An Oral History of Love in Contemporary America: Selections from Us #5


Fred White, Age 86
Mission, Kansas

“She was quite a doll and I didn’t want anybody else.”

My wife, Helen, and I have been married sixty-five years. I met her in junior high school. And I think we figured it up. It’s seventy-one years that she and I have been together. Practically. We weren’t actually dating in junior high school until a little later, but I knew her and we were friends and so on.

We’ve lived in the Kansas City area all our lives. Back then it was like any other medium-sized city, everything was pretty smooth, there weren’t a lot of the troubles that there is today. It was just a good place to be. My father run a bakery there and we just had a great time. Her father worked for Procter & Gamble. I think he was a soap blender or something.

We lived about eight blocks difference. I could just walk on over anytime. We’d talk, you know, and play together in school. I met her brothers and we got very well acquainted. They liked to fish like I do, so everything was hunky-dory. I did a lot of hunting and fishing with them and we got so we were, you know, kind of like family already, as far as that goes in some respects.

So, you know, the feeling—it kind of grows on you.

Girls back then, well, it was all different. It’s very hard to even remember. Girls and boys. As far as dressing goes, there weren’t any of this show this and show that. (laughs) There weren’t any tattoos then, neither. None of that stuff. They just wore normal dresses and, you know, whatever the kids wore to school. The hairstyle was very conservative too. Nothing real fancy. Helen, she was really blonde and she dressed and looked like a blonde—very neat and very particular. Not one to show off. A regular good listener and just a nice person to be around.

It just seemed to be the normal thing, and we both understood it. She was quite a doll and I didn’t want anybody else. That’s the way it was. I’ve got good taste!

We were sweethearts for quite a while. I had a high school graduation and then I had a little bit of college that I didn’t get to complete because of the war. I went and volunteered in Leavenworth, Kansas. Helen, well, she took it like she always does. Whatever has to be, has to be. Then I was at air force training in Sherman, Texas. She came down there. We got married. I wanted to make sure that when I came home that she was still mine. (laughs) She was my sweetheart and I wasn’t fooling around.

We never did have any doubts about each other at all. Absolutely not. I knew I loved her and she knew she loved me and we still feel the same way. She’s my one and only. I’ve never had another. I remember, it was hard when I left. The last time I saw her, just before we took off overseas, we was surrounded by a lot of people. Everybody was doing the same thing, really. They had their wives there with them. I remember, I was trying to keep her as long as I could before I went.

I was a pilot stationed on Guam. I saw action in Japan mostly. It was about thirteen hours in the air, you know, back and forth. We’d bomb and then fly the six, seven hours back to Guam. Thousands of miles. Nothing but ocean and sky until you get to Japan.

I don’t know how many missions I flew. I just remember I would sit there for thirteen hours in that airplane, you know, and you think about a lot of things. We had to worry about the weather along with everything else. That long time over ocean water, there’s always some storms or typhoons. You had to be alert because there were no warnings what was ahead. It was a lot of worry. Just nerves. They did their darnedest to shoot us down!

But I’d think about her. She was in my thoughts every time. I’d be wondering how she was getting by, and how she was living with her folks, and just what the heck was good for her, really. It helped.

I worried about her a bit. That she might be meeting somebody else or something like that. The thought would cross my mind once in a while. But I trusted her and she trusted me and that’s the way it was.

I stayed in contact with her by writing letters. You’d write a letter, and hell, it’d be a month before you heard anything one way or the other. But if I got a letter from her, I’d read it two or three, four times, just to think about her. And I’d look at her picture every day. I had her picture right by my bunk. It was a good one—nothing fancy or nothing, you know, suggestive or anything like that, just from the waist up and such. I still got it. It stayed on my bed. I didn’t take it on the planes. You were not supposed to take anything personal, you know, if you get shot down or whatever.

There were some rough trips. This one particular one, they shot up both my wings and part of the rudder control. We had one left in-board engine out, and I knew we weren’t going to make it back to Guam. So I told my navigator to plot a course to the nearest island under our control. And it was one of those little islands that had runways on them but there was a cliff on each end of the runway. And it was five hundred or something feet to the water off the both ends. We got on the final approach and everything was going pretty good and I had the wheels down, and my right in-board engine quit. I just got the nose over the cliff and the landing gear hit. We made a big kind of a fishhook turn and we went on fire. I lost my belly gunner and waist gunner.
I didn’t even know my head was bleeding. All I’m thinking about is how do we get out of this thing? Some of the guys got their outfit on fire. I was trying to beat them out and I got both my hands burned. There was twelve of us and we all got out except those two guys. The waist gunner, I saw his body, but the belly gunner he got ground up pretty bad, you know, because he couldn’t get out.

This was in 1944. I was twenty-one. I know I was more of a man than I was when I went over there. When I came back home and saw Helen for the first time, I thought she was the finest thing that God ever created. (laughs) I couldn’t wait to get my arms around her.

We lived in an apartment, then we found this little house, and my first job out of the service was with General Motors. I gave them forty-one years. I started out on the line as an assembler before they had the conveyors in and we built them on dollies and pushed them to the next station. Then they asked me if I’d be a foreman. And then I was general foreman, then shift superintendent, then superintendent, then director of quality control. I was that for twenty-one years and then, when they shut the old plant down, they wanted me to come over to the new plant, and I said, “No, I’m going to go home to my wife.” And I retired.

Helen never worked. She raised our boy, kept our home. And she was very supportive of me. She agreed with whatever I decided that it was my job to do and she did her job and we didn’t have any problems there. She has been a good, faithful, enduring person and I wouldn’t trade for nothing. I’d do this whole thing over again in a New York second. I think it has worked real good. I didn’t ever have to worry about any of the marriage problems. We understand each other, we know each other well, and it just works.

We argue. Sure. We get in our little discussions, arguments, what you will. Sometimes I get the better end of it. Sometimes she does. I quit counting a long time ago. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. You know how that is. There are times when, you know, we get mad and walk away or something, but hell, an hour later, it’s forgotten and by the wayside. You make it work.

A lot of couples don’t do that today. They miss out on the benefits. We’ve got one boy and he’s sixty-two now. Fred Jr. Now, Fred has been through a couple of relationships. So maybe he didn’t pick up enough from the old man! But, well, we don’t know a whole lot of people right now that has been long together. There are some, but not many. I think it’s personal to us. I’m just once and never again and that kind of thing. I still love her and she still loves me.

I don’t have a lot of advice. Give and take. You know? You have to share. We both think the same way and we try to live by the rules. Death do we part. Oh, yes. And one more: True love exists. If you make it. It’s a true thing if you make it true.


Excerpted from US: Americans Talk About Love edited by John Bowe, published in February by Faber & Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by John Bowe. All rights reserved. Click here to purchase.

Read “An Oral History of Love in Contemporary America: Selections from Us #1.”

Read “An Oral History of Love in Contemporary America: Selections from Us #2.”

Read “An Oral History of Love in Contemporary America: Selections from Us #3.”

Read “An Oral History of Love in Contemporary America: Selections from Us #4.”

John Bowe has contributed to the New Yorker, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, GQ, The American Prospect, PRI’s This American Life, and McSweeney’s. He was co-editor of Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, the co-screenwriter of the film Basquiat, and the author of the book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. More from this author →