Nineteen Forty-six

One of a series of meditations on the arc of our lives.

Ellen Wrinkle and Donald Kearns: Ellen’s Senior Prom at American International College, Springfield, Massachusetts. 1946

She and he wrote letters

across miles of New England that—
viewed from here
are always gray
and white and black
looming trees by every house
narrow streets with
sputtering Fords—
the trees were green
in forty-six
the railroad between
Springfield and New Bedford
was soot-silver and
blue cloth seats
red signal lights
sun-lit hours
that stretched across
the Taunton Woods
past Providence and Boston
and roared toward infinite
days and months and
years and years ahead

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Donald and Ellen Kearns – 1958

A photograph of a family, 1958. In the front, four young children. A boy cuddles a large puppy, unconcerned with the camera. Two girls giggle and tease each other. And that’s me, sitting dead center, eyes straight ahead.
In the back, the proud grandparents. The grandfather, tall, dapper slacks and collared shirt. The grandmother, a full smile, still a breath of youth across her face. And in the middle, their son, Donald Allen Kearns, plain white t-shirt, black glasses, a hint of a smile, a hint of satisfaction. And who is behind the camera? That would be Ellen, the mother of these four children, proud to capture this moment, her husband’s parents come to visit her family and their new home.
They are gathered stage front, like actors after a play, their rolls and lines finished for now, their relaxed personas released. And as much as we children have studied this photograph in later years, as much as I, the one sitting in middle front, have tried to stare through the surface of the picture, this play was not about us.
It is World War II. A young man, snatched from his study of mathematics, spends years wandering through South-East Asia, much of it on foot in the jungles of Burma. “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell leads a huge Allied Chinese Army, and Donald is part of a small squad of American radio men attached to this foreign force. He crosses rivers sitting in a dugout canoe poled by near-naked Burmese mountain men, 40 lbs of radio gear in his lap. He wakes in the night to the footsteps of Merrill’s marauders slipping out of camp with a squad of Kachin Scouts, armed only with long knives, headed for the enemy lines. He is crossing the Mekong River, bound for Hanoi, when he learns that the war is over. And after a long sea voyage on a ship crammed with 3000 other young servicemen, he returns to a country changed forever.
The heroine has not yet dashed on stage to take her bow. She spends the war years at American International College in Springfield Massachusetts. She studies chemistry, earns her degree, and begins to teach.[1] She is in the Science Club, the German Club. What does she think? What does she want out of life? Perhaps in a moment she will come on stage.
Young men come home from war to a country that has been without them for 4 years. Donald returns to the small fishing town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. His friend Walter knows a girl up in Springfield, Ellen Wrinkle. He tells Donald, “Let’s take the train up there and go on a double date!” Well, Walter and Ellen don’t hit it off like they thought they would. Walter likes Donald’s date. And Donald and Ellen? They get along just fine. I’s 117 miles by road or train from Fairhaven to Springfield, which doesn’t seem very far when two people are in love.
The courtship. Donald and Ellen wear out the train routes and roads between Springfield and Fairhaven. And letters. Maybe a hundred letters. Ellen saves each letter, folding each one and carefully stashing it in a box in her closet. Donald, being a guy, is not so careful.
Offstage, a Greek chorus reads the one-way conversation preserved by Ellen. “Darling, May I call you that? Your pictures came today: golly, I love you!”
An inch-high pile of letters in much the same vein.
And then several multipage letters. “I’ve been trying to think about this faith you have asked me to pray for, Darling.”
Here is revealed a troubling problem. Ellen is a Roman Catholic, forbidden to marry outside the Faith. Donald? Well Donald didn’t really have a defined faith. As a boy he attended the Unitarian Church. He spent 2 years traveling through the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. He traveled with a foreign Army torn by infighting between the Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese and the Communist Party of China led by Mao-Zedong. His mind is awash with peoples and cultures.
Ellen prays to Saint Francis Xavier. Donald reads St. Augustine and wrestles with logic and science and faith. And in the end, love wins out, miracles happen. They marry in 1947.
Donald and Ellen share an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, with another couple. They share a kitchen, and hang sheets on a string down the middle of the living room to give each other privacy. Donald works on finish his masters at Brown. Ellen is pregnant. Donald learns he has been accepted into Phi Betta Kappa, a prestigious scholarly society, but Ellen can barely function as her child grows to term. On a freezing day, when the roads are barely passable with ice, it is time to take her to the hospital. They name their first born son Francis Xavier Kearns.
Donald gets his first solid teaching position at a start-up Catholic college called Merrimack. Classes are held in an old gym.  Two boys at home, four years in the rented ground floor of a house perched in a busy intersection in Middleton, Massachusetts. Ellen makes a good friend who teaches her some lessons from the depression. The ropes of running a family on a budget. Where to find the bargains. The secrets of powdered milk and day-old bread.
A move to Orono, Maine, another teaching position for Donald at the University and a place to finish his PhD. Ellen’s first small house. Paint. Yardwork. Two darling girls. A bit of a community.
Then a big opportunity. An important promotion. A return to Merrimack College, to a window office in a fresh brick building in a barren field, to chair the newly created Math department. They buy an old farmhouse in the rural outskirts of Andover, a place where a growing family can really thrive. For they have plans for more: “Cheaper by the Dozen” is Ellen’s text book, “The Sound of Music” her muse.  
And here they are in the photograph. Donald’s parents have driven up to visit. He stands proud and confident between them, his house in the background. Ellen arranges the children in front, and snaps a picture. Donald and Ellen are 35 years old, and I remember the feeling. Having become someone. Proud to show my parents our new home. Finally adults, with a whole lifetime still ahead.
©2015 Frank Kearns

Fixing the Spring on the DeSoto

In the arrogance of memory, I had come to think of my Dad as not being able to do things, to fix physical things. My father was an intellectual, a Mathematics professor, a reader of Thomas Aquinas. He was a photographer, and a pretty fair piano player. For recreation he played chess, and hardly watched TV except for the news or other special occasions.
My memory was shaped by the end game in the old house on Pleasant Street: the panel missing in the ceiling of the downstairs living room, the poorly constructed second floor joists exposed, and the drain pipes that ran flat and uneven below the second floor bathroom and dripped whenever a bathtub full of water was released. Toward the end my parents kept a large pan in the living room, and the pan, placed just in front of one of the worn couches, would catch the drip.
1958. Our family moved back to Massachusetts, to my father’s new job at Merrimack College, and the massive rambling farm house on Pleasant Street in West Andover. Farming in West Andover was ending. The last family to live in this house was the Dixon’s, who retired from farming, left the house in a state of disrepair, and built a new modern house around the corner. So maintenance was an uphill battle from the start. My parents were 35.
The first work on the Pleasant Street house was repair of the L-shaped two story shed attached to the back of the main house. With the help of friends, my father replaced the large beam at the base of the wall. Our family had little extra money, so a full restoration of the interior remained a dream, The ground floor remained a storage shed for successions of bicycles and other tools, and the two dusty rooms in the top floor were stages for numerous children’s projects and fantasies.
The main part of the Pleasant Street house sat on a fieldstone foundation, the top of which was a couple of feet above the ground level. The house was two stories, each ceiling somewhat higher than modern construction. Above that was a full attic, with a steeply pitched roof at the top. The roof leaked, so early on my father, with the help of friends, re-shingled the roof. The tall, skinny ladders seemed dwarfed against the side of the house. Standing close to the walls, craning my head back to see the sharp edge of the roof cutting across the sky, the ladders seemed to ascend forever. Working from those ladders, they fastened brackets on the roof, much like the metal shelf brackets that you would fasten to a wall to make book shelves. Long boards were hauled up the ladders and rested across the brackets. These boards kept the men from sliding off as they worked their way along the length of the roof and up toward the peak with row after row of new shingle.
Another summer. I was fourteen. The grass grew unkempt on the edge of the gravel driveway. The left rear spring of the black hand-me-down DeSoto had begun to sag dangerously. It was morning: the light slanted across the front yard and the dew sparkled on the grass. My father and I got out the bumper jack and jacked up the left rear really high. We blocked up the frame and rear axle with cinder blocks and an old beam from the barn. Our shirts were damp with sweat, and gravel and grass ground into our jeans as we wrestled the rusty nuts, shackles and U-bolts with breaker bars, hack saws, and a bit of cursing under our breath.
When the long, multi-layered leaf spring was finally free, we headed for Lawrence in the rusted out Plymouth. We waited through the afternoon at the spring shop, a dark barn of glowing ovens, dirt floors, light sifting through a haze of rust that floated up from wire buffers and grinding wheels. Men in grimy coveralls and damp gray skin disassembled our spring. Then they heated each leaf orange in a glowing oven, bent it back across a vice just so by eyeball and instinct, and quenched it in a tub of oil and water to harden in its new curve.
By the next afternoon we had the DeSoto back together again. The left rear sat a little higher than the right, but good enough for a couple more years. I learned to drive in this car, up and down the driveway, kicking up gravel from a spinning rear tire and stomping on the brakes to cause a small but satisfactory skid. And I learned from my father the feeling of physical work, the satisfaction of changing things. I feel like a fool for forgetting all this. The lesson my father couldn’t teach me, for there are some things that a person can’t learn from their parents, is that after a while we all get a little tired. I am having to learn that lesson on my own.
© Frank Kearns 2015