Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Love Enough

While searching my parent's basement for an old chest of mine I came across a box tucked in the corner labeled 152 Weidman Street.  I was ten years old the last time I visited the magnificent gray duplex built on the edge of the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Thirty plus years could not erase the memories made in my Nana Kay's home. Even now, when the moon  steals the sky and the silence is broken by a train whistle in the distance I am back in that old house.  Once again I am a small child sitting on the balcony watching the fire blaze brightly through the night from the factory. How I loved falling asleep to the melody of the mill; the clanking metal, the release of steam, the train wheels on the tracks, and the lonely nostalgic whistle. So many memories.

The old maple tree where Penny, her beloved dog, is buried, the side yard framed in bursts of color by the azaleas and hydrangeas, the porch where the rocking chair made the floor boards squeal and me giggle, the staircase my sister and I rousingly ran up and down; images all rushed forward from the recesses of my brain simply by seeing her address. 

I had just turned ten when my Nana Kay died. We didn't share enough years together, but the time we had I cherish. It was impossible as a child to understand the battle my Nana Kay was fighting against cancer. I have often wished instead of rushing outside to play tag with the neighborhood kids I spent more time with her, paid more attention when she shared her memories. When she spoke of my grandfather, the love of her life.  In my eyes everyone was invincible and everything would last forever. August 22, 1973 I learned everything has an end, in life it's death. My Nana Kay was gone. 

Staring at the box I debated whether I should open it, discover its contents or leave it alone; allow it to harbor its secrets for a bit longer. I ran my fingers across the address several times before I finally removed the tape. On top sat an old shoe box labeled Marlin. It was a name I had almost forgotten, my grandfather's.

Gently I lifted the lid revealing several silver 8mm film canisters. They were labeled, Guadalcanal 1943, Tower City, Homecoming Parade 1945, To Babe, and Scrap Metal Drive Montana. Many times I had seen in my Dad's workshop an old  film projector. "Please work," the prayer I repeated to myself as I rushed to retrieve it.

Through a maze of dials, slots, and wheels I threaded the narrow film. Half afraid I would blow something up I held my breath and turned the projector on. Burned holes of brown and bright white circles flashed across the walls, the reels whirled until the ghosts gave way to living color and I sat mesmerized by the man on the screen.

Lt. Col. Marlin Robert Kopp, my grandfather, stood before me in uniform, smiling and waving. Before I only knew him as an army photograph, two dimensions of black and white, now he was staring back at me, wonderfully alive.  He was taller than I imagined, his uniform was khaki, his glasses were gold, his hair curly auburn, and his eyes were blue like my mom and sister's.

Through the magic of film my grandfather took me on a tour of Guadalcanal. A small Japanese sub sunk on the beach, the barracks with thatched roofs, munitions shops, and his office with plywood walls; I shared it all with him. Images of men stopping to wave like comical characters in an old silent movie filled the room with my laughter. The backdrop for my celluloid feature, a peaceful sky brushed in turquoise blue with hints of bright green. The tropical beauty masking the war that loomed behind the images on the curtain.

The finale of my wonderful journey; my grandfather holding a piece of paper that read, "I love you Babe" as he stood next to a palm tree waving goodbye. It may seem strange but for the first time my grandfather was real. He walked, he smiled and he waved at me. I could see my daughter's smile in his.

When the wall was blank, his image no longer, I paused for a moment to absorb it all. Not yet ready to say goodbye to my grandfather I reached for another film to watch. I noticed sitting next to the canisters was a brown plastic soap container, inside a chain of metal and small seashells. The links untangled themselves as I lifted and watched its secret unfurl; it was my Grandfather's dog tags. Bent and slightly dilapidated it was the most beautiful necklace I had ever seen. I placed the dog tags around my neck, pressed it close to my heart and started the next film, "For Babe."

The poster read, "Happy Anniversary." The camera panned back, my Grandfather once again next to a palm tree.  He laid down the sign, walked onto the beach and positioned his arms as if he was dancing with an imaginary partner. A romantic waltz. His feet moved gracefully, with each turn gently pushing the sand away creating a private dance floor. As he slowly turned I noticed he was singing. I moved closer to the screen trying to read his lips. Tears began to stream down my cheeks, it was Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Now it made sense; my Nana Kay would sing and dance to the lyrics as she cleaned. One rainy summer afternoon I sat watching her and asked why she always sang the same song. She tickled me with the feather duster and scooped me off the couch. We twirled over to the end table where my Grandfather's picture sat. She grabbed it, held it between us and explained it was the first song they ever danced to. It was her love song to Marlin.

Watching him dance I felt his love for my Nana Kay envelop me. His anniversary film for my Nana Kay ended as he waved goodbye and mouthed the words, "I love you Babe."  Love at times unexplainable, was clearly visible and illustrated on 8mm film. My Grandfather was a Lt. Colonel in the army, the commanding officer, yet he loved my Nana Kay so much, he danced a waltz 'with her' on the beaches of Guadalcanal.

Watching the film I suddenly recalled pieces of stories told to me by my Nana Kay. Tales of long ago dances at the Officers' Club before he left for war.  My Grandfather was a talented dancer and was in high demand by the other wives.
He knew how to cha cha, tango, waltz and do the lindy. She was never jealous of the requests, she knew he loved only her. My Grandfather made a promise to my Nana Kay no matter where they were, they would always share the last dance together.

The rest of the afternoon I spent leaned against the wall of the basement reading the love letters from my Grandfather to my Nana Kay. He was her Darling, she was his Babe. The beginning of the war my Grandfather's Quartermaster unit traveled the country collecting scrap metal for the 'cause'. From Montana he confessed he fell in love with her the first time he saw her. It took him weeks to 'muster' up the courage to say hello. He knew God had put him on this earth to be with her. He discovered after they began courting her true beauty was her loving heart; it kept him warm on the loneliest days. He admitted at times life could be taxing but one look at her photograph and he was head over heels in love again. Nothing else mattered, she was his world.

His letters from the Pacific were small microfilmed like postcards intermixed with V-Mail. No matter the size of the correspondence they all started the same, Hello Babe, and always signed; Love your Darling. There were letters reminding Nana Kay to replace the tires, how to store the coal and other mundane household chores. Most of his letters were filled with his love for her.

Upon his arrival at Guadalcanal her wrote he was not afraid to die, he was afraid to lose her. The hardest part of leaving was letting her go, uncertain if he would ever hold her again. War had a way of making a man realize where his heart truly belonged and his was at home in hers.

My Grandfather returned stateside in 1944 to attend General Command School. They were still separated, he was in Kansas, she was at home in Pennsylvania taking care of my mom and Uncle Bill. One of his first letters from Fort Leavenworth, "I am lucky so many men died so far away from home. I am stateside, within a thousand miles of my love. I would be selfish wanting more time than was granted us. I will be on leave and home to you shortly. My heart is already with you. Keep it safely for me until I hold you again."

The war continued to explode in the Pacific after he returned to Guadalcanal. March 1945, "Hello Babe, I won't worry you with the circumstances here. I pray if anything happens to me I have loved you enough to last a lifetime. You have given me more love than I could want. I am luckier than most, I found a gal that makes my heart skip and I get to call her my Babe. Your love is my strength when hell surrounds me. I pray God will bring me home to you. I am saving my last dance for you. Love, your Darling"

My Grandfather made it back home, worked at the Bethlehem Steel Mill behind their house for several months before he was recalled to active duty. He was assigned back to the Quartermaster Corp to be a part of the rebuilding of Germany. He was preparing for deployment at Camp Lee, Virginia while my Nana Kay stayed behind in Lebanon so my Uncle Bill and Mom could finish the semester at school.

The last letter my Grandfather wrote was dated 24 October 1946, "Hello Babe, Not many more days until I will be home to help you pack. Let's be scandalous and put up the tree early. Heck let's do it the first night I'm home. Four Christmases away from you and the kids were almost too much for my heart. This year let's celebrate as long as we can before we depart for Germany. I know you thought being apart was over but the Army does what the Army will do. My duty is still needed. I promise soon instead of words to hug your loneliness, my arms will hold you every night. Love, your darling, Marlin."

Tucked inside the envelope with his last letter was a much smaller envelope from Western Union.  Folded in half a telegram informing Mrs. Kathryn A. Kopp, "Lt. Colonel Marlin Robert Kopp died 2 November 1946 at Camp Lee Virginia of a heart attack." One sentence is how the Army informed my Nana Kay that her Darling, her love, her Marlin had died. There would be would never be another Christmas together, there would be no last dance.

My Nana Kay never remarried, no man could ever replace her Marlin. The years after my Grandfather's death my Nana Kay's diaries affirmed her love for him. She missed him, cherished their memories and held onto his love.

19 December 1971 would have been my grandparent's fortieth wedding anniversary.  She recorded in her journal, "When I close my eyes tonight I will once again be dancing with my darling Marlin. I long to hear him say, I love you Babe."

The summer of 1973, my Nana Kay was dying, her strength waning but her love for Marlin was strong, still as vibrate as their first waltz. Her last entry, "I am ready to hold my Marlin. I miss him so. I have waited a long time for our dance."

As I repacked their memories in the box I was comforted by the fact; they may never have danced in each other's arms again but my Nana Kay danced with him in her heart every day.  Her Marlin had loved her enough.

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