The Widow's Secret
Arlington National Cemetery, April, 2003:
The crash of the thirteen-gun salute echoed across the rolling lawns of Arlington National Cemetery followed by the majestic tones of “Taps.” The sad refrain drifted over the uniform ranks of Arlington’s gravestones: legions of airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines who had made the supreme sacrifice for their country, or of those who, as on this occasion, wanted to rest among their comrades who had preceded them. The major commanding the honor guard bent forward and presented the folded flag from the casket to Mary Tyson Anthony, widow of Major General Thomas Devereaux Anthony. Standing behind were her son Anthony Chance and his wife, Jacqueline Anthony Chance. Dry eyed, Mary placed the flag on her lap and returned her hand to the warm, tight grip of her grandson, Anthony Carleton Chance, a major in the United States Air Force.
The ceremony complete, the thanks expressed to the chaplain and honor guard, Mary’s grandson held out the printed memorial to his grandfather and addressed her as he had since childhood, “Nana, I didn’t know that the general had been awarded the Croix de Guerre, that’s a French award for heroism. The general was always so close mouthed about the things he did.”
She looked up at her grandson and marveled at how much she could see the resemblance to his grandfather, even that odd mannerism in the way he creased his brow when seeking an answer to something that puzzled him. She made a decision. “Tony, I have a story to tell you, wait for me.”
Mary Anthony approached her son and Jacqueline, “I am going to take a walk with Tony. It’s so peaceful here. Please don’t wait for us. We will get a cab back to the hotel.”
Mary returned to her grandson, taking his hand, “Let’s walk.”
They walked among the ranks of stones. She temporized, “I was a school girl when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. We watched all the young men running to enlist, so eager to fight.” She glanced at a gravestone and recited its legend:
PVT, U S ARMY, AEF
b. January 20, 1899
d. October 14, 1918
She sighed, “So eager to fight and die in far-off places.”
Mary looked up at the solemn face of her grandson, “Tony, I’ve visited many military cemeteries with the general.” She always referred to Thomas as “the general” when speaking of him to others, even family. “We always read aloud together a few names from the stones. The general said, ‘Someone should remember who they were, what they did, where they died.’”Again she sighed, “Most lying here were so young, no lovers, no wives, children, nothing left but a stone and a piece of our sacred ground. Can you understand that?” She shook her head before he could answer, “I mean can you see why we recited their names?”
“Yeah, Nana, I believe I can. I lost a friend in Iraq. Green as grass. He had a sweetheart back home. He’s here somewhere, too.” Her grandson glanced at a stone near him, and joined the ritual, reading:
DARRELL JAMES BLACKMON
CAPT, MARINE CORPS
b. April 7, 1920 d. December 17, 1950
“This brings me to my story, Tony. Please, keep what I tell you between us. It’s deeply personal.” Her grandson nodded, curiosity filling his eyes.
The sun caught the brilliant whiteness of a cherry tree standing among the ranks of Arlington’s grave markers. It reminded her of the blossoms on the trees in the Japanese Garden of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
“It was spring in 1943, my second year at the University of San Francisco, Sunday in the park. The city was full of soldiers, sailors and marines. They were all chasing girls and drinking. They were mostly just boys, scared and lonely. And we were afraid of them . . . and for them. I saw a young man seated on a bench. He seemed so lonely. I had never done such a thing before, but on an impulse I approached him. The memory surged as she described the moment. “He was an officer, but his uniform looked different from most of those I’d seen.”
Hi. You look so sad. Are you alright?
Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just about ready to ship out and I wanted to come back here one last time before I go. You know, when we were kids, we’d come down here and throw the football around.
Oh, you’re from San Francisco?
Yeah. You, too?
Oh yes. Well, not quite San Francisco. My folks live in Sacramento. I’m at USF. I don’t recognize your uniform, what service are you in?
Army Air Corps. I’m scheduled to ferry a B-17 to England next Friday. I leave for Seattle on Wednesday. I came to say goodbye to my brother. He left for the marines, yesterday. My ol’ man is over at the Kaiser yard in Richmond building ships.
Well, at least you got to see your mom.
Nah, she and dad split years ago. She’s down in San Diego with some navy officer.
Oh dear. C’mon, let’s go get a cup of coffee. We can’t send you off to war like this.
* * *
Mary looked up at her grandson, the edge of his jaw so like the young pilot’s. Even at seventy-seven, her loins warmed to the memory. “His last name was Anthony, but he told me everyone called him Tony, just like your name. We went for coffee. He was so handsome. When he smiled, he seemed so fearless. He said he wasn’t afraid. But I knew different. We’d heard rumors about the bombers being shot down over Germany. Officially, we never heard much, civilian morale you know, but still the stories got around.”
She studied another grave marker:
GERALD F. STONE
PO2, U.S. NAVY
b. January 4, 1919
d. December 7, 1941
She looked back at her grandson, “I fell madly in love over a cup of coffee. Coffee led to dinner and I couldn’t let him go, I didn’t want him to die . . . not without being loved! He was so alone. I can’t sort out all the emotions of the time now, but I wanted him.”
Her grandson looked uncomfortable listening to her personal revelations. Not something one expects from a grandmother, she thought. “When I was young, I never thought about my mother and father as feeling like that, of being filled by desire, that they might have been as excited and in love as I was at that moment.” She gave Tony an impish wink, “The thought ever run through your mind?”
Startled by the question, he managed, “Uhh . . .”
Mary laughed, “We were enthralled with each other. We spent most of our time together in his hotel room . . . it was my first experience.” And it was his, too. At least I’m pretty sure of that. We didn’t talk about it but we fumbled a lot before we found the rhythm.
“We swore eternal love, he would come back to me, and we’d get married. He swore he would write as soon as he got to England. He gave me his father’s address so I could contact him in case I needed anything. Then he was off to England and that terrible war.”
Her grandson looked down, sadness in his eyes, “But he never came back? Those poor bastards, pieces of their airplanes were scattered all over occupied Europe. Oh Nana, I’m so sorry. Now I understand about the grave stones. Is that what you wanted to tell me?”
“No Tony, there’s more. I found out I was pregnant.” She stopped walking.
Awareness crept into his eyes, “What . . . ?”
“Don’t say anything yet, Tony. I’m far from finished.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I waited and waited for a letter from my Tony. None ever came. Finally, I called his father. I had to try several times. I was desperate and I was beginning to show the first signs of my pregnancy. I finally got his father and he told me that Tony had been shot down over Germany. He was listed as missing in action, but he said the Air Corps didn’t hold out much hope.
“Carleton Chance was a professor at USF. I knew he was infatuated with me. It happens you know: student and mentor. I broke down to him and confessed. He offered to marry me.”
She looked up at her grandson, “Tony, I wasn’t a total innocent. I knew what I was doing when I told him. My parents would have disowned me if they found out I was going to have a baby. It just wasn’t acceptable in those days. They were still scandalized when I married Carleton. He was twenty years my senior and in poor health.”
“So my dad really isn’t the son of Carleton Chance, and he wasn’t my grandfather,” Tony sighed. “My dad knows, of course.”
“No Tony, he doesn’t. He’s always only known Carleton as his father. He deeply loved Carleton. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. Carleton died when your dad was fifteen. The longer you hide the truth, the harder it is to expose it.”
She stopped by another grave. “Oh look. I was once surprised how many Mexican-Americans died in our wars, and then I realized our wars were their wars, too.
Esteban Benitez SFC
b. November 11, 1935
d. Feb 18, 1968
5th Special Forces Group (SOG)
Loc Ninh, Vietnam
Medal of Honor
“After Carleton died, I began to visit the military cemetery at the Presidio and walk alone among the graves, reading the names. Maybe I was looking, hoping to find his grave. I was afraid to check the registry, but I wanted to find his grave. You see, I’d never really forgotten my Tony. He went away to war. And he died without knowing he had a son.”
Tony looked pensive, “Why are you telling me this now? I appreciate you telling me, but it doesn’t change how I feel about my dad. I never knew grandpa Chance, he died before I was born, but he must have been a good guy. Where does the general’s Croix de Guerre come into this?”
“Well, I’m coming to that Tony. The general received his medal from the government of France, actually presented by Charles DeGaulle himself, for services he performed with the Maquis in 1944 and ‘45. The organized French Resistance, the Maquis aided the Allies in preparation for the invasion at Normandy. This is partly your mother’s story and it’s partly the story of how the general and I finally met and married.”
“The general was just a lieutenant when he was parachuted into Northern France in March of 1944. His mission was to arrange supply drops and coordinate intelligence and planning with French Resistance ahead of the invasion of France that June. They also assisted downed allied fliers,” Mary paused before another grave marker, “such as this air corps sergeant who didn’t make it.” She shook her head sadly, “This airman was a mere boy, barely nineteen:”
THOMAS ALLAN CROSS,
SSGT ARMY AIR CORPS,
b. March 3, 1925
d. May 18, 1944,
Mary came back to her story, “Well, my Thomas was awarded his medals, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre, for blowing a bridge that prevented German tanks from getting to St. Lo before our paratroopers could link up with the landing forces. According to the citation, it would have been a blood bath.
Mary paused, “But the medals aren’t really the point of my story. The Maquis cell that Thomas was assigned to was led by a woman. Her name was Jacqueline Guiton, your maternal grandmother.”
Tony smiled at her, “and the general is my maternal grandfather, even though he’s married to my paternal grandmother. Kinda’ complex, huh?”
“Yes, but it’s a bit more complex than you think. You see, your mother Jacqueline is not the result of a union between Jacqueline Guiton and Thomas. In fact they were never married. Jacqueline and Thomas did not get on very well. As he described her to me, she was hard bitten, coldly focused on her hatred of Germans. It was so intense that she often planned attacks on them that threatened to reveal preparations for the invasion. Her daughter, your mother, was the result of a liaison between Jacqueline Guiton and a German SS officer from whom she got information on German troop dispositions. She actually hated her daughter as a German bastard. She called your mother a German pig child. She wouldn’t even give her a name. Thomas gave your mother the name Jacqueline when later he formally adopted her.”
Mary noted a creeping frown of distaste on her grandson’s face. “Tony, children don’t have to bear the stigma of the sins of their parents,” Mary focused a meaningful eye on her grandson, “and Tony your mother is entirely unaware that she is not the birth child of the general. Don’t say a thing to her.”
“So why are you telling me all of this?”
“Patience Tony, we’re getting there.”
Mary resumed, “According to the general whatever her shortcomings, Jacqueline Guiton was a true French heroine. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre,” Mary turned to face her grandson, “. . . posthumously.”
She surveyed the beautifully landscaped cemetery. “Nobody knows the resting place of Jacqueline. She was captured while scouting the approaches to the bridge they planned to blow. Records left by the Germans after the war showed that she was subjected to the most horrible torture by the Gestapo, but she revealed nothing. At the last minute, the general took control of the mission and executed it to perfection. They both were recognized by the French government for their efforts.”
Mary again turned to face her grandson, “Tony, both your maternal grandmother and the general made an important difference in the success of the Normandy invasion.”
“So how did my mother become the general’s daughter?”
“Thomas hid in plain sight. His mother, as you know, was French and he spoke French fluently. He lived in a farm house not far from the bridge that became the Maquis’ target on June 6th. He played the role of a crippled French veteran of the German invasion, a widower caring for his infant child. He obtained a baptismal certificate from the local abbé and a birth certificate in the name of Jacqueline Antonie LaRuchey. They formed a bond during their time together. Eventually the war passed them by and he was drawn back to London, but he came back and found Jacqueline where he had left her with a family connected to the Maquis cell he led during the invasion. He formally adopted her, correcting her name to his. He raised her as his own.
“He spent his entire career in the Air Force after that as an intelligence officer. Jacqueline was raised on US bases in Germany, Japan and even in Turkey. The general was in Saigon from 1965 to 1968, directing the intelligence effort for Operation Rolling Thunder.” She looked at Tony.
“Yeah, I know about that fiasco, the politicians’ rules of engagement cost us the lives of too many good men.”Her grandson pointed out a gravestone, there’s one that didn’t make it back:”
GEORGE DAVID JOHNSON
b. MARCH 11, 1941 d. NOVEMBER 13, 1967
“Your mother was at Berkeley working on a Masters in French Literature while the general was in Vietnam. As a graduate assistant, she assisted in an advanced French class for students meeting the bachelor’s degree language requirement. She met your father there.
“The wedding was planned for June in 1967 and the general had arranged to take leave to be there. At the last moment matters in Vietnam became critical and eventually, the night before the wedding, he arrived at Travis AFB, between the Bay Area and Sacramento. I was the only one available to pick him up Jacqueline’s father and bring him to Berkeley.”
“I got there early, but it was already dark. I waited inside until we heard the roar of engines. The landing path lit up and in the distance I could see the landing lights of a transport approaching the strip. An air force sergeant escorted me to the edge of the receiving area.
“An honor guard was waiting there. I asked the sergeant, if the reception was for the general. He told me no, the honor guard was for the arriving remains of soldiers and marines.”
Mary stopped at another grave stone:
DAVID JAMES ELLISON,
2ND LT, 26TH MARINES
b. DECEMBER 7, 1945 d. 18 JANUARY, 1968
KHE SANH, VIETNAM
She stared pensively at the inscription. “This boy was still alive when I was standing there to meet Jacqueline’s father.
“It was a C-130, a Hercules,” Mary said.
Her grandson acknowledged his recognition of the now retired workhorse of the air force. Among other tasks, that aircraft had been specifically designated for returning the remains of American casualties from Asia.
Mary resumed, “Before they unloaded its cargo the general walked down the ramp. He was wearing fatigues; a soft cap shadowed his face from the lights illuminating the unloading platform. He seemed so tall and thin. But it was something about his walk that caught my eye. He stopped and stood at attention. They began bringing out the caskets, all covered by flags. The general saluted and held it until all of them had been removed. Still there was something about him, something I felt as I watched him standing there.
“Then he came toward us. The sergeant delivered a salute and introduced me, ‘Mary Chance here to pick up the general, sir.’”
He’s turned. He’s coming toward us . . . his way of walking! Who is he?
The sergeant speaks. "Sir, Mrs. Mary Chance to pick up the general, sir."
I can’t talk. I feel light headed.
"Mary . . . Chance?" He repeated. He had a strange tone in his voice. He changes brusquely. "How’s Jacqueline?"
" Excited. Waiting to see you." I can hardly get the words out.
"And you’re Anthony’s mother?"
"Yes, Tony is my son." This strange feeling gets worse. He is staring at me, with that odd inquisitive posture. There is something about this man. I can’t see his face. His cap shadows his eyes. That jaw?
My legs feel weak! It can’t be! My eyes are blurry!
General, would you please remove your cap?
Those eyes! Thomas Devereaux Anthony! My Tony!
"Mary Tyson . . . what . . . what happened . . . You’re Tony Chance’s mother?"
I nod . . . I can’t speak . . . The sergeant stands, staring at us. He sees I’m in trouble and steps to my side, grasps my elbow to steady me.
"But you’re dead, you died in Germany! Your father told me. This can’t be! You promised!"
"Oh Mary, it’s a long story." His voice is choking.
"Jacqueline is your daughter! Oh God, this is terrible! What can we do? They can’t marry!"
* * *
Mary looked at her grandson, “Tony your grandfather stared at me, his mouth dropped. ‘Tony Chance is . . . is ours?’ He asked. I was suddenly angry, betrayed.”
“Yes, you bastard, he’s ours.” It was the only time in the years that followed that I have seen him at a total loss for words.”
* * *
"Tony Chance is . . . is ours?"
"Yes, you bastard, he’s ours!"
He’s staring at me. What’s he thinking? Say something!
"Oh Mary, I never knew. Oh God, I’m so sorry. I left you to manage alone. I didn’t think, I never suspected. How stupid can a man be?"
"Yes, how stupid! How stupid I was. I thought I was more than a one night stand. You seemed so honorable . . . so noble. And I was the naïve little school girl swept off her feet by a uniform and a smart line. Damn you!"
His eyes are wet! Are those tears?
"They can’t marry, they’re brother and sister! Oh God, this is terrible. Oh, those poor kids!"
"It’s okay, Mary. Jacqueline is my adopted daughter. It’s a long story. Damn. I have such a short time! Can we go somewhere and talk? We can’t leave it like this. It’s vital that I return to Saigon the day after tomorrow in the morning."
"What can we possibly have to talk about? Nineteen forty three was over twenty years ago. You have your life and I have mine."
"Mary, I never flew a bombing mission after I arrived in England. I was recruited for a secret mission to occupied France. They called it the Jedburgh Operation. I spent a year in secret training. I was reported killed over Germany to protect me, to protect the mission. Everything was super secret. Imagine what would have happened if the Germans discovered where we would land our troops. When the war ended I tried to find you, I swear, I did."
"Where’s Jacqueline’s mother? Who raised her? She’s such a beautiful girl, so sweet, so genuine."
"I raised her, Mary. I never married. I thought I’d lost my only love."
“It was my turn to cry, Tony. So many dreams dashed; so much suppressed anger. And then there he stood! Resurrected! My Tony was alive after twenty-three years.
“I called home and told them that the general’s flight had been delayed and that I would get a hotel in Fairfield. I would bring him straight to the church in time for the wedding.
“We took two rooms and ate in the hotel. When the restaurant closed we took a bottle of wine and went to his room and talked the whole night. We didn’t sleep, so many years to recover. I explained to him that my mother and father had moved back to Texas. Later when he could come looking for me there was no trace of them in Sacramento and Mary Tyson had become Mary Chance. I thought he was dead, a sad memory.
“That terrible war . . . all those terrible wars, so many lives ended, futures devastated, so many fatherless children,” Mary waved her hand at the ranks and files of grave stones, the legions of American sacrifices, her roll call of honor, “and after twenty four years, a new beginning. I still have difficulty believing it. Why were we so fortunate, when so many here were not?”
Her grandson stood there silently for a moment. He took his grandmother’s hand reverently and as he looked down into her eyes a hint of humor deepened the creases around his mouth; “But of all these sad stories, yours is one of resurrection. What you have told me is that my maternal grandfather is also my paternal grandfather; he is my father’s father, but my father doesn’t know it.” He slowly shook his head, “And he is my mother’s adoptive father, but my mother doesn’t know she isn’t his natural daughter.” He threw his free hand up in the air; he looked down again at his grandmother whose lined face now bore a pixie grin, “and only you and I know it!”
His smile faded, “But I don’t understand one thing. Weren’t you angry that the war had stolen so much from you?”
Mary spotted a stone bench under a cherry tree. She led her grandson to it and brushed away the fallen petals, drawing him down to sit beside her. “No, we weren’t angry. We were grateful for the gift we discovered that night before our children’s wedding.”
She sat quietly for a few moments, and then continued, “I never discussed it with the general, but I have thought that perhaps we were doubly blessed. So many went away to war and returned strangers. For those of us who waited at home and those who went away, the war had changed us forever. Like so many others, we would have been total strangers; perhaps forced to carry out lives with a person no longer suited . . . many marriages predestined to failure or to empty misery.”
Mary fell back into silence and then gazed out over the stone harvest. “We were not the same persons who shared three days and nights in nineteen forty-three. When the general went back to Saigon we exchanged letters that increased in frequency during the following year and a half. The years had prepared both of us for what followed.
“Carleton and I grew to love each other and I was desolate when I lost him. We raised our son in love. I grew up in those years. The general had a child who depended upon him. If something happened to him, there would be no place for her to go. His commitment to her was total and it matured him.”
Mary looked down at her hands, now the tears she hadn’t yet shed for her husband rolled down her cheeks. “In forty-three we were strangers, sharing a few nights, holding back dark fears. Twenty-four years later we met and fell in love. It was real. Oh Tony, I already miss Thomas so much!”
She dug a handkerchief from her purse and dried her face. With determination she stood up, “Tony, the general and I kept our secret all these years. It’s not right that the truth should die with me. It’s really a harmless lie, but please wait until I am gone. Then, if you think it is appropriate you may reveal it with my blessing.”
She grasped his hand and pulled him after her, “After all, what’s so terrible about a love story?”
Abruptly, they came to the end of the lane that they had followed among the markers. In front of them spread a field of grave stones placed flat in poorly tended turf. These markers bore a time worn grey patina; many invaded by moss with inscriptions that in some cases were completely eroded away. The path had led them to a corner of the cemetery that showed its age and reminded them that the sacrifices had not just come from their time.
They looked down at a cracked and weathered stone. It lay slightly askew in the turf and was barely legible, but they bent down and read slowly together:
birth unknown, died 2 JULY, 1863
There was a further badly weathered inscription on the stone. They had to bend even closer to read it:
NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN
Copyright © 2019 by Robert Bruce Drynan
All rights reserved. This short story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Please contact Robert if you have any questions or comments.