Marriage Deferred


© Charlene Reichert, photographer

Back at Funston after his Christmas furlough, Grandpa resumed letter-writing. And he and Grandma resumed a discussion that surprised me. “You spoke in today’s letter. . . ”

1-15 exempt letter

Letter, across two pages, to Grandma, January 15, 1918 (written on older paper printed with the year 1917)

Two days after that initial letter, Grandpa wrote, “I hope you understand . . .”

1-17 exempt letter

Letter to Grandma, January 17, 1918

That one line, “if it had not been for you holding out I would have been classed as a married man,” upset me. Did he really want to stay out of the army? Was he blaming Grandma?

Reading between the lines, I’ve tried to piece together this story of a marriage proposal, both its timing and its purpose. At some point, my grandfather asked his dear girl to marry. She said no. Later, in these letters, they discussed that decision and its implications.

This might have remained a private conversation between two young people–they were both in their mid-twenties–sorting out their future in their own way, along their own timeline. But a distant war interrupted that possibility.

First came the draft. Grandpa registered on June 5, 1917. Had he asked Grandma to marry before registering? Did he believe marriage would give him a deferment or exemption? If he did, I doubt the marriage would have mattered. The 1917 Selective Service Act identified men for Class I–the category making them “eligible and liable for military service”–as both unmarried and “married men with independent spouse  . . . with sufficient family income if drafted.” The local draft board in King City would have known Grandma’s family and known that they would have cared for her.

I’ve wondered, too, how long my grandparents had dated before Grandpa floated the marriage idea. There’s no record of the year they met, only Grandma’s recollection that she and her brother had seen him on the road “one rainy, muddy night” after the “Corn, Poultry and Dairy Show.”  I’ve found mention of annual shows like this around King City being held in December. That would put their initial meeting, I presume, in late 1916, and their courtship lasting only a few months before that June registration date. Was this long enough for Grandpa to think about marriage, but maybe not for my grandmother?

The January 1918 letters re-opened this old question of marriage. But why did it come up? I’m guessing something happened over Grandpa’s ten-day Christmas furlough. After weeks of being ill at Camp Funston, Grandpa came home, looking worse for wear. The King City Chronicle even mentioned his appearance in their December 21, 1917 issue. “Thomas is looking rather thin, but is in good spirits and says he will now fatten up. He has been indisposed and unable for very active duties some weeks, but thinks he will soon recuperate now.”

The distant war had begun to take its toll in ways this small, tightly knit farming community couldn’t ignore. Some of their “soldier boys” had already returned home for burial, victims of illnesses rampant at Funston. And young men like Grandpa showed the physical toll of being in the army. Maybe Grandma imagined a different outcome for him, if she had agreed to marry.

But the letters only tell the story the way Grandpa saw it. He had, by this time, accepted his obligation to serve, reframing it as an opportunity to improve himself. His notion that Grandma might have been his ticket out of the army also changed. In the last letter on the subject of being exempted through marriage, he wrote, “I will just say . . .”

1-28, both wife and sweetheart

Letter to Grandma, January 28, 1918

Their relationship would endure more heartbreak in the months to come. But in time, my grandparents found a way to be, as Grandpa imagined, both spouse and sweetheart. At least, that’s how I remember them, partners in what I saw as a charmed life.

Here they are in the 1960s, outside one of the businesses they ran in tiny Effingham, Kansas. I loved collecting eggs in the back room of what we called the Produce House, watching Grandpa repair furniture in the middle room, and–best of all–sitting up front when his old buddies gathered around a warm stove to talk politics and tell off-color jokes. “Now stop your cussing!” he’d say when things got rowdy. “My granddaughter’s in the room!” That was the Grandpa I loved–that “better man” he wanted to become after the war, the one “respected by everyone.”

Effingham Produce House

Grandma and Grandpa outside the Produce House, Effingham, Kansas, 1960s.

And Grandma? She lived to be 95, passing on when I was just starting my own family and not much older than she had been during the war. I knew her as a strong, industrious and independent woman, fiercely loyal to her family and stubbornly private. I loved her for that, and for the way she made me feel when I was with her, that I was the only person worthy of her attention. Any sadness and regrets she accumulated over her long life were tightly held. Did she regret that marriage decision in 1917? I’ll never know. She didn’t talk about the war years, at least not to me.

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