It had been a long night and the morning sun promised only more of the tumult that was Jackie Klaus’ nightmare. She’d been riding for what felt like forever in the stiff seat of a Greyhound bus next to the others on their way to, no doubt, happy holidays.
She stepped out onto the platform. It had been two years since she’d seen the dirt roads and prickled pines of home. But here she was, with a half empty suitcase, ready for whatever her past could drag up.
Not even the jovial toddler riding on her hip could ease the horrifying news that echoed about in her mind after reading the telegram from the War Department. “We regret to inform you . . .”— Her husband, the warrior, the fighter pilot, her love, her life—dead—killed by the enemy thousands of miles from home. It just couldn’t be true.
Even Christmastime didn’t seem to visit the bleak Myakka backwoods in 1944. The closest things resembling seasonal embellishments were conical pine trees that dotted sweltering Florida landscape beside red clay roads. Swirls of dust plumed up behind her father’s big green Buick as the big car pulled to a stop by the platform. Wordless tears and hugs ensued between parents and daughter. Bessie held her grandson while Cecil loaded the hastily packed suitcase into the trunk. She was home again, but this wasn’t the way she intended to return.
Jackie was living in housing on an Air Force Base in Texas, when the horrible, hand-delivered telegram from the War Department arrived. Emotions of denial, helplessness, and grief consumed her. In a telephone call to her parents, they decided she should make the bus trip home. She needed their support. Making matters even worse, Jackie was six months pregnant with another child. She sat like a zombie, staring out of the window as small lakes and streams, pine trees, oak trees and rows of dark green crops whizzed by. Only year-old Robert, prattling on grandma’s lap, seemed unaffected by the bittersweet homecoming.
Back in her childhood bedroom, Jackie began unpacking. When she came to the stack of dog-eared letters Robbie had written from the Philippines, she clutched them to her heart. Tears began to flow once more. It was surprising she had any left.
Unpacking forgotten, she began to sort through the letters, gently opening each and reliving the emotions for the only man she’d ever loved in her life. It just wasn’t fair! This couldn’t be happening to her. It wasn’t meant to end this way. The emptiness and sadness she was experiencing was almost overwhelming.
Wanting to keep the precious letters organized, Jackie started arranging them according to the postmarks on each. When she reached the last one, electricity shot through her body as if she had been struck by lightning. The date! The date on the postmark was a week after Robbie was reported killed! Stunned, Jackie stared at the envelope. A glimmer of hope crept into her soul.
Clutching the letter, she sprinted down the stairs three at a time and ran into the kitchen, startling her father and mother, screaming, “He’s alive, Robbie’s gotta’ be alive!”
Cecil put a consoling arm around his grieving daughter, thinking this glimmer of hope was only the emotional throes of dealing with the devastating tragedy of losing a mate. But, as usual, he was gentle and kind and listened to what she was saying. When he looked at the date on the letter, however, everything changed. Cecil ran to the phone and desperately began to try and find someone who would act on what they had discovered. Jackie immediately began writing a barrage of letters and sending them to Robbie.
Seven thousand miles away, Robbie Klaus lay with his entire right leg bound in a white plaster cast. Other places on his body had bandages over the wounds he received when a Japanese Zero strafed his P-38 fighter plane. He barely made it back to base in the crippled aircraft. What the Zero hadn’t done to him, the crash landing almost did. Bleeding profusely, Robbie pulled himself from the mangled carcass of the once sleek aircraft and crawled away from it on the runway before its fuel tanks ignited. He didn’t want to be incinerated.
The world sprung into life and colorful light as ambulances, fire vehicles, and crash trucks roared up to the crash site. Then the most unbelievable and awful thing that could happen occurred. The wet-nosed driver of one crash truck, fresh over from the States, ran over Robbie’s foot, crushing it in the process. He passed out from the pain and awakened in the hospital. A debate had ensued as to whether to amputate or not. “Hell, no! You’re not cutting my foot off! Fix it!” —Thus, the plaster cast. Then he got the first of Jackie’s letters.
“Sorry, that Jeep ain’t ta’ be used for yer personal reasons,” retorted the two rotund women who manned the hospital tent.
“But, my wife thinks I’m dead! My best friend Chuck has the same last name as I do—‘Klaus.’ He was the one killed—not me, but I was the one reported dead by the War Department. I have to get to the phone and it’s four miles away on the other side of the base. I can’t walk in this cast.” The two corpulent women wouldn’t relent, and in a furor, Robbie stomped the four miles, ruining his cast in the process.
Hope had not waned in Myakka. Cecil and Bessie even tried to brighten the mood by decorating the house with a Christmas tree and other trappings of the holiday—much to the delight of young Robert. More than ever, Jackie was convinced the love of her life was indeed, alive. Every time the phone on the wall rang, she sprinted hopefully for it, jerked the earpiece from the cradle, and shouted anxiously into the microphone. She did the same thing this time. Jackie was barely able to avoid passing out when she heard the familiar voice over the static in the line. “Darling, oh my Darling, It’s me . . .”
September 29, 2007
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