It has taken the better part of my 70 years to finally come to terms with the events that have shifted my life’s course as it has been run. Please do not feel sorry for me. I have had a wonderful life thus far; I am surrounded by loving family that keep me hopping, and have a life filled with work, play and fun. I have so many friends across this country, many from years of writing their stories, and I have a great number of plans that I have not yet fulfilled. I believe my dad would have wanted it that way, from all I have learned.
Two young and attractive Georgians, Flo Ella Cole and Robert Henry Cannon, became sweethearts in the third grade of school. They remained young loves, and it seems that destiny intended them to wed when they graduated. They did marry soon after graduation, and I am told my dad got a job working to support his young wife. They had friends and went places. I have seen some of the photographs that attest to this. Their first years were blissful even if they did not have a lot of the world’s goods.
Like so many other young healthy men of that era, my dad went into the U.S. Army as World War II heated up across the globe. In later years, I learned that he was involved in battles for the Solomon Islands in the Pacific as part of Operation Cartwheel. The reason for the name of the operation is that the Americans and their allies had control, lost it to the Japanese and then set about to reclaim it. My dad wore my mom’s senior class ring into battle on the same chain that bore his dog tag.
As was the custom of the day and because my mom had no job skills to provide her with employment, she moved back into the old home place of my maternal grandparents, Marshal and Lena Cole. Both grandparents worked in the huge cotton mill that was the center of the local economy. Granddaddy Cole worked the early morning shift and Mama Cole worked the afternoon shift. They had many friends and neighbors and were considered steady, hard workers.
I was born in that same farmhouse on Mama Cole’s kitchen table on my parents’ third wedding anniversary to a lonely, frightened girl whose husband was defending his country with pride and honor. He was at that moment on a ship in the middle of the Pacific. In just a few months, he and his fellow servicemen would storm the beach on New Georgia Island, one in the Solomon chain in the Pacific Ocean. He would never return to his wife and new daughter in the tiny mill village.
I am told that when a yellow taxicab pulled up in front of our little country home late in the night on July 9, 1943, my Mama Cole, who read very little, met the deliveryman at the door and took the telegram he held in his hand. She never opened it but simply tucked it in her apron pocket, telling the young man, “Thank you; go on about your business. I’ll take care of this now.”
She went into my mother’s room and gently woke her daughter: “Get up, Flo Ella. Bob is dead. We have a child to raise.”
The telegram was not opened. It remained securely in Mama Cole’s apron pocket. That precise moment in time was when my young mother’s life simply stopped turning. She had never imagined herself to be anything other than Bob Cannon’s wife. She had no training to provide income. There was no one else in her life she felt she could ever love.
She was married, a mother and a widow before she was 21 years of age.
The tragedy continued because Mother never received anything back from the U.S. Army from my father’s life. These were days of combat, with many soldiers dying on foreign fields, and communication was not then what it is today, and she never went to a funeral or closed a coffin, and she didn’t even know if he had learned he had a baby daughter that looked just like him. I am told that Mother retreated into herself and rarely ever went out in public. Her life appeared to have simply stopped and although she ate and slept, people say she stopped living. Many months would pass before the family knew what was really wrong.It was not uncommon for news stories to be written about a soldier being rescued from an island hideaway, or coming down from a hill or mountain, not knowing the war was over. Mother had carefully cut out each clipping and had a box filled with them hidden in the floor of her closet. She believed with all her heart that her Bob would still be coming home somehow and that he was alive.
One afternoon as the beautiful young widow sat on the comfortable front porch shelling peas for her mother, a second taxicab appeared at the end of the walkway. A soldier with one leg missing and pants leg pinned up got out of the vehicle awkwardly and made his way up the walk to the porch steps. He stopped, took off his hat, and introduced himself as Bob’s friend from basic training. He had a story to tell, but my mother didn’t hear that story. When he uttered the first few words, she fainted and it took both the soldier and my grandmother to get her into the house.
The kind young man shared his story with other family members and held me on his knee. He and my daddy had been through a very brief basic training and had been shipped out together. As they stormed the beach that fateful day, a series of shots hit him first and took his leg. “Bob jumped out of the trench, came forward, grabbed me and pulled me back, throwing me to safety. Just as he turned to jump back in, another round got him and he was literally blown to pieces. Nothing survived.” This young man said he felt it his duty to come and share with the family that my dad was truly a hero and that he owed his life to him. He also said a memorial burial at sea was held on a ship and that a white cross in a military cemetery honored his memory and that of the others lost in that campaign. He died on July 2, 1943, when I was just six months old.
As the young man left, my wise grandmother asked if she might ask one more question. He said, “Of course, Ma’am, anything at all.”
“Did Bob know he had a daughter?”
The young man assured them that indeed Bob had known. He had gotten one post card and he told everyone about his black eyed, dark haired baby girl. Mama Cole thanked him and walked him back to his waiting cab.
Some six months passed and a high-ranking officer came to the house. He brought paperwork that Mother needed to sign and assured her that the U.S. Army was proud of her husband and my father. In fact, they were to arrange a ceremony in the little mill village on the green where I would be given my father’s medals and a beautiful purple heart. I had photographs of myself wearing a red woolen coat, tam, and leggings with an officer who pinned the heavy heart on my coat.
The reason I use “had” is that when Hurricane Ike hit our Bolivar Peninsula, I was in Atlanta, Ga., burying my 87-year-old mother. We did not evacuate since we had been at the hospital with her for the 13 days she lived after she suffered a stroke in totalis. Every photograph, my dad’s medals, the Purple Heart, and the flag the government gave our family was swept away by the furious wind and water. The one lone postcard my grandmother had with his handwriting on it is also gone along, with the various things he mailed to his mom.
Mother and I often did not see eye to eye, and there were times when the look in her eyes when she saw me were disconcerting to a child and years later to an adult. Shortly before my dad’s mother passed away, she called me and asked me to come to her home. I did and my grandmother talked openly to me about my dad for the first time in my adult life. She opened an old cedar chest and gave me her treasures of his life. “I know you often wonder why your mother has such a hard time with you,” she said evenly. “You have no way of knowing that you are so much like our Bob that it makes my heart lurch to see you to this day.” She shared with me that we spoke alike, made up little jingles, wrote constantly, talked a mile a minute, and even looked so much alike that it often made her leave my side and go and cry by herself. “It is amazing that you are so much like him with never having seen him in your life.”
It took me a long while to realize that my nearness to him must have been terrible for my mother. She did marry again and had three other children, but any family member will tell you she never loved any man like she loved Bob, her childhood sweetheart and my father.
Several years ago, a country song became popular. I remember the one line that stood out in my mind when I heard it the first time: “War is hell on the home front, too.” And later, when I was writing, I read a quote that said, “War is never over for some.” I’ve found that to be true. I would have loved the opportunity to have known my father. As a teen, I imagined what my life might have been like had he lived. I wanted him to attend my graduation, to walk me down the aisle when I married, and I grieved when he could not be present when I had my own three children. He’s never read a column I’ve written and he did not hold my first book. But what hit me like a hammer blow to the heart was when I realized he would not see and love my grandchildren. Oh, how he would have loved them, too.
So, today, I say Happy Father’s Day to the man I never knew except through other’s memories, a few photographs that I have now lost, and the hope of meeting him when I reach Heaven’s shores. I am assured he was a Christian and so I treasure the fact that I will see him again one day. Please, if your dad is alive, no matter the circumstances, take time this weekend to call, write or visit if possible so that you never have to live with any regret. If it doesn’t work out, you will know you have given it your best shot.