Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
A Good Life and A Good Death by William Appleman Williams
Page 5

V: Death, Depression and Recovery

Beyond all the fun and romance - and the perks - was the danger. Even today, in the age of gross statistics that mask specific deaths, airplanes are like the ships of the 18th and 19th centuries: you can still lose one in so many ways. Back there in the 1920s that was perhaps particularly true for an excellent pilot who liked to push himself and the plane to the edge of their abilities and their symbiotic relationship. Perhaps there was a bit of the daredevil in it all. But if you love to fly, as Billy did, then you trust the plane, and you trust yourself to function together to perform the assigned or chosen task.

That relationship and the elation, and the dream, are difficult to describe. Many years later, a good friend of Billy's son sought to capture it in a novel centered on a quotation from Percy Bysshe Shelley:

The desire of the moth for the star
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.

But perhaps Maude got it better. She once told the son, remembering her only flight, that she could hear Billy talking to the plane. "It reminded me of the way I talk to my flowers. I liked that."

Define it as you will, it made Lt. Williams a beloved and respected pilot. The ground crews saluted him for knowing where to look, and what questions to ask during his pre-flight checks, and for the way he treated them as equals. Senior officers asked for him when they had to fly over water or in threatening weather. He was scheduled to be promoted to Captain and offered a permanent commission after the war games that began near the end of March 1929. He and his dear friend Lt. Norfleet G. Bone were assigned to different infantry brigades for the maneuvers, and one can fairly assume that there was a bit of happy, joking rivalry about who would turn the tide of the battle.

Bone's group, the Ninth Infantry, went on the attack as the invading force during the night of March 20, and Billy's orders charged him to find that unit at first light and report their position and disposition so that the 23rd Infantry could mount a counterattack. Billy lifted off at 5 a.m.: There was a haze, even fog, hanging just above the creeks and the river. But he found the Ninth, flew back to command center of the 23rd which was tucked into a grove of trees, dropped the vital information, and as he pulled up one wing hit telephone wires snaking through the trees.

He was flying a newly designed scout plane with a high weight-to-lift ratio. It did not have the power to fulfill its assignment. But his instinct was impeccable. He kicked the opposite rudder pedal so quickly and so hard that even in those last 100 feet, he slashed his shoe open from instep to heel and broke the two bones in his lower leg before he crashed and died of multiple skull fractures. His observer walked away.

He was transported home to Atlantic by an honor guard and buried with full honors. The family mailbox was not large enough. The postman, an old friend, came cap in hand to the door with a box a day for several weeks. A young man that Billy had taught to fly wrote Mildrede to tell how Billy had made him practice handling a similar emergency. Mrs. Bone wrote that "to laugh often and much, and win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, is the way I remember Billy."

Billy's aviation goggles.
Billy's aviation goggles.

Enlisted men on the flight line in Texas asked the base Chaplain to write a special letter in their behalf. His long-time friend (and partner in various nefarious pranks) from high school days, by then a major medical leader in Pittsburgh, went into shock and could not write Mildrede for six months. "I became delirious and was taken to a hospital in an ambulance the next day. They tell me, in my delirium, that all I talked about was why the Lord took such a good man. That is all over now, and I remember telling Billy when you went off to Texas: 'Do be careful, it's a dangerous business for a married man. Yeah.'"

Those letters (and others) suggest that Tom Wolfe was very slow in learning about "the right stuff." One of Billy's brothers remarked way back in about 1916 that "he always had the right stuff. Somehow he always knew, better than any of the rest of us, when to say 'no' and when to say 'yes.' And damned if he didn't do it even to his old man and his wife's family."

So there was in later years a special pleasure in finding a letter that Billy wrote to that rather arrogant old tyrant Ed Hammond, who thought his grandson-in-law ought to stay in the Army. It was dated about two weeks before Billy died. He began by telling the gentleman that he, the errant one, had succeeded. One can almost see Billy's smile as typed the letter, probably late at night while doing duty as officer of the watch. "I am the operations officer and I have charge of all the flying activities."

Billy's military badges.
Billy's military badges.

Then he popped in the needle. "The longer I am in the Army the more I am convinced that it would be one of the last things that I would want to do for my life work.... They are swell-headed and have all the symptoms that go with that sick condition.

"I've told the Applemans and my own Mom and Dad that they ought to think about coming down here and buy some land. This is the coming country, no doubt about that. You could grow almost anything and retire in time to enjoy life.

"Mildrede is not much interested in any of that. She has been having a good rest down here. She usually cooks breakfast but the rest of the time we eat at the officer's club, and most of the chores are done by enlisted people. Little Billy goes off to the post school in an infantry truck, or in rainy weather on the top of a tank. Sometimes he bobs along on a pony when we go riding, and of course he loves the planes and I have given him a couple of illegal rides. But I look forward to coming home and getting back to normal life. Mildrede may not like that, but we will work it out somehow."

Billy was mostly correct. Mildrede would not have like that. "Oh, yes," she said many years later, "of course I wanted your father to stay in the Army as a flier. He loved to fly, you know, and he was very good with the men under his command." A few moments of silence with a twinkle highlighted by a tear. "And I loved that life. There was excitement and travel and a special intensity to the friendships. The danger I suppose." Another tear. "But I would have gone anywhere with your father. He was very, very special. Once I'd been with him.... Oh, I miss him."

But Billy was gone, and Mildrede had to create a life for herself and their son. We can fairly conclude that her response to the challenge involved these considerations. She had been raised by example to be a woman confident in her abilities and independence, and yet committed to moral and social values. Whatever her earlier flirtatious ways, she displayed no disposition to solve her problems through affairs or remarriage.

She had been educated beyond high school. She had exercised that independence by teaching before and after she was married. And teaching was the most accessible way for a woman of her generation to retain her independence and earn a living. And, finally, she was probably keen enough to realize - if not to have been warned through conversations with Billy - that Porter's periodic unreliability made it wise for her to be able to support herself and her child. And perhaps even her parents.

But never forget Maude. That lady's psychic insight and wisdom, along with her practicality and quiet determination to honor her own independence, surely helped focus all of those considerations. She knew that Mildrede could not be allowed to sit in the parlor and cry, or to make a life of bridge and fending off bored husbands at the country club. That would destroy Mildrede and the son. And so in June, after her son's seventh birthday party, Mildrede enrolled as a student at Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to obtain a degree and certification in Primary Education.

Hence Maude again became a mother, and Porter from time to time functioned as a father. There were some great moments taken out of classic novels and movies. Mildrede became an exotic creature who appeared now and again, say at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, to bedazzle the family and the town. She would arrive on the stainless steel, streamlined Rock Island Rocket, flecked with snow, jeweled with rain drops, or stunning in the last burst of sunset, and spent a few days with her friends, parents, and son. Then back on the train. A moonbeam bouncing off the sea at midnight. A terrified woman scrambling for sanity.

In the meantime, Maude and Porter coped with the mundane matters - psychic and otherwise - of raising a young male whose father had not come home for breakfast one morning in Texas. Some of it was horrific, some of it was wryly funny, and most, if not all, of it was loving and educational. For everyone except Mildrede, that is, who was not in attendance at the seminar.

Maude, Nora, an unidentified friend, and Porter.
Maude, Nora, an unidentified friend, and Porter.

Tossie was too egocentric - or perhaps just too often distracted by the fluctuating nature of his business - to be a daily father. But he had the right instincts and possessed some special skills that he took the care and the time to pass on to his grandson. Porter could do wonders with hand tools, for example, and taught the child how to measure twice, saw once, and make complicated joints that did not come apart. He also had a sense of adventure and play, which were probably more useful with his grandson than in his business ventures.

Thus he encouraged the grandson to take the wheels off his new wagon and rig them, somewhat wobbling, on a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption of 2 x 4s and plywood, later knows as a soapbox derby racer. Tossie filched one of Maude's brooms to make the steering mechanism. As should be clear by now, Porter was somewhat casual about such matters, and he allowed the child to experiment. The kid became a menace to anyone on the sidewalk or in the street in the neighborhood, but he also had the fastest wheels in town. Porter also taught his grandson to shoot a gun so well that he could light an upright kitchen match with a B-B gun at 15 feet (you try it!). The magic was to relax and then squeeze the trigger with an almost sensuous caress. "Never pull it, just ease it."

A bit later Tossie sequestered the family's marvelous quarter-sawed oak desk for his grandson to use to make model airplanes. That piece of furniture was at least 100 years old. It was a classic library table that belonged to Maude, and the grandson still uses it to build old-fashioned rubber-powered model airplanes. At the time Maude acquiesced in the expropriation with a smile, but insisted that the patina be protected from misapplied glue, misguided razor blades, and other mistakes by layers of waxed paper topped by a sheet of insulation board. It was a wise precaution. As the parent present, she also regularly reminded the grandson that the B-B gun must never be pointed at another human being, and must never be used to kill a songbird.

Mildrede's son did not think that sparrows that pecked up seeds before they sprouted qualified as song birds. If his mother had been around, he might have learned about the different kinds of sparrows - and all the songs they chirped. Even then she was a knowing member of the Audubon Society with binoculars scarred by thorns and thickets, and at least 200 birds in her notebook.

But she was elsewhere, and he killed a sparrow perched on a neighbor's clothesline. Maude confiscated the gun for a month. He never used it very much after that: he remembered too well how he had hit the bird exactly where he aimed and how it died and spun around on the stretch of rope. Many years later at the Naval Academy, he won his medals for marksmanship, even at 500 yards, but he had in truth had enough of killing with personal guns.

Maude loved birds, but her relationship with nature was centered on her garden, and particularly with her flowers. She taught her grandson the skills of that culture beginning with spading and raking and planting and watering and weeding. In later years he would treasure the poems and books and example of Wendell Berry: Culture and Agriculture and The Gift of Good Land. At the time he learned to like the feel of warm dirt, and learning the right way to pull a carrot or radish, or dig a potato, and the gentle touch to take a leaf of lettuce.

Next she eased him into the rudiments of caring for roots and other vegetables. Remember that all this took place at the end of the age of pantries, dark and dirt-floored root cellars, and ice boxes. The boy was taught which tubers were preserved in sand and which ones were kept dry but in the dark, the proper way to ventilate a pantry in different kinds of weather, and the marvelous mysteries of the ice box.

The culture of the ice box goes back centuries to farmers (and village millers) cutting ice from streams and rivers, ponds and lakes, and preserving it buried in straw in the ground. Later people learned how to make ice in the summer and deliver it up the alleys in wagon carts pulled by horses (and later Ford trucks). The kids of that culture learned about ice from the men who delivered it to their homes. Such men were big: usually six feet tall and carrying 200-250 pounds and often sporting a belly that was always sucked up when they lifted the ice. The blocks of ice weighed from 150-250 pounds. The men moved the ice with high-purchase tongs while wearing heavy leather aprons that folded back across their shoulders and draped down across their behinds.

Beyond the tongs and the muscle, the ice men worked with 8- to 10-inch ice picks honed to a needle point. They were artisans with that lethal tool. They could chop one of those huge blocks of ice so meticulously that they could give you 10 or 15 or 35 or whatever number of pounds you needed. They had a scale that hung on the end of the wagon or truck, but they hardly ever bothered with it - they knew their art and their responsibility. They always played a little hanky-panky, leaving a chunk or two for the kids to wrap in the end of their shirt and suck on a hot afternoon - or drop down the back of a girl's dress.

The ice man had a leather pouch or holster for his pick. They were proud but not arrogant, and so they usually carried the pick into the house just in case they needed to correct for a minor error. When they came back outside they flipped the pick, holding it at its honed end, into the narrow wooden frame of the wagon or truck.

Now wood and ice will work their way on steel just as steel will work its way on wood and ice. The pick gradually wore down to four or five inches, and that was no good for chopping big blocks of ice. So the pick became the treasure for the kids. The child who got an ice pick was almost sure to win at mumbletypeg. It could beat a knife 99 times out of 100. It had the magic of all those mornings and afternoons of doing all that great work. And also just the right balance to do the fingers, elbow, shoulder, nose and forehead.

It was a special moment when one morning the ice man delivered the goods up the back stairway and then said to Maude: "If it's OK with you I'll give this old pick to Little Billy." Maude probably wanted to say no, but she understood and just asked the ice man to take her grandson aside and explain the dangers. He did so, forcefully demonstrating that it could draw blood. Little Billy won many games of mumbletypeg and still has the ice pick in his workshop. It is the best awl in town.

Maude had that special kind of knowing, that magic, that wisdom, whatever you wish to call it, that informed her that her grandson had to learn many different things from all kinds of people. She also knew that she was primarily responsible for his education. So she taught him about the ice box. The trick was to learn the right place for different kinds of food. Some go right next to the ice, and then you sort the rest according to the elementary laws of thermodynamics: moderate on top, chill in the middle, and cold at the bottom.

Then came the rudiments of cooking and washing up after the meal. Maude was not a gourmet cook. Oh, she had a few special dishes like pork chops with flowered gravy just thin enough to slip through the fork, and vegetables cooked crisp as if she had invented the wok in Iowa. But mostly she was satisfied to know that one did not cook eggs while they were cold; that you could make a better salad from your garden than you could buy; and that honest-to-goodness cream tasted better in almost anything than half-and-half.

Her grandson quickly recognized his limits and specialized in scrambled eggs cooked in the iron skillet moistened by the first bubbling of the bacon. He also got very good on whipped cream - on almost anything and even just by itself out of a bowl. With a little sugar beaten in. There was always the washing up. Now the nice thing about washing up is that you are free to diddle and dream. Everybody is so happy to be out of the kitchen that you can think any thoughts you wish. And the water is warm, and the soap is soft. A brisk rinse and a hot wash. Then the waste carried down to the compost heap. The circle is complete: back to the spading and the raking.

Mildrede knew nothing of any of all this. She had never done any of it. She had never spaded a garden, seldom cooked a full meal, and was ignorant of ice picks and mumbletypeg. Let along B-B guns in the basement or taking wheels off wagons. But she was very good at what she was doing at Iowa State Teachers College. She inhabited a different world, and her magic worked different wonders.

Her grades are fascinating. Put them into a computer, and the result over four years is 3.76. That from a woman who had just lost her husband and was not mothering her only child. The anomalies are intriguing. She was a creature of a musical family with special training in that subject, getting a C in Music Appreciation. She must have been arrogant or bored. Yet as a child of a religious environment, she earned A's in The Bible and The Gospel of John. Then came a string of straight A's in Crime and Poverty, Social Problems, Labor Problems, Teaching Music in Kindergarten, Philosophy and Practice of Education, the Curriculum of Primary Education, Parent Education, and The Personality Development of Children. And three years of B+ in Spanish.

She quickly became president of the 210 women enrolled in Primary Education and served on the governing council of her residence hall housing 500 women. And even then she had her eye on a Master's Degree from a top university. All those activities and ambitions meant that the basic cultural upbringing - the fundamental education - of her son would be guided by other people. That was one of the prices of becoming an independent woman.

Meanwhile Maude dealt with practicalities. There was, for example, the matter of little boys kissing little girls in the classroom. We could speculate almost endlessly on Maude's sexuality and passion, and how it was blunted or directed elsewhere by the way that Porter invested his libido in speculative business enterprises. One does get the sense, however, that she knew a good bit about sex. Consider the grandson kissing episode. At the beginning of the school year after his father was killed, the child went off to the first day of school and during the teacher's initial presentation he leaned over and kissed a particularly attractive girl sitting next to him. The teacher was extremely upset and called Maude to vent her dismay - and probably righteous disapproval.

Maude did not blink an eye. The grandson came home for lunch, and she explained to him that such intimacies were best conducted in private. "Why don't you ask Esther to come here on her way home and have a cookie and a glass of milk?" And so they did and then played tiddlywinks on the living room floor. They became and remained good friends for the remainder of the time they knew each other. No more kissing, but truly knowing friendship.

There was another morning when the grandson would have been late into the classroom. He had been absent for reasons of illness, but he had never been tardy. That morning he was doing so well in the swings on the playground that he did not hear the bell. Suddenly he was terrified, alone. He hunched over and kind of dog-paddled his way back home and hid against a terrace next to his yard. Maude was out tending her flowers and saw him. She asked him what was wrong: "I was late and I was all alone and I was scared."

Maude understood immediately that it was a daytime version of his persistent nightmare. She walked him under her arm back to the home and said: "Well, you've got to learn something this morning, so you will do the floors with the carpet sweeper and then wash some windows." He did pretty good on the rugs but left dirt in the corners of the windows. Then he went back to school after lunch. The teacher made no issue of it all; she had learned that she also could learn from Maude.

The nightmares which informed that episode were terrifying. They began with the father, as usual, coming every morning into the child's bedroom to kiss him before he went off to the flight line; but this time the father never came home for breakfast. Then the child drifted off, in technicolor: receding ever further and faster into the stars and disappearing. Yes, it was horrible.

Somehow Maude understood all that. She would come into the bedroom and cuddle the child and talk with him and give him a glass of cocoa and then be there in the morning to tell him that it was time to fry the eggs. She loved him so much that she insisted that he function.

There were other, easier times. Maude devised a ritual for going to bed. First she would play casino with the child, and then they would read aloud to each other from the Bible and the old classic novels. She would finish it off by playing the piano with him: very simple tunes that did not qualify even as finger exercises for her, but which did create a special bond between them - and a love of music for him.

She also understood the need for boys to have room to play with their toys and friends. It was not just the desk for making model airplanes. She gave over part of the yard so he could build a town and raceway for his Tootsie Toy cars. Porter ran an extension cord out into that area so they could crash and smash after dark in the summer. The home became the center of the neighborhood.

There was an aged, creaking, split tree trunk in that part of the place, and when the wind blew in an upcoming thunder shower it opened up. Once the grandson caught his finger in that gap. It was painful when it closed, but he felt he should be brave. Maude was in her garden and heard his sobs. She moved to help. The child's fingers had been caught in the gap, but there was no great damage. Maude leaned her weight against the split and said: "Now, we will wait for the next gust of wind and we will pull your fingers out and it will be over." And that is what they did, and the child continued to play with his cars.

And once the grandson was playing pick-up neighborhood football in the front yard and got kicked or kneed very hard in the balls. It was unintentional, but that did not ease the pain. And so, to save face, he said to his friends that it was time for him to go in and practice the piano. Now Maude knew that her grandson was not all that taken with the piano and had already made arrangements for him to take lessons on the drums. Hence when he came into the house and started to practice the piano she knew that something was wrong.

After a few minutes she came out of the kitchen and asked him what was wrong (how perceptive!). "I hurt." "Where?" He put his hand on his groin and said: "Down there." She said: "Go in and lay down on the bed." Then she drew a hot bath with epsom salts and relieved the pain and the embarrassment.

Maude's quiet candor about sexuality was otherwise helpful to a young male. Back in those days, before the grandson became a certified high school jock, it was usual to have one bath on Friday or Saturday night. It was a central event of the week. The tub was big, standing tall on four lion's feet, and one could stretch out and almost drown. Given the warm to hot water, the child's penis invariably began to rise. It was a phenomenon at once, mysterious and exciting.

Maude knew all those laws of physics and displayed a marvelously subtle understanding of what was going on. After a certain time, she would knock on the bathroom door and say: "Billy, stop playing with yourself and get to bed." In later years she never complained that her grandson had a most sensual picture of Jean Harlow in his bedroom. When Maude was dying, her grandson asked her about those episodes. "Of course," she said in a tone of voice that indicated she did not want to waste her time on such mundane matters, "it was perfectly normal."

There was also the matter of breaking glass. Maude's grandson loved to break glass. Maybe it began when he was in a hurry to finish doing the dishes so that he could get out and play before it got dark. In any event, he mastered most of the skills. He could drop a dish or a glass with the aplomb of an Ellington or a Basie knocking in one of their marvelous five note solos.

Most of all he liked to break glass while playing pick-up football or baseball in various front, side or back yards - including his own. His secondary pleasure was throwing rocks from the shadows to break street lights (he disdained shooting them out with a B-B gun). Maude surely disapproved of the street light shenanigans, but she accepted windows being at risk as part of having a child in the family. There was one afternoon, long remembered by all the kids, when somebody kicked a football through a window into her lap and she calmly threw it back out into the yard and went on reading her book.

Then there was the time when her grandson broke seven windows without losing his place at bat. You can interpret that performance several ways: either he was a poor hitter, or he was waiting for the right pitch, or he was just showing off. It all began as a pick-up game of hardball in the large yard of one of the area's premier farmer-bankers. More kids came by (there were about 30 in the neighborhood, including three Blacks and two Jews), and the game got serious. The pitchers started trying to throw curves, and the batters stopped checking their swings. Maude's grandson hit four fouls into four large windows. The game then moved to the other side of the house. He continued his spree: three more fouls into windows, and finally a home run into a garage window.

At that moment the lady of the house arrived back from shopping and rudely stopped the game. She also called Maude. Maude was waiting for the hero when he came walking up the alley honing his bat with a piece of glass. She was hardly pleased, but there was a hint of a twinkle in her eye. "You will mow their lawns, and do any other chores they have for you, until you have paid for all those windows." The yards were large - in those days one mowed them with muscle power - and there were a lot of thunderstorms that year. It was a long summer. But, oh! The joy of hearing that ball crash that glass!!

Mildrede did not experience any of those delightful moments. And Maude was wise enough not to bother her with them; except sometimes in later years when the son and grandmother would burst out laughing in memory and Mildrede would insist upon having it all explained. One evening a bird hit the sitting room bay window, and Maude began to chuckle. Mildrede did not think it very humorous.

"What's so funny? The bird could have killed itself!"

"Oh, I know, Mildrede, but it didn't; and I was reminded of the afternoon when I was sitting there reading and keeping an eye on the children and Billy or one of his friends kicked a football through the window into my lap."

"I don't think that's funny, either. What did you do?"

"Well, I didn't get hit by the glass, so I tossed the ball back out the window, told them to move around to the side yard, and went on reading. What else was there to do?"

"Well! I would have thought that...."

"Now that's enough, Mildrede. Porter fixed the window later that afternoon, and I got a good Saturday's work out of the children. At the time there wasn't anything else to do without making a pointless fuss. A broken window is not a moral crisis."

Mildrede never quite learned that aplomb. That may sound harsh, but it is only an expression of regret. She missed a great deal because she never explored the hugging and teaching and intimacy and play - including broken windows - of being a mother. She could have done more than she did, but she was under great pressure to become a self-supporting individual in a demanding profession. On any given day, after all, teaching third graders for 6 or 7 hours is tricky, demanding, and tiring labor. Fine teachers give so much to other peoples' children that it is hardly surprising that they arrive home weary and edgy.

Beyond all that, Mildrede faced a difficult challenge that is nowadays called "single parenting." It is probably too much to say that Mildrede tried to become a father; but the tensions of attempting to become both mother and father was exhausting. Particularly while first mastering and then practicing the craft of educating children. She made a noble effort, and she probably did as well as anyone could have done - but.

There was a period of six months, however, during the winter or spring of 1930, when Mildrede became more of a mother than at any other time in her life. And she was very good. She was pushed into that lovely interlude by Maude. The happy moments of kissing girls and breaking windows did not end the grandson's nightmares. And Maude recognized that she was dealing with the symptoms. She wrote Mildrede a blunt letter: "Billy is not gaining any weight, he still has terrible dreams, and he is getting very pale. He needs you."

About a month later, after Mildrede had come home from school for a few days, Maude issued something of an ultimatum. "You are too tense," she wrote. "You don't talk right, and you are too flighty and impatient with your old friends. Billy is beginning to wonder if he has a mother. Porter has sold a few good dogs, and I think you must take Billy and go back down to Texas and on to your old friends in Arizona and California. It is time you got it all out of your system."

Maude in her wisdom spoke the truth with insight, toughness, compassion, and love. Mildrede was in trouble. Serious trouble. Even if we grant that most people are inclined to remember the past as either better or worse than it was, the notes that Mildrede was writing to intimate friends tear at one's emotions and mind. They wrench one into a special kind of world. Mildrede and her husband Billy loved each other with an unusual intensity, friendship, laughter, sexual passion, respect, and commitment. One reads those letters with a humility, but also with a joy that can inform one's own central relationships.

One day, shortly after she had gone back to school, she wrote her husband's mother who, like Maude, was a knowing woman. "I hurt inside terribly today. My heart is breaking. I can't concentrate, and yet I have to study - and I get so tired. I force myself on when it seems so futile. I hate these days I have to think-think-think. I haven't reached the place where it is pleasant to remember the good times. All I can do is force myself to study."

But study was not enough. Again to her husband's mother. "I am overwhelmed by utter desolation - that emptiness of the soul. I get so bad it seems to me I can't go on without Billy. It isn't worth it. I've tried so hard to be brave, but lately I haven't been able to sleep. He was so good and kind. I want him so. Why can't I die of a broken heart. Why must I go on - goodnight."

It got worse. She felt remorse for upsetting her husband's mother. She turned to one of her husband's brothers who, perhaps because he was a cripple, offered a special kind of strength and understanding. "Dear George. I can't concentrate and so I have to study harder - then I get so tired, and don't accomplish much. And I have very little time or energy for Billy's son, and that makes me feel guilty. It is terrible.

"Hour after hour I force myself on - when it seems so futile - so useless. My heart isn't in it - even when I know it's my duty. Nobody can ever know what it is without him. I loved him so utterly, so tremendously - if I could have one year again with him to show him my love and do for him - I'd sell my soul to Hell. I want to go now because I have neither the courage nor the desire to go on alone. I must find him. Some mornings - or in the night - I nearly choke to death - sort of suffocate when it comes over me. I'm so full of loneliness. Every morning I waken - oh another day to endure without him. All of life that was worthwhile is gone."

Maude read none of those letters, but she realized that Mildrede had to go with her son and come out into the sunshine. So one night they took the train, first stop Texas. They were embraced. An officer took the son for a ride in a new airplane. The old ground crew took them to dinner at the officer's club. And the special enlisted man who had helped raise the son played mumbletypeg with him. At other times Mildrede no doubt laughed and cried with the right people for the right reasons.

And then on to Arizona, where that special friend Lt. Bone welcomed them to the Painted Desert. The next morning the son announced that he was going to walk over the mountains. Everyone laughed. They were about 40 miles away. The next morning the son skipped along to the outhouse only to find his mother sitting there sobbing uncontrollably. She took him on her lap and said: "Oh, Billy, I don't know if I can make it." He was scared. It was the nightmare again. He ran crying back to the house, and the friends raced out to the outhouse. After a while they came back with Mildrede and sent her son off with a friend who drove him to the mountains.

Something very special and very human happened there. Probably none of the participants knew exactly what it was. But it did happen. When the son came back full of sand and rocks and wild stories, Mildrede got down on the floor with him and tasted the sand and fondled the rocks and listened to the strange tales. She laughed and hugged and tickled him into bed and stayed up all night with those friends. It seems reasonable to suppose that there was some bathtub gin or Mexican beer or wine.

In any event, the magic had been invoked, and the magic held. Mildrede looked different the next morning. They boarded the train and, when they arrived in Long Beach, she promptly rented a hotel apartment one block from the surf. She cooked breakfast, and then they went to the beach with sandwiches and stayed until sunset. They got sunburned and then brown and browner. Mildrede was a fine swimmer, and she taught her son how to go into the sea, get through the surf, and then laze along up and down the beach. Next she encouraged him to rent a surfboard and learn how to ride it in on the breakers. The life guards flirted with her, and kept a sharp eye on the kid.

An old gentleman resident of the hotel asked Mildrede if he could teach her son how to play billiards and pool. She was flattered, and at the same time shrewd enough to realize that the man realized that her child needed male company. She said of course. The man built her son a box to stand on and played with him every day for two hours. No favors given or taken. The son never won, though near the end of the six months he sometimes came close. But the joy of being treated as an equal taught the boy to understand the true sense of skill and sport.

Together Mildrede and her son visited old friends - some fliers from the old days who had returned to civilian life, and some of her high school sorority sisters. There were some funny episodes. One evening at a dinner party the son announced that "this coffee is not as good as my grandmother makes." It was a hilarious moment because the child had never before tasted coffee. The hostess, one of Mildrede's dearest friends, asked him what was wrong. "My grandmother makes it in an old pot and throws in some egg shells." The woman had moxie. "You're right," she said, and went to the kitchen, broke two eggs, and tossed the shells into her fancy percolator. The dinner party was saved.

It was the best of times at precisely the right time. The friendships and happy experiences restored their sanity, rekindled and deepened their mutual affection, and enabled them to get on with their lives. There were no more nightmares. In later years, Mildrede and her son agreed that Maude in her wisdom had sent them to the edge of the abyss to bring them back from the abyss.