Memorial Day Memories

Memorial Day MemoriesOut on an icy pond. Provided photo.

By Bernie Van Nostrand —

Every year we sit in aluminum folding chairs at the corner of Ferry Boulevard and Main watching the Memorial Day parade, and waving American Flags my father bought for 29 cents. Here comes the High School marching band, my brother is keeping in step playing his trumpet. We’re listening to the songs of Americana we love from golden instruments that gleam in the sun. The soldier sitting next to me is fighting back tears on this day of remembering. He’s my father, and this is his Memorial Day story. 

On Easter Sunday of 1944, my mother and her two lovely sisters dressed up in beautiful clothes and had their pictures taken so they can send them to their brothers and husbands; but if you look closely at the photographs, you might be able to notice that there are not enough beautiful clothes in the world that can hide the look of sadness on their faces. 

My grandfather Pop Pop lives on Birdseye Street, less than a mile away from our farm at the end of Woodend Road. Every morning he leaves at seven a.m. for his job with the Singer Sewing Machine Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. His daughters, those three lovely sisters, are in the car. He’ll be taking them to a nearby factory, Remington Arms, where they pack ammunition and make the guns for the men who fight in the war. 

Memorial Day Memories

Pictured, is Bernie Van Nostrand’s father. Provided photo.

In 1955, my father and mother bought a dark blue mahogany bedroom set and painted their walls light blue. It was very pretty; they gave the old oak set to me and painted my room pink. There was a hope chest with a big drawer on the bottom filled with a hidden treasure, hundreds of letters from overseas that were written to my mother. As a child I was intrigued by the red, white, and blue airmail envelopes. 

My mother said I could read the letters inside if I wanted to. In the next 30 years I read them a hundred times over, written so eloquently with such exquisite penmanship by my father, a soldier who made the most of an eighth-grade education he was so proud of. 

It was all that you needed in 1930, those solid lessons of reading, writing, arithmetic and the fascination that comes from knowing the world’s history. At a time when Sikorsky Aircraft was developing their twin-engine S-43 15-passenger airplane, taking its first flight in June of 1935, my father already had a patent for his own design of Aerodynamics; a one passenger plane that rolls over the sidewalks of Stratford. It can be modified with skate blades to skim the icy roadways left from a good old fashioned winters blizzard to the delight of the neighborhood children, they each had a turn to fly around the world all the way to the end of Woodend Road because that’s only as far as their world goes. 

When my father and his brothers came home from the war they just wanted to be farmers again where they grew up, out by the shore of Long Island Sound, far removed from the enterprises of town. 

I heard the story over the years. On a bright sunny morning my father shut his tractor down, he walked through the splendid grandeur of the peninsula known as Lordship where he walked so many times before with his father who came here from the Mediterranean, and where he learned how to create a masterpiece of farm life by the sea. In a silent moment of reflection, my father is proud of being a soldier but he wonders, has the war changed him, will he still love the water and boating that he shares with his family of soldiers. 

Maybe one day if morning breaks over the beach in Normandy with blue sky and sunshine, he’ll bring his father to visit there and walk that shore to remember the men he fought with, but for right now there is still too much darkness. 

Memorial Day Memories

The airplane is pictured on a sidewalk. Provided photo.

Long Island Sound is for cabin cruisers. My father dreams of a sleek and shiny speedboat. The Housatonic River runs alongside the farm and flows into the sound. This river is meant for small craft before he enlisted in the service. 

My father was known as a reckless adventurer, building ice boats that he sailed on Srash Pond, just a mile away from where he’s standing now. The pond was believed to be bottomless with strong currents and whirlpools under the surface. He was never afraid of anything to fight the battle that lingers inside. 

He bought a summer cottage right after the war on the Housatonic River in a quaint resort called The Maples from The Yale Boathouse past the Pink House Cove. They were speeding up along the right bank in a snazzy new yellow and white speedboat, my father held the throttle down all the way on the 50-horsepower Evinrude outboard engine. It became a tradition on the first day of summer vacation to celebrate freedom. A tradition lasting 35 years. 

The family of soldiers never wanted to believe the hydraulic company would come to The Maples and build a pump station, taking several cottages away by eminent domain in the summer of 1972. In that same year we made a discovery I’ll tell you about in an upcoming story. It gave us 17 more years of vacationing until plumes of mist in rainbow colors were billowing up above the Housatonic, created by the might and power from one of the largest electrical dams in the United States. A quarter of a mile above us water was surging out of the floodgates down the spillways in torrents; although captivated by what we see, everything will be in ruins, including the hope chest as guardian of the letters for 30 years. I want to save them, but in the confusion the hope chest was taken away, the letters were gone that told the stories of my father’s life in the war but there was one letter so poignant. I know the story by heart. I can tell it to you today, a hundred times over. 

Out in the ocean on board a Navy ship, the sailors are preparing bunks for the soldiers. My father’s bunk will be on the lower level. He waited patiently aside while the sailor put on the finishing touches, along with the Americans. There are more than 160,000 allied troops here tonight in the darkness. The sailor turned out the dim light hanging from the ceiling just as the last soldier walked in, placing his bag on the bunk above saying goodnight. The voice was familiar; this was our uncle John, my father’s good friend and brother in-law. 

He wrote in the letter that it was a gift from God. Uncle John is with a tank battalion. He’ll be on the ship a little while longer. He knows what my father is facing. They sat on the bunk side by side until my father had to leave, Uncle John hugged him goodbye; he slid down the net into a flat-bottomed Higgins boat with thousands and thousands upon thousands of brave men he didn’t know in the time it took for the ten-mile ride to the beaches. They loved each other like brothers.

I was seven years old, sitting on the floor in my pink room to read the letters scattered around me. At only seven years old I didn’t understand what it would mean for a soldier to find a good friend from home on the eve of a horrific battle, waiting for the sun to rise so slowly over the dark ocean turning the morning sky pink to reveal a fading pale moon. The battle has already begun. 

My father spent time in a hospital for shrapnel wounds, and where he made beautiful stuffed animals. I remember a black duckling he stitched together with thick red thread, a purple bear with bright yellow ears, and a donkey. He made them for his children. They were kept on the top shelf of the linen closet until we finally arrived. My mother took them down from time to time so we could hold them. She always put them back on the top shelf of the linen closet where they lived for the rest of their lives. 

(Stay tuned for Part II of this story.)

1 Comment on "Memorial Day Memories"

  1. Pamela Marie Bercian | June 1, 2024 at 3:49 pm | Reply

    Bernadette reflected on many beautiful memories. Her reference to Uncle John is my dad…a very touching story and certainly unlocked many memories for me! ~~~Pam

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