I’d flown home from a business trip and was tired and a bit cranky when I got to the top of the escalator. At the bottom was a group of people waving small American flags and holding high a big hand-written sign. “Welcome home Eddie.” I stepped aside for I was curious. And then I saw him, a young man, still a boy really, dressed in the browns and khaki of camouflage, a bulky duffle bag slung over his shoulder. He was tall and blonde and I began to cry.
I thought about Johnny Dahl. One day in 1945, I was walking along Bridge Street when I heard the bells at Notre Dame Church begin their slow tolling. Some one has died, I thought, and saw Judge Rhinehart walking toward me. He was wiping his eyes and blowing his nose.
I stopped, but before I could say anything he spoke. “Johnny Dahl. On Iwo Jima.”
Not Johnny Dahl! A great big kind, thoughtful boy. He was special to me. Johnny was four years older than I, a football star and a crack debater. He was a senior while I was still a lowly freshman. But I knew all about him. I was a debater too, first affirmative speaker on the B team. Johnny was first affirmative on the A team. I thought we had a lot in common.
I have received lovely gifts in my lifetime, and been much loved, but Johnny Dahl gave me a gift that lives in my heart forever.
One of my best friends was Marion, called “Blondie” by all the boys. She was beautiful and the most popular girl in school. Even Senior boys asked her for dates. We all longed to be like Marion. I especially did, for Marion had a graceful way about her that allowed the boys to bloom in her presence. I wished for that sophisticated glow, but I was skinny and still wearing my hair in long braids.
One afternoon, after debate practice, Johnny Dahl asked if I’d like to go to the Chippewa Drug for a coke. I almost stopped breathing. Johnny Dahl! In Chippewa Drug! The whole town would see us together. Speechless, I nodded my “yes.”
I don’t know what we talked about on that mile long walk. His six-feet, two-inch raw-boned frame towered over me, and I felt him pull back on his stride as I raced to keep up. He was wearing his football sweater, the letters “CF” white against the red wool. I wore my blouse with a Peter Pan collar, wool skirt, cardigan, string of pearls, and scuffed saddle shoes (the latest in teen fashion). I was in heaven.
My friends were already in the drug store with their one shared coke, reading the current magazines. They were impressed. Everyone made room so we had a booth to ourselves in the back. I had a cherry coke. He had a lime coke. We sipped in silence. Then he put his hand over mine. “Ruth,” he said, and he looked hard at me. His even features were tanned, his crew cut bleached pale from the sun. I thought he was the most handsome boy I’d ever seen. “Yes,” I said breathlessly.
“I know you wish you were popular like Marion right now. But don’t worry, and don’t rush it. You’re going to be a beautiful, lovely woman. Let it happen gradually. Keep debating, and acting, and having fun. Your day is coming.”
It was one of those moments when time stands still, where the noises and scenes in the background fade away. All I could see was the depth of Johnny’s eyes, as if I’d looked at his soul.
And Johnny Dahl was killed when he was 19 on Iwo Jima. I’ll never forget him. He’s with the angels now, feeling perfectly at home.