More than six decades ago, a 16-year-old girl named Helen and an 18-year-old soldier named Paul carved their initials in the trunk of a tree and pledged their love. He proposed marriage and...
More than six decades ago, a 16-year-old girl named Helen and an 18-year-old soldier named Paul carved their initials in the trunk of a tree and pledged their love.
He proposed marriage and gave her a ring. She said yes.
Then he was sent away to war, writing her letters that spoke of his love for her and his anxiety about the war. On a mission over Germany, his plane was shot down. Captured by Nazis, he spent more than two years as a prisoner and was moved from camp to camp, tortured and forced to witness atrocities that haunt him still.
At home in Arlington, on the other side of the world, she wondered why his letters had stopped coming, and whether he loved her still. Finally, believing him dead, she placed her engagement ring in a safe-deposit box and mailed his leather flight jacket to his mother.
A few years after Paul left for war, she married a man named Bob Lund, and they were married for 47 happy years before Lund died in 1992. Yet Helen Lund never forgot her first love. About three years ago, Paul McKee re-entered her life, contacting her through a brother and renewing their friendship through letters.
“I wish I could be there and hold you,” he wrote when she was ill.
On Wednesday, Helen Lund, now 78, will see Paul McKee, now 80, for the first time since 1942, in part thanks to a local radio-station contest which is paying his airfare from Utah, where he’s been living alone since becoming a widower in 1992.
In preparation for his visit, she has bought a toe ring and lounging pajamas and treated herself to a pedicure and a perm. He has assured her that he’s still got a full head of hair, though it’s white now, and that he loves her still.
They met in the early 1940s at a dance near what is now Naval Station Everett, where he worked building radar stations.
He had the nicest eyes. She was tiny with dark hair, “one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen.” And they easily became a twosome, roller-skating in Arlington, dancing at the Eagles hall and sometimes just sitting for hours and talking.
They wanted to marry right away, but her father, who owned the local tire store, wanted them to wait. “I guess maybe he thought I wasn’t going to make it back,” McKee said.
Nevertheless, he gave them his blessing and promised McKee a job in the tire store when he returned from the service. Then he was accepted into gunnery school Lund can still remember the last time she saw him, walking away from her home in Arlington.
“There were tears,” she said. “I knew he was going away, and at war time you have no choices. … You always want more time, but you don’t get what you want.”
McKee was sent to Florida for training and eventually to England.
His letters told her how he missed her and reassured her that they’d be together soon. But they also spoke of his fears. The last letter was the worst.
“It was a sorrowful letter. … They didn’t know where they were going,” Lund said. “I just tried to cheer him up.”
McKee was assigned to a B-17, stationed out of England with the 487th Bombardment Group, Squadron 839. A gunner who fired from a bubble along the plane’s belly, he was an easy target and vulnerable in air crashes.
The plane was flying in the standard V-pattern when it was shot down over Nuremberg, Germany, in 1943. McKee parachuted to the ground but was captured.
When he was freed in 1945 at the end of the war, he could no longer identify with the hopeful boy he once had been. Gone were the dreams of a job, a house in Arlington and a pretty young wife. Helen Lund, heartsick at not hearing from him, assumed that he had been killed. So many had in those days.
After the war, McKee was returned to the United States and was hospitalized for injuries he will not name. When he was well, he re-enlisted in the Air Corps and served in the South Pacific.
When he returned to the mainland U.S. many years later, he got a job as a police officer in Southern California and later worked as a long-haul truck driver. He married and divorced four times and was married to his fifth wife when she died.
The war, he believes, might have had something to do with his unhappy marriages.
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Counting children and stepchildren, he has 17.
Back in Washington
He and his golden Labrador retriever, “Hey Buddy” were living simply off Social Security near a son in LaSalle, Utah, going hunting and fishing and watching a little TV when, three years ago, he unexpectedly ended up in Washington for the first time since the war.
He had agreed to deliver a motor home to a friend in Kent and while there contacted Helen’s brother. He learned she had married, but that “if it’s any consolation to you, her husband has passed away.”
McKee wrote Lund a letter.
She was shocked at first, then angry that he hadn’t contacted her all those years, then thrilled that he finally did. Her daughters, Robin Rigdon and René VanderVoet, say she has been almost giddy over his letters, that they’ve given her new resolve after a series of heart attacks last year.
When Rigdon recently heard the Christian radio station, KCMS-FM (Spirit 105.3), advertising its “Home for the Holidays” contest asking listeners who they’d like to be reunited with, she sent in a letter on her mother’s behalf. The station declared McKee and Lund the winners. Their prize: money for his airfare to Seattle.
Not only is Lund excited as the countdown continues to Wednesday, so is her 11-year-old granddaughter, Blaine Rigdon, with whom Lund has shared her letters. The writings spark memories of friendship and love, and an aching realization of what was lost.
“It hurts when they leave you when you think so much of someone,” Lund said. She still has a small photo of McKee in his uniform and the old engagement ring. They dream of new times together however they may unfold and always, more letters.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org