War Orphan

Uncategorized June 21, 2013

 The other day, a middle-age man stopped by my easel.  “i’ve been here many times to look at your work” John White began. ” I wanted to talk to you but there were always people sitting here.” -motioning to the table and chairs.   It’s true,  Some days there seems to be a steady stream of people wanting to either say hello (now that we’ve seen each other many times) or to talk about WW II related things.

“My father was killed in the Pacific when I was fifteen months old,” John continued. “I never got to meet him.”

“You’re a war orphan,” I said, expecting a positive acknowledgement.  He looked at me blankly for a second.  “I heard a story a couple of weeks ago on NPR,” I said.”About children who lost a parent in the Second World War and grew up without that parent around.”

“That’s a good word for it,” John said.  “And it probably explains why my whole life I’ve been trying to connect with him.

His father had been wounded before but only three weeks after returning to his Army unit, he was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper.  His mother had followed her husband out to California before he shipped to the Pacific theatre.  She lived with her sister but shortly after learning of her husband’s death, she returned to Iowa and her family.

Both of John’s parents were in their late twenties when they married.  He was 31, an old guy by combat standards, when he died.  His mother never remarried though John remembers his uncle in California looking after them until they moved.  The farmhouse in Iowa was packed with relatives and life was a hard-scrabble existence.

“I suppose if my mother’d remarried,” he began.”I’d not have missed my own father as much.  But the fact that there was no steady male figure in my life who acted like a father figure has made it a bit of a struggle.” His mother spoke little of his father. There were few photos of him.  His father’s memory became a casualty of pain: ignored for decades until now there’s no one left who knew him directly.  The only thing his now deceased mother ever said about his father was that everyone liked him.

For many of us who’ve lost a parent of that generation, we mourn the loss of conversation and incomplete stories of the war.  But it made me realize how rich I was for even the few stories my own father shared with me and  yet how few scraps the war orphans have.

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For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

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