He opens the worn black wallet, edges frayed, to retrieve the requested driver’s license.
“I’ll get you a new billfold for Christmas,” I offer.
“Don’t bother,” he replies. “I won’t use it. This one’s just gotten broken in good.”
Yesterday my father celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. Now we are at the tag office to transfer ownership of a corporate car, driven by a caregiver to take my mother to medical appointments, into his personal name. The title change is one of many transfers being made.
He rifles through credit, insurance and ID cards, then pauses at a photo. Glancing over his shoulder, I am startled by an image of a boyish-looking man sitting in a cockpit—my father, barely twenty-two.
“Have I ever shown you this picture?” he inquires of the clerk behind the counter, a white-haired woman who patiently watches him search. Before she can answer, he says, “I’ve carried it in my wallet since 1944. It was taken during the war, when I was a pilot. The navigator had a camera and snapped it while we were flying over the Bay of Bengal.”
He turns the photo over to read the note on the back, which carefully documents what he has just shared. “Yep, the Bay of Bengal. That’s in India,” he continues. “You know, before I joined the Army Air Corps, I’d never been out of Georgia. Furthest I’d traveled was to the state fair in Macon. That’s less than a hundred miles.”
As he continues his story, I recall there is a diary from India stored in a trunk in the attic. Once he threatened to destroy the journal, but my sister, Janis, and I begged him to change his mind. We’ve been forbidden to read it until after his death. He reminds me on trips back home not to forget where the key is that will unlock that trunk. I wonder where I put that key for safekeeping and worry the journal is disintegrating; yet I honor his instructions with a sacred reverence.
When he first told me about the diary, I asked if there were anything in it about his visit to the Taj Mahal.
“Probably not,” he had sighed. “That building was a sight to behold, sitting in the middle of all that poverty, but I only remember writing about how homesick I was and how much I loved and missed your mother.”
I had heard the story of their courtship many times, how he fell in love with Eloise Royal the day she came into ninth-grade study hall wearing a gored skirt and sporting a new perm. How she agreed to be his high school sweetheart and he followed her into Latin class, the class that caused him to miss out on being valedictorian. When they graduated, she announced she was never going to marry, so he sent her a letter saying he needed to move on. After he had a date with another woman, Eloise wrote back asking if they could “talk.” He waited a week before catching a ride from his home in Lax to her parents’ farmhouse. When he arrived, Mother told him she had changed her mind about marriage, and as he tells it, they were hitched quicker than he had planned.
A couple of years ago, he sent me a copy of that letter with a note inscribed at the top: “If it hadn’t been for this letter, you might never have been born!”
But war experiences are what he recounts these days, as he is doing now.
“A month after I got married, I went to Moody Field near Valdosta, Georgia, to enlist in the Army Air Corps. If I was going to die in the war, I wanted to fly rather than walk,” he said, shaking his head. “We lost a lot of men on my side of the world, but not as many as the European front.”
I watch tears flood through his body like spring rain filling, and then overflowing, a dry creek bed. Quickly, to regain his composure, he resumes searching for the license. After pulling out a few more items, he finds the card and slides it through an opening in the plate glass window.
“I’m sorry. I just get emotional when I think about all those soldiers who didn’t come home.”
“It’s okay to get choked up,” the clerk gently replies. “My daddy was in the war, too. After he died we found his purple heart and some other mementos scattered among his belongings. He never talked about his medal. It was hard on us, real hard!”
She turns to her keyboard and punches in the required numbers. The three of us wait in an uneasy silence for the printed papers he must sign to finalize the transaction. After a few minutes, the woman shakes her head in disgust.
“Would you believe it? The computer’s gone down for the day. I hate to do this to you, but I’m afraid you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”
Daddy steps away from the counter to put the pile of cards and cherished photo back in his wallet. As I turn to help, the clerk catches my eye and whispers, “I’ve been where you are. Let me know if I can do anything.”
I thank her for the kindness she has shown my father. I know he will go through this ritual again. Perhaps it will be here, tomorrow. Or perhaps the stories will be told in a grocery line, at a bank teller window, or in a hospital waiting room. The telling may be triggered by another photo, the one of his mother with a prayer for safety written on the back, or his army card with a two-dollar bill from Aunt Rubye stapled inside for good luck. For something in his brain tells him that title to these stories—of faraway places, men coming of age, and horror-filled losses—must be transferred as well.