From veteran to source to husband

  • Article by: TRUDI HAHN PICKETT
  • Updated: November 10, 2009 - 6:43 PM

All the qualities that earned this WWII flyboy wide respect also captured him a wife late in life.

"Good afternoon."

In the style of a man whose mother had been born in 19th-century Alabama, he drawled the last syllable. In more than three decades of newspapering, I had never heard such a cordial phone greeting.

I was an obituary writer squeezing out time to research a Vietnam-related feature. He was a source, a retired Air Force colonel much recommended by military aviators I had interviewed.

He didn't have the information I sought. But we talked -- and laughed -- a long time.

"I was born in Wagon Mound, New Mexico." He was teasing me. "Do you know where that is?"

"Not only do I know where it is, I've been there," I said. "Twice." That got his attention, and it was true, besides.

He was a single-seat-fighter kind of guy -- P-47s in World War II in Burma and China. With the Flying Tigers some, but not with Chennault.

In Vietnam, two combat missions on his 50th birthday. Flew F-105s.

"Saved my ass many times. It was such a good, strong and fast, fast airplane."

My interview notes end right about there. He had told me he would be moving soon from California to Texas.

"Don't disappear on me," I said. "I might need to check back on some details."

That was mid July. When the next fighter pilot asked who had already spoken with me, I mentioned the colonel's name.

"Ooooh." The soft outbreath sounded like a genuflection. "He's one of our leaders."

Variations of that reverence happened over and over as my research continued. Who was this guy, I wondered, who commanded so much respect?

In late August, I started getting voicemail messages. The colonel would leave his phone number, I would dial it, and a recorded voice would say the equivalent of, "Silly you, cannot do." Finally I asked the newspaper's central phone operators for help.

"That area code hasn't been approved. We have to approve an area code before you can dial it." Meaning, I guess, that some journalists had tried to dial the exotic area codes of offshore porn numbers, but none had ever needed to call the wilds of West Texas.

Area code activated, I called Pick from the office. Soon we needed more privacy and time, and I would call from home. On a September Saturday morning, I took a deep breath and confided to him, "I have a problem. I'm falling in love with you -- by phone."

"I have the same problem," he shot back at once. "I have very strong feelings for you."

Did this make sense? Of course not. But it was happening.

I had been alone for a long time after a divorce. The colonel had been alone for a year after his wife died.

If I married him, I would be leaving my home, my northern culture, my newspaper work. And, given his age, I could only hope for five to 10 years.

I needed to get a good smell of him before I decided.

In October, I flew to Texas. He smelled pretty good. Life without him became unthinkable.

Instead of researching history, I would marry it.

Interviews for my last few obits seemed like mirrors in which I could study my decision.

Like the psychologist whom I asked, "How could I fall in love with a fighter pilot 30 years older?"

"Structure, discipline, a bit of daring, perhaps," he said.

Or the doctor who wrote about late-life sexuality. He was enthused about my choice despite my September-December doubts.

"Call me in two years and let me know how it's going," he said.

I never made the call. The colonel and I didn't make it as far as two years. Twenty-two months after the wedding, he died.

Long before that devastation, a male friend had asked, "Did you fall in love with him the way you would have if you had been contemporaries?"

Yes, I did fall in love with the colonel just that way.

"He was funny, smart, tender ..." My voice trailed off to silence.

"Well," the man finally said, "that's better than 90 percent of guys."

Exactly.

Trudi Hahn Pickett, Las Cruces, N.M., retired from the Star Tribune in 2005.

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