all would be well. Lester’s brother Wallace, then seventeen years old, recalled decades later, “When we were notified of the accident and his probable death I could not believe that it had really happened. I kept thinking, ‘This is not real. I must be dreaming. When I awaken I’ll find it’s a dream and that Lester is really alive.’ Eventually, I came to accept the fact that it was no dream; that we had been separated, completely and irrevocably by death.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn an effort to learn what had actually happened, Lester’s mother carried on a furious correspondence with his buddies Harry Haring and Joseph Feingold. Haring dissuaded her from trekking to Newport, assuring her there was little she could do that wasn’t already being done. He wrote, “No, Mrs. Harris, I’m sure that there is nothing to be gained in coming to Newport. It’s cruel I know but it’s hopeless. A body will rise after the third day and then if not recovered it again sinks. I’m afraid the sea will not give up her bodies until the final day. For a man of the sea, Mrs. Harris, there is no finer resting place than the sea when the man sails.”

By the end of December, Lester’s personal effects had been shipped home. Included in the shipment were several sets of his navy uniforms both white and blue; bedding; towels; a sewing kit; a shaving kit; a shoe kit; two bundles of books; a slide rule; a gauge; miscellaneous letters and stationery; and “one unopened package addressed to Mr. Harris.” He had never opened the Christmas package sent by his sister.

That Christmas surely was a difficult time for the family. On January 3, 1943, one month after the ill-fated accident, Lester’s family and friends gathered for a memorial service. It was to be the first of two funerals for him. Over the weeks and months after the accident, several of the sailors’ bodies were discovered and identified. In July 1943, seven months later, a body was found and determined to be that of Lester. The presence of Lester’s personal billfold with a water-stained photo of Josephine aided the final identification of his remains.

Another set of telegrams brought the final news, this time to Mr. and Mrs. C F Harris.

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Supplementing our dispatch of December tenth 1942 the bureau of personnel has been informed that the remains of your son Lester Franklin Harris fireman first class US Naval reserve have been recovered. Please telegram collect to the Bureau of Medicine and surgery Navy Department Washington DC whether or not you desire to have remains sent home or interred in any National or Naval Cemetery you may select without cost to you. If sent home all expenses of preparation encasement and transportation will be prepaid to destination and reasonable necessary expenses not to exceed fifty dollars will be allowed towards funeral expenses subject to reimbursement by the bureau of medicine and surgery navy department. If the body is sent home please advise whether or not you desire an escort to accompany the body. The department extends its sincerest sympathy to you in your great sorrow.

                     Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs Chief of Naval Personnel

His parents must have responded immediately, as requested. Of course they wanted him to come home. Another telegram arrived the following day.

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=URTEL SEVENTEENTH NAVAL HOSPITAL NEWPORT RHODE ISLAND DIRECTED FORWARD REMAINS YOUR SON LESTER FRANKLIN HARRIS CONSIGNED TO YOU AT DUNLAP ACCOMPANIED BY NAVAL ESCORT WITH TELEGRAPHIC NOTIFICATION GIVING DATE ROUTE AND SCHEDULED TIME ARRIVAL HOSPITAL ALSO REQUESTED HAVE JOSEPH FEINGOLD ACT AS ESCORT IF PRACTICABLE LETTER FOLLOWS.

=BUREAU OF MEDICINE AND SURGERY NAVY DEPARTMENT.

                                                                 

Though no confirmation of Joseph Feingold’s attendance is among the existing memorabilia, it’s nice to think that Lester’s last journey was accompanied by his good friend. He had come home at last.

This photo is labeled "Lester's Navy Friend." He is not identified by name, but this is likely to be either Haring or Feingold.
This photo is labeled “Lester’s Navy Friend.” He is not identified by name, but perhaps this is Joseph Feingold who may have escorted Lester home in 1943.

The family and friends gathered again for a second funeral on July 24. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis one completed the solemnity, for there was no hope remaining that Lester might one day return to favor all with his friendly smile and warm hugs. He was gone.

I wonder if anyone read from his high school salutatorian address during the service. He spoke these words before his classmates at their graduation ceremony:

“When a ship starts on a voyage, it is loaded with fuel. If the ship is large or the voyage long, stops may be made at several fueling stations. . . .Ships are always in danger of being veered from their course by storms, of running onto hidden reefs or rocks. . . .However a ship does not by any means sail blindly. It has a pilot, lighthouses, and buoys to guide it and mark the dangerous spots.”

Nobody knew better than Lester how dangerous the sea could be.

Gherardi at sea

As time passed, Lester’s story was told to a new generation. Thus, his nephew and niece (Frances and Gloyd’s children) and three nieces (daughters of Wallace and his wife Helen) learned the story of their uncle’s World War II service. The pain still showed in the somber faces and the irony persisted. The most poignant detail ended the tale. “And he wasn’t even supposed to be on that boat.”

But he was.

Lester Franklin Harris, 1918 - 1942
Lester Franklin Harris, 1918 – 1942

 

Though evidently Lester was one of the last of those fifteen sailors to be found, there was one more body discovered in August 1943. It was damaged beyond recognition and unidentifiable. According to a Wikipedia article (referenced under USS Gherardi), the final body was identified conclusively through DNA analysis in 2006, more than sixty years after the accident. Those remains were determined to belong to Raymond Johnson, the coxswain of that whaleboat. Two other sailors have never been found.

The Wikipedia article described a 2006 plaque commemorating the ultimate sacrifice of the fifteen sailors, commissioned for the US Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. Names of all fifteen sailors are listed on the plaque. The USS Gherardi received five battle stars for World War II service. In 2004 the USS Gherardi Association dedicated a plaque to her service from 1942 through 1955, claiming “She safely returned all those who served in combat.”

Sadly, she didn’t have the same good fortune in protecting her sons from a storm off the coast of the homeland.

Storm in Narragansett Bay

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          On the afternoon of December 1, 1942, about three dozen sailors left the USS Gherardi for a few hours on liberty. The ship was moored to a pier at the Torpedo Station Annex, Coddington Cove. This is located about four miles north of the Government Landing, Newport, Rhode Island in Narragansett Bay. The sailors left the Gherardi in two motor whaleboats. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALester’s buddy Harry Haring was on duty as engineer in one boat. Off duty and taking advantage of his shore leave, Lester rode to shore in Haring’s boat. He welcomed the chance to stretch his legs on the streets of Newport and planned to shop for stationery and envelopes. Perhaps he also hoped to find a few gifts to send his family for Christmas.

        OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA    The sailors were to report back to the pier for a return to the ship by midnight. Sometime during the evening hours, a storm brewed at sea, moving into the bay. By midnight the waves churned wildly off the pier. Raymond Johnson, age 18, the coxswain of the second boat, conferred with Haring for a few minutes. Concerned about the inexperienced fireman on his boat, the coxswain requested assistance. Haring, confident that his friend Lester had mastered the skills needed to operate the diesel motor through any weather, asked Lester if he would lend a hand.

            Haring knew his friend well. Lester, a cheerful, easy-going and competent fireman, agreed to help. The whaleboat carrying seventeen sailors, including Johnson as coxswain and Lester, as engineer, launched at 12:05 a.m. the morning of December 2. The sailors hunkered down against the driving wind as the boat headed into the bay, toward the Gherardi.

            Haring’s boat left ten minutes later. After an hour’s grueling trip, an easy forty minutes in fair weather, they arrived at the Gherardi to learn the first boat was still at sea. The officer of the deck was informed and search lights were played on the water in the hopes that the men would see the lights in case they had blown off their course. After a half hour of no success, the naval and civilian authorities were informed about the missing boat. Eventually, the crew of the destroyer had to abandon efforts to locate the missing sailors when the storm intensified. In the early hours of December 2 it even threatened the safety of the Gherardi herself.  After a steel mooring cable parted, the unusual procedure of securing the USS Gherardi to the dock with the anchor chain was initiated.

            The following morning, the wreckage of the whale boat was found washed ashore. Two bedraggled sailors clung to the boat. Fifteen others were missing. Lester was among the missing.

            Though details of the whaleboat’s fate remain unclear, some believed that the whaleboat collided with an object in the water, a rock or a buoy. “The collision likely stove in the bow and stopped the motor,” Joseph Feingold wrote to his friend’s family. Lester must have worked madly to restore power to the diesel engine, but a large wave swamped the boat, followed by another which capsized it.

The diesel engine (under showcase for display) which powered the motor whaleboat.
The diesel engine (under showcase for display) which powered the motor whaleboat.

            The two sailors who survived the storm were identified as strong swimmers. Lester surely could swim, as he spent many summer hours in the river which ran through his family’s Kansas farm. But he was not lucky enough to cling to the boat, and he was hardly prepared for a dip in the December waters of an angry ocean.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

            Lester lost his life with fourteen other young sailors that fateful night off the coast of Rhode Island. I wonder how long he fought in the water. Was there a moment when he realized he was not going to make it home again? Perhaps his last thoughts turned to his family, their recent Thanksgiving dinner followed by his father’s fifty-first birthday on that very day. He might have imagined them, smiling and laughing around the dining table, his mother carrying in a basket of steaming butterhorn rolls, or pulling his father’s favorite pie from her wood-burning oven to complete the dinner menu. With his characteristic gentility, he might have found himself overcome with sadness for them. He’d not even had a chance to say good-bye. Perhaps in that last split second, he bid them a silent farewell as the waves tossed him mercilessly in the churning sea. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs he thought of his mother, he surely sensed the devastation she would bear at his death. Perhaps he spoke to her silently. “Mom! I’m sorry.”

            And then at the very end, perhaps his thoughts drifted with a heavy longing to Josephine, his beloved fiancé. What would she do now?

            Josephine.

                                    Josephine.

                                                                                Josephine.

The Last Letter: November 25, 1942

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANovember 25, 1942

Dear Folks,

I expect that you will get this just about on Dad’s birthday so I’m sending my best wishes now. Have you had much snow yet? I can’t tell you anything about the weather here.

PICT0612

Have you heard any  more about Soltz Prichard? I can well imagine that military life would be quite hard for him. I have known one or two fellows about like him but so far as I know, they are still sticking it out in the navy.

PICT0862What would all of you like to have for Christmas? I don’t have much of an opportunity to buy anything but I want to send something to all of you.

It is time for me to go to work now so I’ll send this on its way.

Lester, and probably most sailors, visited the ship's post office frequently.

Love to all

Lester

 

None of them knew it at the time, but this letter held the last words Lester would ever share with his family.

Letter from Frances on Sewing, Gas Rationing, and Thanksgiving

Council Grove

November 19, 1942

Dear Brother—

We aren’t very busy this morning so will try and get a letter written to you. It surely is a pretty day but it feels more like spring than fall. The weather is so warm and it is rather windy. It has been quite foggy some mornings but was nice and clear this morning. Yesterday the fog was quite bad. Gloyd brought me to work and we could hardly see to drive. Leo Dike ran into a bridge on his way to Delavan and smashed a rear fender, broke a spring and broke the door handles off the car but no one was hurt any. Gloyd went down home yesterday and today to shuck corn. He said they should get the west field done this week. The corn is pretty good although he said it was rather thin and really should have been replanted. He said it would be nice shucking in the big field.

Paul Robert has the chicken pox but he isn’t sick at all. Gloyd said he was running in and out all day yesterday. I guess he didn’t feel very good Saturday but Sunday he felt better so got ready and went to Sunday School.

They had a party for Sam Edmiston’s Tuesday evening. They have sold their farm to Miles Sheaffer and are going to move to Texas.

Gloyd’s folks, Aunt Della and Helen came over last evening for awhile.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I have borrowed Mrs. Pickett’s sewing machine so she came over to use it. Her iron has played out too so she wanted to use my iron. We sewed and ironed and Helen took a bath so she could use the bathtub. I discovered I had sewed part of my dress together backwards so Aunt Della ripped for me. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have been trying for a week to get it made but haven’t met with much success yet.

We got up about 5:15 this morning and Gloyd left shortly after six. I stayed up so I got the house cleaned and the dishes washed before I came to work this morning. It will be nice to go home at noon and not find a table full of dirty dishes. When Gloyd isn’t working he gets dinner and washes the dishes and one day last week he cleaned the house and made the bed and did a good job of it, too.

We went out to Harry’s for dinner Sunday and took the folks and Aunt Della. Gloyd had to work that evening so we came home about six. Gloyd went to the selectee party that night. I didn’t feel like going so stayed home alone. There were 29 left Monday morning. I am getting to be the worst kind of a fraidy cat but I just can hardly stay alone anymore. I was alone again Monday evening while Gloyd went to drill but he wasn’t so late then. I guess I will get Helen to stay with me after this when Gloyd is going to be gone. They said awhile back that a hump backed boy here in town who isn’t too bright was around peeking in windows. Helen was just sure he was over there one evening. I always keep my doors locked when I am alone and here lately I pull the shades at dark. We girls don’t get together anymore on Monday evenings since Dale left. Nellie’s husband never did go to drill and Maurice hasn’t gone since he came back from Leavenworth. Gloyd is the only one that is still in. The State Guards are finding it impossible to keep their enlistment up to what it should be. The army has taken so many of the younger men there isn’t much to recruit from any more. This training is doing the boys some good though. Dale has already been put in charge of one squad and I wouldn’t be surprised but before long he will have some stripes.

Benny Linn was home last week and got married while he was here. He married Irma Scott.

Gloyd is going to try and get back in time this evening so he can register for our four gallons of gasoline. I couldn’t do it. Seems it has to be the same one who signed the registration certificate.

We had a fight over on the east side the other night. One fellow got his arm cut quite bad. The paper said he lost a gallon of blood but I imagine they over estimated the amount a little.

We went to the show Tuesday night and saw “The Big Shot.” It was better than we had expected it to be but not too good at that. I haven’t heard whose name was drawn last night.

The senior play was at Dunlap last night but I don’t believe Wallace was in it. He and Mother went though. Dad stayed home with Paul.

Gloyd and I have just gotten over some terrible colds. We just took them all at once and they left about the same way. Gloyd went to the doctor but I kept on going. Seems to be a lot of them around.

We are going to have a blackout here sometime next month. Guess we will just have to sit in the dark a few minutes.

Seems like I have about run out of anything to say. It is noon anyway. Maybe I will think of something before I come back after lunch.

Later–

When I went home at noon your letter was in the mailbox so I will answer it, too. I tried to call Mother but the Dunlap line was busy so I will try again this evening. If I don’t get through I will send your letter down with Gloyd. I imagine he will go back tomorrow.

It would be nice if Irma and Howard were close enough so you could go see them but I don’t suppose you have much time. It is better to be busy. I have found from experience there isn’t anything harder to do than do nothing. There is always plenty I could be doing now. I have also found that everything doesn’t have to be done at once. Work is one thing that will wait and I have learned that I can’t keep my housework all done like I used to do and work here all day too. So the housework usually has to wait until Sat. night after work or Sunday  morning. I still work at the store Saturday night. I believe I will enjoy living more if I take things a little easier.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANo, I haven’t gotten my glasses changed yet but I am getting along all right. We got our grocery bill paid and Sims. It won’t be long till we have our debts all taken care of.

Aunt Cora is planning a Thanksgiving dinner at George’s if nothing happens. She has been home a couple weeks and was gone for five. She had a nice trip and a good visit with Charley’s.

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Well, I guess I better quit. I have done a little work this afternoon and there is a little more to be done yet. Helen and I came back a little early today. I had a dress to exchange. It will have to be made over but it was a bargain anyway.

Take care of yourself and write when you can

Love and Best Wishes

Frances and Gloyd

P.S. Irma didn’t like it either.

P.P.S. Wayne is an M.P. but doesn’t like it. Says he wishes he had waited to be drafted. Paul wants to get on the switchboard. He thinks he is too old to climb poles.

PICT0984P.P.P.S. If I had an extra quarter I would send it to your buddy for the nice compliment. The grey hairs in my head didn’t show in the picture.

Note from Boston dated November 17, 1942

November 17, 1942

Dear Folks,

At last I have time to write a letter.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFive of us came down to Boston for a few days to attend a fire-fighting school.  We didn’t get here in time to start in the first day so will just get in on the last day of it.  Don’t know what we will do this afternoon.  We have spent half the morning trying to get our baggage and have finally got it.  We didn’t have blankets of any kind last night and it got cold in here.  We covered up with our peacoats and still froze.

Had a good breakfast of grapefruit, oatmeal, doughnut, an egg, toast, potatoes, bread and butter.  That is more than we have aboard ship, especially after we have been out for a day or so.  We are up there for practice in drills and gunnery.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo days is the longest we have been out of port.  We will be there for some time yet.

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I like the country fine, it is very pretty with the islands, rocky coasts and tree-covered hills.  But I don’t like the town.  There isn’t anything to do in it.  I’ve been on liberty there only once.  I’ve got rocks from three different places for you, mom.

I don’t have your letters with me so don’t remember what questions you asked me.  It is rather hard to write letters and not say something that would be censored.  We aren’t supposed to mail anything ashore though we can send post cards with the name of the town if they are censored.  We are in the bay that was on the card I sent you.  Howard’s ship is still there but he was transferred, wasn’t he?

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I received Frances’ package and one from Josephine but I haven’t opened them yet.  Hope I get a chance to do some shopping pretty soon.  We get liberty only about once a week, don’t get off the ship until sixteen thirty and have to be aboard by one forty five.  Quite a number of the boys are “aos”, so the rest of us have to stand more watches.  I can’t complain though because I haven’t stood many watches yet.  It gets a little chilly but not too bad, sixteen above the other night.  We were issued woolen underwear, heavy socks, and a suit of clothes that are rain and wind proof.  I don’t think it will be too bad this winter.

Have you ever received the cacti that you were supposed to get?

It is fifteen hundred now and all of us have been asleep all afternoon.  We haven’t anything to do except write letters as we can’t go out on liberty until sixteen-thirty.  Two of our officers are here also and one of them tried to get liberty for us at noon but didn’t succeed.

I must try to write some more letters so will say good-bye to all.

Love to all

Lester

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