I don’t remember the day my Papa came home from the war. But my parents remember. And they have told the story so often, I believe I can remember. Almost. I can see it all that clearly.
The year was 1951. The month was August. I was not yet two years old. Grandpa held me in his arms as we waved to the Santa Fe train rushing past. The tracks ran no more than seventy-five feet behind our house: a house that used to be a barn sitting at the edge of an orange grove in Anaheim, California.
My grandparents lived across the driveway in a farmhouse on what was left of a ranch. My mother and I shared a room in what had once been a barn but was now our clean and cozy home. It was just my mother and me that year. My dad had been in Korea in the Marine Reserves since I was six months old. Now he’d been gone for a year.
With my dad away at war, Grandpa was the man in my life that year. Often during that year Grandpa and I would watch the trains. We’d smile and wave at the engineer, hoping he’d blow his whistle. We’d wave at the man who sits in the caboose, hoping he’d wave back. We’d wave at the men in uniform coming home from a war in Korea.
But today was different. Today my Papa would come home.
Last night, Papa had boarded a train in Oakland, California. He sat up in the old, silver chair car on the Santa Fe train and closed his eyes. His mind raced along the tracks which would carry him home, past familiar place names. San Joaquin Valley. Tehachapi. Mojave. Barstow. Cajon. San Bernardino. Corona. Santa Ana. San Diego.
Papa tried to let the clickety-clack lull him to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come. His mind was too full of memories from a year at war in a foreign country and thoughts of what he’d missed most.
He and my mother had only been married for three years when he left. He smiled as he remembered how they’d met. A blind date, arranged by his aunt, to which he had reluctantly agreed. They had become engaged within six weeks. Now they teased that since he’d been gone for a year, they’d have to wait until their 51st anniversary to celebrate their Golden Wedding.
He had carried pictures of Mama. In one, he and Mama are standing beside the railing at Glacier Point in Yosemite with Half Dome in the background. It had been taken the weekend he’d gotten his orders to go to Korea. He also carried a picture of a tiny round-faced baby—me.
Papa worried I wouldn’t know him when he returned. But as he tells me, when he got home I melted his heart when I looked up and said “Papa” just as clear as anything.
Papa and Mama had exchanged hundreds of letters and even a few phone calls, though long-distance calls had been very expensive. One five-minute phone call had cost $15.00.
Mama had written that she was busy painting the white china plates he had sent her while on leave in a little village in Japan. She had hoped to hand paint a service for twelve with a different flower at each place setting. She had also written news of my first words and my first steps.
Papa had written that Korea was a cold and wet place. First, there would be mud, and then there would be ice. One morning he had poured hot syrup on his pancakes, but by the time he sat down to eat, the syrup was frozen.
Papa said that sometimes the letters and phone calls would make him and Mama feel better. But sometimes they would feel even worse–even more alone and faraway.
Mama had special pictures taken of us for Christmas and sent them to Papa. But on Christmas day Papa said he missed us so badly that he went to a nearby orphanage in Osaka, Japan just to play with the children.
But now, the year was over and Papa had gotten his orders to come home. He was told to report to a ship in Itami, Japan to begin his journey.
Papa knew there would be little to do aboard the ship. Most of the men would read or play cards or just look out to sea. So as soon as he checked in, he reported to the Ship’s Baker. Not only would this duty keep him busy, but it would guarantee plenty to eat. Each time he took the trash up on deck to dump it over the fantail, he would also sneak cakes, cookies, or sweet rolls to all his friends. Bakery duty guaranteed plenty of friends as well.
After two weeks at sea, the ship docked at Treasure Island in San Francisco, right under the Bay Bridge. Papa learned he would be released from the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego. He called Mama to let her know where to meet him.
That night as Papa boarded the Santa Fe troop train in Oakland, Mama was giving me a bath and putting me to bed. She worried about what to wear to meet the train. She wanted to look pretty.
As I slept in my crib, hundreds of tired, anxious, happy Marines sat up all that long night and ate the sack lunches they had been given. “Sack lunches,” Papa joked, “’cause every day was a picnic in the Marines.”
From Oakland and Stockton, the Santa Fe train headed south and east to Fresno and Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley, the big central valley of California. Papa remembered the family trips and vacations that had taken him to these places.
It was dark as the train continued east to the Tehachapi Loop and the town of Mojave. The train changed lines at Barstow and headed southwest toward Victorville and the Cajon Pass. He looked out the window but only his reflection there.
Neither Papa on the train nor Mama at home got much sleep that night.
Finally, after a long, uncomfortable night the sun was coming up. The Santa Fe train reached San Bernardino, just east of Anaheim. Papa knew he was really close now. Everything was beginning to feel so familiar. The weight and smell of the air. The San Bernardino Mountains. The palm trees and orange groves of Riverside and Corona. The clear blue sky.
Papa even vaguely remembered the Santa Fe route. One branch would take him to Fullerton before heading to Santa Ana. The other would take him directly south, right past our ranch. He’d know for sure when the train reached the little town of Atwood.
Meanwhile, Mama was making my breakfast and getting me dressed. She brushed her brown hair and put on lipstick. She dabbed a bit of her favorite Chantilly perfume behind her ear. She checked the mirror one last time. I think she was a little nervous.
At mid-morning the Papa’s train was pulling through the Santa Ana Canyon while Mama was putting her overnight bag into the back seat of the car. She handed me over to Grandpa and pulled the car out of the gravel driveway for the two-hour drive to San Diego.
Reaching for Mama as she drove off, I fussed at being left behind. Perhaps that’s why Grandpa, with me in his arms, walked toward the railroad tracks. Maybe he thought he could distract me.
“Train should be along here any minute,” Grandpa assured me. “Maybe they’ll blow the whistle for us.”
At last, Papa’s train reached the tiny town of Atwood. The tracks branched off toward Santa Ana just as he’d hoped. Suddenly he knew that the train would pass right by the house that used to be a barn sitting at the edge of an orange grove. A lump rose in his throat.
“It will be good to see the old place again,” Papa thought. “Too bad the train can’t just stop right here. Then I wouldn’t have to ride all the way to San Diego.”
Papa’s heart beat faster. He edged closer to the window. He was almost home. Safe. Just a glimpse of the little ranch would let him know it was real.
Orange trees rushed past the train windows. More and more trees until finally, yes, there it was! The crossing at East North Street. The barn-red house in the little clearing. And as Papa’s train sped, past bound for San Diego…
…there we were, standing in the clearing, an old man holding a tiny, round-faced girl, smiling and waving at the engineer, hoping he’d blow the whistle, at the man in the caboose, hoping he’d wave back, and at the men in uniform coming home from a war in Korea, not knowing Papa was waving back.
This story was written years ago as a gift for my father. I publish it here to celebrate his homecoming and Veterans Day. For more of his Korean War memories, visit the Justin Museum here: http://www.justinmuseum.com/jkjustin/osmithkorea.html