Sunday, June 17, 2012

Joseph and Ethel: Part I of a Love Story

So my plans for Los Angeles fell apart in a quick instant, so I had to rejigger my entire plan, which means that I'm now in Lincoln, Nebraska, and on my way to Chicago. Why? Because I can. 

I left Denver on Friday morning en route to Omaha, where I arrived just in time for Shabbat at everyone's favorite Nebraska Orthodox synagogue (okay, so it's the only). I stayed Saturday night with an amazing old friend Melanie (we once took a trip to Kansas City to stay with her very cool sister and the trip, being on Halloween, included me reading what should have been scary stories but were pretty lame, overly long stories) and her husband in Omaha. Then, yesterday morning, I took off back to Lincoln where I surprised my dad for Father's Day.

While hanging out with my dad, he brought out the scrapbook that his mother, my Grandma Ethel Edwards, kept during the war. The book, which only spanned a few years from 1943-45, included gobs of Western Unions, wedding greetings, Valentine's cards, and more. It's a little time capsule of the relationship of two people that I never knew, and that, more importantly, my father barely knew.

Ethel Louise Nelson and Joseph Francis Edwards in San Antonio circa 1944.

It's funny, because when I look at them they look so Jewish to me. Is that weird? Or did everyone look Jewish in the 1940s?

My father was born on August 6, 1953.

Ethel died eight years later of lung cancer on January 20, 1962. Joseph died three years later of a heart attack on August 17, 1965. My father had just turned 12 years old 11 days before.

Joseph was 47 when he died. Ethel was 39; she died on her birthday.

Let's just say my father had a rough childhood and leave it at that.

In the scrapbook are oodles of Western Unions from Joseph to Ethel talking mundanely about the weather or modes of travel, but in a romantic, funny way. There's even an entire conversation that was recorded as it happened (not sure what this is called) between Joseph and Ethel's sister (Helen). It's a really funny conversation to read. It also expresses the modesty of dating during that era.

One of the peculiarities of their communications during this time (Joseph was being moved around while he was active duty, they married on October 3, 1943, and Joseph eventually was sent to France in late 1944) is some of the language that Joseph uses. He frequently refers to 88s and 73s.

January 1, 1943 -- this is almost 70 years old! Eeep!

"Maybe it's the weather?" my dad suggested.

"Nah, that's insane," I said. "Maybe it's some kind of military lingo?"

My dad was able to clear up a lot of the weird military lingo in the letters and Western Unions, but not this one. After some digging, and with the knowledge that Joseph was a technician involved in radios, I discovered that 88s and 73s is radio speak!

According to Wikipedia, for amateur radio users, 73 means "best regards" and 88 means "hugs and kisses." (Oddly enough, amateur radio websites kvetch about those who add -s to the end of 73 or 88 as being grammatically incorrect. I'd like to think Joseph was a pro at the radio speak, however.)

Seriously? Aw. Big squishy puppy kisses aw! My dad never knew his father as a romantic, but boy do these Western Unions and cards really paint a different picture.

Stay tuned for more cuteness shared between Joseph and Ethel during 1943 and 1945, including some one-of-a-kind souvenirs from early 1945 in France. These things are wartime artifacts. It seems that my grandfather landed in Paris just after the liberation. Awesome!

Note: I've been trying to trace my grandfather's path during World War II for years. It would be a lot easier if his military paperwork had not gone up in flames during a fire in the 1950s in the Missouri facility that held his documents. So, from here, I have to piece together where he was stationed (Alabama, San Antonio, Cincinnati, and so on). It's quite the fun time.