Hearts break, hearts mend
It was 1944. America was just a few years out of the Great Depression and a few years into the great conflict — World War II. Frank Sinatra was on his way to becoming the Elvis of the ‘40s, and entertainers like Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, The Mills Brothers, The Andrews Sisters,and Jimmy Dorsey were doing their best to keep the music upbeat in this difficult time. Swing dancing was in … well, full swing.
The war was a world away for teenage girls like Frances. She tried to keep her mind on the seriousness of it all, but she was only 16 and so impressed with how dashing the boys looked in their uniforms. She started clipping their photos from the Salisbury Evening Post and pasting them in a scrapbook that grew thicker every week.
For 17-year-old Johnny, the war was very real. He knew he had painted himself an uncertain future when he joined the Navy in 1943, but right now it was Christmas 1944, and he was home on leave. The future might be beyond his control, but Johnny was determined to make the most of the present.
Of all of the young men in her scrapbook, Frances was intrigued by Johnny with the twinkling eyes. Knowing he was home on leave, and never one to hesitate when she decided on a course of action, Frances got word to the young seaman that she would like to see him.
Johnny was delighted and borrowed his brother-in-law’s car for the trip. However, rationing had gone into effect in 1942, and he had no mileage ration book. Not to be deterred, he purchased five gallons on the black market at the exorbitant price of $1 a gallon — four times what it actually cost — and drove to see Frances. Captivated, he spent every minute he could with her.
When his leave ended, she promised to write. She was true to her word, and letters from a pretty girl back home made the days go faster. When she told him she wanted a souvenir, he sent her the smallest Pea coat he could find — Frances was a tiny thing — and a sailor cap.
The war ended in 1945, and Johnny came home in 1946, looking forward to making Frances his full-time girl. He bought a 1936 Ford from a farmer who had been using it as a chicken coop. He shoveled more manure than he wanted to talk about, but eventually got it spiffy enough to take Frances out in.
Things were getting serious between the two young people. One day Johnny pulled off on the side of the road for a little bit of talking and a little bit of sparking. When he suggested they move to the back seat, Frances was outraged. She insisted he take her home.
Shocked by her reaction, he did as she asked. When she got out of his car she told him to never come back. She went into her house and closed the door without so much as a backwards glance.
And so the promise of young love ended — not with a bang, but with the soft closing of a door. What could have been dissipated like fog in the sunlight of an early morning. They didn’t speak again. Frances married someone else and raised a daughter. Johnny married a few years later and had three sons.
Hearts break. Hearts mend. Heartaches aren’t necessarily reserved for the young. Nor is falling in love.
One of my favorite examples of this is a couple in their 80s I met while traveling with The Delmonicos. Their devotion to one another is noticeable on and off the dance floor.
Although I’d only known them a couple of years, I assumed they had been married forever. Not so. They’ve only been dating a few years, don’t even live near one another. Every weekend he drives 12t miles just to see her. He told me they had known each other as youngsters but lost touch.
One thing puzzled me. They always requested “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” a sad song about unrequited love — an odd choice for a couple so obviously in love.
A couple of months ago, they sat down at the band table.
“Let me tell you why we always request ‘Don‘t Close Your Eyes,’ ” he said. For 20 minutes I sat entranced as he talked.
It was 1946. The promise of love ended — not with a bang, but with the soft closing of a door. Sixty-five years later, after she had donated the scrapbook to the museum, the chicken coop car was long gone, and their hair had faded to silver, Johnny called Frances. By this time they had both been widowed for many years, and she invited him to dinner.
“How did you feel seeing her after all those years?” I asked Johnny, as his story came to an end. “Like every molecule in my body had been energized,“ he replied, eyes twinkling.
I sat down with them last week to make sure I had the details right. I made notes and stood up to leave. Frances touched my hand.
“Jean,“ she said smiling mischievously, “Be sure you let them know I still haven’t gotten in the back seat.“
Jean Palmer is columnist for The Link newspaper in Cheraw, S.C., and travels with her husband’s group, The Delmonicos Band.