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Scraps of love and loss

Letters from a soldier who didn't come back from the Korean War have been a guiding light for his widow and the son who never knew him.

BRADY DENNIS
Published July 27, 2003

This is a story about how a few words, scribbled on scrap paper half a world away, can shape lives and bring tears five decades later.

A story of an 86-year-old woman, still deeply in love with a 24-year-old soldier who never ages, whose smile is frozen in old photographs.

A story of a son who has spent 52 years following his father's final orders.

A story about those who fight and never come home, and about those left behind.

A story about loss, love and loyalty.

I love you so much my sweet everytime I see the sunshine come out from behind a cloud I expect to see you standing there smiling and looking so beautiful.- Sept. 3, 1951

They met in a bowling alley after World War II.

Both of them were in the Army, stationed at Fort Dix, N.J.

Before long, Donald Dewey Arnold Jr. was proposing to Faye Sloan in a roadside pasture between the base and the Jersey shore.

She accepted, then asked, "Oh, by the way, how old are you?"

When he told her, she was so shocked that she reached for the door handle, as if she might climb out of the car right there in the middle of nowhere.

"He said, "You mean to tell me you're going to let age make a difference to us?' " Faye recalls. "He was like a Philadelphia lawyer. I never won an argument with him."

She still blushes about their age gap - "He was younger" is all she'll say - but dates tell the story.

They were married on May 20, 1950. He was 23. She was five days from 33.

From then on, they ignored calendars and dates and other people's opinions.

She loved the way he would see her carrying a bag of groceries and salute her because she was a captain and outranked him.

She loved the way he would sneak up behind her and kiss her while she peeled potatoes.

She loved the trips they took, up mountains, through blizzards and across deserts. So many times they got stuck, in the snow, at the Mexico border, in some other calamity.

She didn't care.

"I'd follow him anywhere," she says.

In June 1951, Faye gave birth to a son, Donald Dewey Arnold III. A month later, the Army told her husband that he would leave for Korea in 30 days.

The couple moved back to Winter Park to be with family. That last month, the father spent hour after hour alone with his son.

He would lay the boy on a yellow chaise lounge on the lanai and whisper to him.

On the brink of saying goodbye forever, the father would lean over his son, stare into his eyes and say again and again, " Hello . . . hello . . . hello."

Sherman aptly described war. It is hell. But now I know what the hellish part is. Being away from the ones you love more than anything in the world. Sept. 17, 1951

The letters came often and from far-flung places.

Dewey wrote Faye from Seattle, Japan and the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He wrote on the back of lunch menus, on index cards and on scraps of paper.

He wrote nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, almost always in blue ink.

He called her "my beautiful wife," "my Garary mouse," "my darling one" and "my sugar plum."

He told her about playing bingo, canasta and pingpong; about seeing the play Cyrano de Bergerac; and about spotting a whale in the ocean.

After he arrived in Korea, he told her about the training. He drew her maps of the battlefields. He told her how dangerous things were because he wanted her to know the truth.

But he never sounded as serious, as anxious as he did on Oct. 2. That day, he wrote that his platoon would lead an attack at 6 the next morning.

He said that his men would fight in the hills. He knew that the enemy had heavy mortars, but he was confident that his men would prevail. He asked Faye to pray for him and his 46 men. He wrote the words "love" or "adore" six times in the letter.

Then he tore off his 1st Cavalry Division patch, wrapped it in a piece of scrap paper and scribbled a final order to his 31/2-month-old son:

"As my 1st Sgt., you take good care of our Mom. She's the most wonderful person you or I will ever know. Dad."

We are all a little scared now. But we will be more scared tomorrow. If anything should happen, Darling, and it is always possible; I love you very much and I love our little son - Oct. 2, 1951

By all accounts, he was cut down by machine gun fire while attacking the hill less than 24 hours later. It was west of Yonchon, near the Imjin River.

Faye received word that he was missing in action. She waited a torturous month to find out that he was dead.

She wrote letters and called friends, and finally, a letter came from a Red Cross chaplain in Korea.

"The men I spoke to, however, feel quite certain his body will have been among those brought off the hill," the chaplain wrote. "I, too, feel he must be dead. . . . May God comfort you."

Faye wanted nothing to do with God. She was furious at him, told him that he didn't exist. No god would allow such pain.

Her anger subsided with the years, but her love did not. She never dated, never remarried.

"I didn't feel it would be fair to another person, because I couldn't give my whole heart," she says.

She still cries when she talks about Dewey, about their brief time together.

But she is quick to say, "Don't feel sorry for me. Everything has a beginning and an end. I'd rather have what I had, what we had together, than to have a mediocre life."

We're both lucky to have such a sweet boy. . . . He deserves all the love we can give him. I hope we can raise him to be a self-reliant young man but not without love for other people - Sept. 14, 1951

The son did become self-reliant.

He had a mother's love but no one to show him how to mow the lawn or patch a bicycle tire.

He had only a two-dimensional relationship with his father.

"You're always living in letters or footlockers or stories, looking at a lot of memorabilia, a lot of photographs," Don Arnold III says. "But there's something about living in their stuff; you can find them (there)."

Even so, he had to stumble into manhood.

"I did a lot on my own," he says. "Consequently, I made a lot of mistakes."

He went to a military high school, but at his mother's insistance, he didn't go to Vietnam. He found peace like his father did, in hiking, kayaking and camping.

He is 52 now, married for the second time, with two daughters, ages 26 and 4. He has a black Labrador retriever named Lucky and a good technology support job in St. Petersburg.

Faye lives with his family, and he watches over her. Or, as she might say, she watches over him. She says that he possesses his father's calmness.

Don shudders when people tell him that it's a blessing that he was so young when his father died, that never having known him eases the pain.

"They are so incorrect," he says.

He has grown much older than his father did. Still, he aches to know the man.

Like his mother, he cries at the memory. And like her, he never asks for pity.

"I don't know a family that doesn't have some sort of tragedy," he says. "(But) I know the love these two had. The tragedy would have been if he had no one, if he had left no one."

If only I could snap my fingers and be home with you and the baby just for a few minutes each day. To see that you are all right, to kiss you, to behold your loveliness - Sept. 17, 1951

The soldier's body lies in Arlington National Cemetery, Section 12, Grave 6549.

If he could see his wife and son now, even for those few minutes a day he wished for, he would find them still together.

He would find them south of Plant City, past the live bait shop and the roadside boiled peanut stand, past citrus groves, strawberry fields and grazing cows.

He would find them down a quiet street in their one-story brick house with a wooden porch swing out front. He would meet his daughter-in-law and realize that he has two granddaughters, both blue-eyed and smiling.

He would see his wife, her blond hair gray now, her face wrinkled, but with eyes that still burn bright and young at the mention of his name.

And he would see his son, his first sergeant, loyal to his father's order all these years later, still taking care of Mom, the most wonderful person either of them would ever know.

- Brady Dennis can be reached at 813 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com

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