An improbable anniversary

Mom, Dad and Ben

The 278th left for Camp Shelby last week with plans for deployment to Iraq in February. I don’t have any family or know anyone who has been or will be deployed to war on foreign soil, but I can’t help wonder what it must have been like for my dad, who was sent to Vietnam in 1967. I can’t really imagine the things he saw there, even after listening to his stories. But I also can’t help to be in some part grateful that he did serve – because if he hadn’t been sent halfway around the world to fight, he would never have met my mother and my brother and I would not have been born.

But the story of how my parents met doesn’t begin with an American soldier in Vietnam. It begins, as my mother tells it, with two drunken English sailors in a bar.

My mother is from Sydney, Australia. In 1969, she was training to be a nurse with dreams of traveling the world. During the war, Sydney was a popular destination for soldiers on R&R, and my mother’s parents had joined a program that offered hospitality and home cooking to soldiers on leave. So when the father of a friend of my mother’s gave his daughter’s address to two English sailors in a local pub one night, it set in motion a chain of events that would cause my mother to leave her family and country behind to marry my father.

The two English sailors eventually ended up in Hong Kong where their ship was docked next to an American ship on its way to Vietnam. They passed mom’s friend’s address to the American sailors, who eventually wrote and asked if she had some friends who would like to become pen pals. My mother volunteered and began corresponding with a young sailor named Eric.

They wrote to each other for several months. From listening to my mother’s stories, I gather this Eric was a bit sweet on her. But he made a mistake one day when he heard a soldier from Tennessee whose Army unit was stationed on board his ship mention he was heading to Sydney on his leave. He gave the soldier my mother’s name and address along with some money and asked him to send her some flowers on his behalf when he got there.
Instead, the dashing young soldier arrived in Sydney, obtained my mother’s phone number and asked her to dinner – using the money the sailor had given him for flowers.

It was June 1968, and my mother had just finished her nurse’s training and obtained a position at a hospital in Toronto, Canada. She and a couple of friends were leaving in a week to sail across the Pacific and tour America before beginning their new jobs in Canada. Meeting an American soldier on a blind date was one last hurrah.

They hit it off and mom enjoyed his company so much, she invited him to her bon voyage party at her parents’ house the next day. Dad got to meet her whole family at the party and gave Mom his address so they could write when he returned to the war.

Dad left to return to Vietnam the same day my mother left Australia. She wrote to him several times over the next few months, but didn’t hear back from him for a long time, as the mail was often slow and unreliable.

In spring of 1969, Mom got an opportunity to drive across Canada to Vancouver with some friends. She had to quit her job to do so, but she wanted to travel and see new parts of the world. When she got to Vancouver, she got a surprise visit – from Eric, her first pen pal. They had never met in person before, though Mom had met his family when they came to meet their son’s pen pal when her ship docked in Los Angeles the summer before. Eric asked her if she wanted to drive with him to LA from Vancouver, and Mom agreed, always up for an adventure.

But before they left, her roommates in Toronto had forwarded her mail to Vancouver – including a letter from my dad. He was back in America, stationed in San Antonio, and wanted to know if she would be interested in meeting again. Mom was already headed to LA. She figured she could stop in San Antonio on her way back to Toronto.

And thus began their courtship. Through letters, phone calls and the occasional visit, they built a relationship. One night, in late October of 1969, Dad called her again and asked if she could come see him – but this time he wanted her to stay. My father proposed to my mother over the phone. She had to call him back to ask if he was serious. He was, and she accepted.

She flew to San Antonio in November, but because she wasn’t an American citizen, the Army wouldn’t let them get married. But he had only five weeks left until he was due to be discharged, so they waited. On Dec. 13, 1969, they were married here in Crossville in his brother’s living room.

My mother once counted the number of days they were actually together before they got married. They saw each other for only 30 days. Nearly their entire courtship was done via letters and phone calls.

My brother likes to tell people that our parents met when our mother was being held captive by Charlie in the jungles of Vietnam and our dad bravely fought his way through the enemy camp and rescued her, fell in love at first sight, and lived happily ever after. And while that scenario sounds like something out of a 1980s Chuck Norris movie, their meeting was no less amazing in and of itself. If America hadn’t gone to war with Vietnam, if Dad’s first letter to Mom hadn’t arrived before she left Vancouver, if my mother’s friend’s father had never met those two English sailors in a bar – my parents would never have met, let alone recently celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

My dad is my hero and my mother is my best friend. I love them both, and cannot begin to express how grateful I am for everything they’ve ever done for me and my brother.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad. May you have 40 more wonderful years together.

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