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Jewish World Review May 20, 2002 / 9 Sivan, 5762

Bob Greene

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'We never actually
met -- put it that way' | They weren't soldiers.

That's what we tend to forget. The men who fought and died in World War II -- most of them -- did not think of themselves as soldiers, or sailors, or combat aviators. At least they didn't think of themselves that way before the war started -- before they were asked to leave their lives in the United States behind, and save the world.

They weren't soldiers -- they were dentists, and mail carriers, and housepainters, and automobile mechanics, and roofers, and students, and electricians-in-training. . . .

They were men trying to get on with their lives, as the 1940s began -- they were our fathers and grandfathers -- and they didn't think of themselves as soldiers, because they weren't.

And then they became soldiers. Then they became something they had never aspired to be. And they did save the world. They saved it for us.

The reason I'm thinking about that today is that I have just spoken with a man named Damon Rarey, who is 58 years old and who lives in California. He never knew his dad.

"We never actually met, put it that way," Rarey said.

His father wasn't a soldier -- not until 1942. His name was George Rarey -- although he didn't like his first name, almost everyone called him just "Rarey" -- and he was an artist. A very good one, which we will get to in a moment. He was a commercial artist and cartoonist, living with his young wife, Betty Lou, in Greenwich Village in New York City. Just about the furthest thing in the world from being a fighting man.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and the letter summoning him to military service.

"My father couldn't even drive a car," Damon Rarey told me. "He didn't have to, in New York. But he became a combat pilot in the Army Air Corps."

That's how it worked back then. One day a young artist could be riding the subways in New York, not even having a driver's license -- soon enough he would be flying fighter planes over occupied Europe.

In his off hours, Capt. Rarey drew -- he drew pictures of the war: his fellow pilots, the planes, the ships, the barracks, the scenes around them. He mailed them home to his wife, along with letters. He drew beautifully and he wrote beautifully. He longed to win the war and come back. He wrote one letter to his wife, about "your warmth and sweetness . . . I've known these things and knowing them and having them once, I have them forever. That wonderful look in your eyes when we'd meet after being apart for a few hours -- or a few weeks -- always the same -- full of love. Ah, Betty Lou, you're the perfect girl for me."

When Capt. Rarey went to Europe in November of 1943, his wife was pregnant. Their son -- Damon -- was born in March of 1944.

"He never saw me," Damon said. "He knew about me, but he never saw me."

George Rarey drew a picture to commemorate the day, in England, he found out he had a son. The picture shows a combat pilot sitting on a wooden chair, daydreaming; in the cartoon balloon above his head is a drawing of a woman in a maternity ward with her baby son in her arms.

In the letter that he sent home with the drawing, Capt. Rarey wrote:

"Betty Lou, this happiness is nigh unbearable. Got back from a mission at 4:00 this afternoon and came to the hut for a quick shave before chow. What did I see the Deacon waving at me as I walked up the road to the shack? A small yellow envelope! . . . I quit breathing completely until the wonderful news was unfolded. A son! Darling, Betty Lou!"

On his 67th mission, over France in support of the battles following the D-Day invasion, he died in combat. The date was June 27, 1944. He was 27 years old.

On the day before he died, he wrote to his wife: "I don't care for this war -- I want you and Damon and the life of our own choosing. I want to worry about the bills -- ho! ho! -- and make kites and stuff for [Damon] and his friends. . . . I've got all these things to do and time's a-wastin' -- I ain't getting any younger, neither! So let's get this war over -- okay?"

They weren't soldiers. Not until they had to be. They were just our fathers, before we were born.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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