This past weekend we visited with my mom, the “coach’s wife.” She has a room in assisted living at Sherwood Oaks Retirement Village just outside Pittsburgh. It’s almost basketball season and she’s gearing up for it. Coach Calipari, now at Kentucky, has been in touch with her, sent her a promise to take her to The Final Four if the Wildcats make it, sent her the Kentucky press guide, and a sweet note. Whenever he’s around Pittsburgh, he always stops to see her, goes to lunch with her in the patients’ dining room. You can imagine the gawks the two of them gather in from the others living there and from the staff.
While we were visiting, she got out a scrapbook she had kept about my dad when he was in college, playing basketball at little Westminster College. Page after page had articles with his name in the headline. He was one of the greatest players in the country, the era being from 1938-1942. Greatest meaning he averaged around ten points a game and was a fantastic ball handler. Little Westminster with an enrollment under 800 was in the top ten. And at that time, all the schools were ranked together. Throughout the 1942 season, the Titans were at or near the top of the rankings and ended up being one of the eight teams selected to play for the national championship in NYC at Madison Square Garden where they lost to the eventual champion Long Island University. Back then the NCAA tourney was what the NIT is today. We turned page after page and I kept shaking my head thinking both of what it was like back then and thinking about how enormous the changes have been in the game. Here was my father on one of the best teams in the country and working his way through school serving tables and doing clean-up duty after dorm meals.
After wandering through that scrapbook, my mom pulled out an old shoe box full of letters, letters I had never seen before. And she began reading them. They were love letters from my father to her, love letters that began with shy phrasings hoping she would come up to Westminster and “maybe go to a dance with me” and evolved into extravagant descriptions of how he was so lonely without her, how he ached to hold her, how he was the luckiest guy in the world that she cared about him, all strung together with intermittent cascades of X’s. She read them, one after another in chronological order, sometimes adding, “Can you imagine?!” About half way through, came a letter talking about how he couldn’t believe she had said yes to his asking her to marry him. By now he had graduated and was in the Army awaiting whatever came next. It was startling to hear him say “Hitler . . .” and “Himmler . . .”, to hear him worrying and unable to sleep. And then the letters that came after they married, how he was trying to endure separation from her and “all because of this war.” At several points, she looked up and said, “It was awful. Can you even imagine how awful it was. I just went to work and went home. It was awful.” Part way through one letter, he wrote that he had been taken by surprise to be named the captain of a black company. It was clear that he was very apprehensive, was afraid he would not be able to fulfill this assignment successfully. Like most, he had grown up in a segregated world not only by law but also by “the way it was.” As it turned out, his men loved him, especially because he fought for them to have equipment the equal of the white units. The next few letters were about her pregnancy and how he couldn’t be there with her and for her and would even not be permitted to be there when the baby, me, arrived. He wrote over and over how terrible her felt, how he could not get the awful feeling out of his stomach. And once again, she looked up and said, “It was awful.” He did get to see me a few weeks after I was born, but then he and his men were sent to France to “clean up after” and then after VE Day, he and his company were sent to the Philippines. By then he was convinced “This war will never end.”
“I can’t believe I saved all these,” she said as she put the box back into the drawer beside her bed.