The first house you pass as you head west out of town sits empty now. The rich Nebraska farm land that once held the promise of tomorrow is now farmed by a new generation. There is no trace of the family that once lived here or what they may have endured. With the exception of my Father the lives of the seven who lived, loved and laughed here have ended.
As I poured over the 1940 census looking for facts about my grandparents and their children I found myself wishing I could read the lines that are not written on the census. Learning that my grandfather only had a 4th grade eduction wasn’t really a surprise, he was probably lucky to have that much education in the late 1800’s. I understand now why his words were spelled phonetically and the only punctuation was a plus sign at the end of a thought.
By 1940 of the 5 siblings only the two youngest, my Dad and his brother Willis, were still living at home. My Dad was in his last year of High School and would be graduating soon. It would be just a matter of months that Dad’s life and that of his brother would change forever. Like many other young men, by August both boys would enlist in the Army. In an effort to keep his son’s home it is my understanding that Grandpa purchased more land, hoping that would entice them to stay. Neither my Dad nor Willis had any desire to farm. They both had plans that went beyond the fields of Nebraska and the life of a farmer.
No one can predict the future or how the choices we make will change lives. Three years after the census Willis would become a fighter pilot for the Army Air Corps. He would become part of the 8th Fighter Group, 80th Squadron stationed at Port Moresby, New Guinea. A letter sent to my Dad talks about what he plans to do when the war is over. On November 2, 1943 his life would end during a fierce air battle with the Japanese over the harbor of Rabaul. For nearly 50 years his body lay in foreign soil along with the wreckage of his P-38 Lightning. By chance in 1986 it is discovered by a surveyor and by 1989 he is finally returned to his home town where he rests next to his parents.
In 1942 he would marry a girl, who a few years earlier would not walk on the same side of the road because “boys are icky,” they would celebrate 69 years of marriage together.
They would raise three children (I’m the favorite – don’t tell.) and give them a good life filled with love and happiness. Seventy-Two years have passed since that April 1940 Census and a great deal of life has taken place since that day. Dad will celebrate his 90th birthday this year with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He never returned to live in Nebraska, but it was always home in his heart.
Standing in front of the old home place, all boarded and withering in the hot Nebraska sun, I can see the shadows of yesterday and hear the laughter of brothers as they play cowboys around the water tank. To my right a ghost like tractor plows the field and I see the outline of my grandfather as he prays for rain. The smell of fried chicken wafts through the air making me wish I could go inside to where I know my grandmother once stood. On the other side of yesterday lies the story of two generations of the people I knew and loved and who I would love to spend just one more day with…..