I possess a curious artifact of 20th-century American history. It’s a silky lock of auburn hair in a yellowed envelope. More than seven decades ago, a young woman from Winona, Minn., presented it to a beau from Texas headed off to war.

The keepsake has made a long, strange trip, ending strangely amid my research materials. Yet its journey tracks the odyssey of a fabled American generation, which, on this Memorial Day weekend — two weeks before the 70th anniversary of D-Day — is swiftly vanishing from our midst.

Let me tell a memento’s story.

Some years ago my elder brother (our father’s namesake) got a call from a visitor to the Twin Cities who had found him in the phone book. Her aging father in Texas had asked her to investigate whether an old army buddy might still be in Minnesota. He longed to reconnect with a distant, fondly remembered past.

I was looking for connections, too. My father died when I was only 21, and I’d long been trying to learn more about his life, hoping to better understand the complicated relationship between his generation and mine.

Soon I was off to Houston to interrogate Joe, a retired oilman and World War II veteran.

My visit perplexed some in Joe’s family (“Tell me again: Who are you?”) but paid off in abundant and heartfelt recollections.

Joe and Jim (my Dad) were in the Second Infantry Division, a unit made up of Southern boys. They had both known hard times growing up in Depression-era Dixie. Dad’s family was sometimes hungry enough that the kids were sent into harvested farm fields to glean leftover grain from the stubble.

Destined to fight in Europe, Second Division troops were sent for training to Wisconsin’s Camp McCoy, mainly to learn about winter.

At soldiers’ dances in La Crosse, Jim and Joe met best friends Dorothy and Lois. And for months after that, on every leave they got, the budding artillerymen headed for Winona to lay siege to their budding sweethearts.

“We had it bad,” Joe remembered.

By the time Jim and Joe shipped out for Europe, each couple had “a kind of understanding.” If the fates allowed, they would reunite after the war.

And Joe carried with him a lock of auburn hair.

It was with him aboard a troop ship the night of D-Day — June 6, 1944 — when, off bloody Omaha Beach, “there were so many tracers and flashes and explosions in the sky you could have sat there and read a newspaper.”

It was with him when the Second Division finally reached the beach the following day. “We’d been sitting out on the ship, wanting to get ashore. And when we got ashore we wished to heck we could get back on the ship. I can’t describe the shape that beach was in. There were bodies. … It was awful.”

And the auburn lock was with him through much else. “Sometimes you’d come over a hill and you’d see a German troop train off in the distance. Out of nowhere would come a [U.S.] dive bomber, or maybe we’d call in an artillery strike. The troop cars would blow up, burst into flames … and that would give you a good feeling. They weren’t going to get where they were going. We felt joyful about it. … It’s a strange thing to remember.”

Writing home to sweethearts was a happy diversion. Joe recalled that my father, whose limited schooling left him self-conscious about his penmanship, would sometimes ask his comrades to write out his letters for him.

Later, Joe became a forward artillery observer, driving a jeep far ahead of the artillery to spot targets. He named his jeep, as one names a boat, stenciling its moniker onto all four sides. He said a lot of guys did that.

Joe christened his jeep the “Lois Marie.”

And it saved his life. During the brutal Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, Joe was caught behind advancing Nazi lines. When he could, he raced for an American stronghold until stopped by some concealed GIs.

“They said they’d been watching [me approach]. They had reports of Germans in American uniforms, and their orders were to kill anybody that came down that road. But they said ‘We’ve seen that silly jeep with Lois Marie all over it, so we held our fire to make sure.’ ”

After the war, Jim returned to Minnesota and married Dorothy, and they became my parents.

But Joe had family obligations in Texas. He didn’t yet feel able to support a wife. And time slipped away.

Joe and Lois married other people and raised families and have led happy lives. Like my mother — like all who remain from their storied and, yes, sentimental era — they are growing seriously old now.

But when I visited him in 2002, Joe still had that lock of hair in its tattered wrapping. It had never seemed right, he said, to throw it away.

So he gave it me — to the son of a long-dead army buddy with whom he had shared a season of wartime romance and the great and awful crusade the keepsake somehow represented.

It was the closest he’d ever come, I guess, to bringing it home at last.


D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.