By the time Loretto discovered the cache of WWII letters, her father had been dead almost 50 years. She'd accepted she would never know him. All that changed when she decided to type his 500+ letters for her siblings. With each letter she heard her father's voice. With each place she visited and each person she met, the 50 years without him melted away and the enduring gap that had opened between them when she was 4-years-old gradually began to close.
An Unexpected Coddiwomple takes you on a journey through a captivating collection of WWII letters abundant with humor, intrigue, and romance, across the U.S., to the U.K., and back again. Learn from "Big Sundin" himself, her father's pilot, what actually happened in 1945 when he ditched Heavy Date in the North Sea, saving the lives of the entire crew. Had Big Sundin not executed a "perfect ditching," she and her 6 siblings would not have been born. Through her father's own words, Loretto uncovers truths about her parentage that were buried with him in 1965, revealing decades of mysteries that culminate with an invitation to Buckingham Palace. It's a story of family, duty, faith, and a life transformed. It's a story of love.
|Publisher:||W. Brand Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.52(d)|
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It was late in the afternoon when the expectant mother met the two men in suits at the front door. One of the men instinctively positioned himself behind her. The man in front of her avoided making eye contact. He cleared his throat, swallowed, raised his red, swollen eyes to meet hers and said, "He's gone." The woman collapsed into the arms of the man standing behind her. The woman was my mother. The man who caught her was my Uncle Harry. The date was Friday, June 25, 1965.
* * *
The day was superb for springtime, with the temperatures approaching 80 degrees, a gentle wind, plenty of sunshine, and no clouds in sight; definitely not a day for six children under the age of eight to learn about death. As the northerly breeze blew with just enough strength to send the delicate scents of spring frolicking between yards and into the open windows of our home, nestled on the quaint residential island hugging the shores of the Straits of Niagara, that perfect day may have been described as unforgettable. For all of us, it was.
The day before had been Friday, report-card day for my older sister; her first. As we sat around the breakfast table I remember my father telling her that he was "going to see that report card today, no matter what." In the afternoon Missy Buhr, our babysitter, had come over to watch us so my mother could take the boys for haircuts. It had seemed like an ordinary day, but there was nothing about it that would ever be remembered as ordinary. Before my mom returned home with the boys, all this company started coming to our house. Once she got home, there was a lot of talking, and then we saw two men coming up the front walk. We were shuffled into the playroom and the door was closed. My older brother was supposed to be with us, but for some reason he was in the living room just off the front foyer. What he saw that day has stayed with him his entire life.
* * *
The headline in Saturday's paper read: "Physician Collapses, Dies at 44." The article went on to explain that our father, Dr. Frank G. Thompson, 44, a leading internist in Niagara Falls and a member of the staff of both Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Memorial Hospital had died Friday afternoon after being stricken in Memorial Hospital with an apparent heart attack.
Included in the article was a brief timeline of his life. He was born in Buffalo, but lived in Niagara Falls most of his life and graduated from Niagara Falls High School in 1939. From there he had attended Niagara University from 1941 — 1943, and that during World War II he served with the Army Air Corps as a radio operator in Europe. Upon his discharge from the military in 1946, he attended the University of Buffalo Medical School, where he received his medical degree in June 1950. He served his internship for several years at E.J. Meyer Memorial Hospital, in Buffalo (currently Erie County Medical Center), and eventually took up residency there as an internist. In 1956 he joined a medical partnership in Niagara Falls.
The article then listed all of us who had been left behind; our mom; three daughters; three sons; and a brother, Harry T. Thompson of Niagara Falls. The details of the funeral services were provided as well; Monday at St. John de LaSalle Church. Finally, friends were told they may call at the family residence. The burial would be in Riverdale Cemetery.
Later Saturday afternoon we found ourselves in the playroom once again with Missy Buhr. All the curtains were closed. I remember being told not to look out the window. However, like most mildly disobedient children would, I wanted to see what was outside those windows that we weren't supposed to see. That's when I saw them. All the people lined up outside our house. The line went down our long sidewalk, across the front of the house, and down the street. They were all dressed up, like we were, in "good" clothes, not "play" clothes. We only wore these clothes on special days and to church. Something special had to be happening. Many years later I realized what was going on that day.
Suddenly, the door opened and our mother came into the playroom. We were told to come with her. Missy Buhr kept hold of the two youngest and we followed her into the living room. Grandma and Grandpa were there, and Maimie Ott and Pop Ott, Uncle Harry and Aunt Mary Ellen, Aunt Alice and Uncle Art, and some other people I didn't know. There were flowers everywhere. We followed our mother to a big box with shiny material that was in the place where the couch used to be.
"Daddy has gone to heaven. If you want to, you can say goodbye to him," my mother told us.
I remember getting up on a little step that was sitting next to the big box. When I looked inside, there was Daddy! But he was sleeping.
"Can I touch him?" I asked.
"Yes," my mother answered. For some reason I decided not to. I wish I had.
After that day, we didn't have a Daddy anymore. Our new baby was born a few weeks later. We had another little brother. That made seven of us and our mom. In those early years, I always wondered if my baby brother and my father had passed each other when he was on his way to heaven and my brother was on his way to our house. Funny the things you think of when you're young and unknowing, but if it had been possible, it would have been great because the two never met.
Growing up, I don't remember ever questioning why he was gone. He was just gone. I do remember thinking he was watching us though, especially when we were at church. There was this canopy above the crucifix at the front of the church and I used to think he was up there, on that canopy, invisible, watching us. I suppose I thought that's where heaven was. Several years ago they remodeled our church and removed the canopy. I'm glad they didn't do it when I was young. Where would my father have hidden to watch us? All those years and I never really asked about his dying; it was just understood by all of us -we didn't have a father; he had died when we were young. We knew he was a doctor and was loved by many, and that he had loved all of us. Other than what we'd been told about him, the memories our mother shared with us, and very few memories of our own, we had no connection to him whatsoever.
At some point growing up I remember being told by our mother that our father had been a radio operator on a B-17 in WWII. When we'd asked about the crew photo that hung in the boys' bedroom, we'd often hear the story about how he'd written his mother every day when he was in the war. It was a story that clearly illustrated his love of family and one that my older sister took to heart when she wrote our younger brother every day when he was serving in Iraq. In today's world, we communicate so easily. Send someone a text, or shoot them an email. We take it for granted, how easy it is to connect with each other. To sit down and write an actual letter today is a rarity. Just the concept of writing your family a letter every day at age twenty-two, let alone while training to go to war, shows a level of dedication and effort we're no longer accustomed to. Yet, in 1944, it was the only affordable way to stay connected with family and friends, it was a soldier's lifeline to home, and it served as a reminder to them of what it was they were fighting for. Returning home to their loved ones was their reward for making it through the world's most deadly conflict in history.CHAPTER 2
Courageous and faithful are the two words that best describe my mom. The times both of these qualities were evident in my lifetime are too many to count. I think about it sometimes, how in 1965 she was widowed at age thirty-five. To lose the love of her life so suddenly, to be left with six children and eight months pregnant with her seventh, I cannot imagine how she managed to keep it all together. Single moms were not common in 1965, and it's possible the relatives were subconsciously divvying up the children as was the norm in the day, assuming she would never tackle raising seven children alone. But that's precisely what she did.
As an adult, I came to realize the enormity of her loss, and I would ask her how she managed to cope. She would just say, "I had all of you to keep me busy, and by the end of the day I was just too exhausted to think about it." Of course, with none of us really having any recollection of our father, any memories she shared with us were cherished. All told, she had eleven years with him; we all had less of course, but the youngest, had zero.
"Your father wrote his mother every day when he was in the war," my mother told me. The number of times I'd heard this story escapes me, but I never tired of hearing it. We were at lunch and somehow had gotten onto the topic of World War II.
"I have all the letters in the basement," she said, "I always thought I would read them someday, but now I could never read them." The resignation in her voice was painful to hear. My mom suffered from a visual double whammy: macular degeneration and glaucoma.
"I'll read them to you," I offered. "We'll read them after church on Sundays, when we're alone and it's quiet." Her face lit up.
"Oh, that would be perfect," she said. "They're in a box in the basement. I'm not sure what condition they're in." I told her it didn't matter; we'd take a look and see how it went. That was May 3, 2014.
Of all the times I had heard that story, I never knew the letters still existed. At eighty-five years old, my mother continues to surprise me. Sure, her memory repeats itself but the reruns of her stories always summon welcome imagery in my mind, no matter how many times I hear them. Apparently my grandmother had saved all the letters he'd written to her, and when my mother and father moved into our family home fifty-five years ago, the letters were among the treasures they brought with them from their first flat in his childhood home on 9th Street in Niagara Falls. Having lived in our home my entire life, I thought I had a pretty good idea of its contents, but to my surprise an unknown treasure had been unearthed.
After church on the Sunday following the revelation about the existence of the war letters, I ventured into the basement to find the box. I brought it upstairs, dusted it off, opened it, and caught my breath — but not because of the dust. There, lovingly preserved for over seventy years, were hundreds of letters, in perfect condition. I had no idea. Of course my mother did say he wrote every day, but I thought it was an exaggeration. I was wrong.
What started off as a loving gesture to read to my visually impaired mother ultimately became the impetus behind my next five years of coddiwompling. As we read the letters, the story might have been that of any soldier at the time, but in reading them, I experienced the unexpected gift of getting to know my father, to finally hear his voice through his written words. Though he was in his early twenties, his writing answered many of my questions. He wrote about family, faith, and friends. He shared his feelings about the war, society, what he wished for his life, and because the letters were written to his mother, they were intentionally light and entertaining so as not to cause worry at home. Added to this unimaginable opportunity to finally get to know my father was the unexpected gift of watching my mother fall in love with him all over again.
In time, as I read his letters, I found I was growing to love him too. That's when I decided I needed to type his letters so my siblings could experience the same connection to him I was experiencing, and that is precisely what happened. In the fifty years that had passed since his death, we never really talked about him among ourselves. This, I now realize, was an absolute shame. Sadly, since he was a stranger to us, we somehow managed to unintentionally minimize his life. That is no longer the case. These days we talk about him frequently. We laugh, and speak of him as though we've known him all our lives. How amazing it is that someone who's been dead for over fifty years could be so alive through letters written twenty years before his death ... letters that led me to people and places and a past I had given up on knowing.CHAPTER 3
It's reasonable to accept I would know little about my father's family and friends, or even his life, having never known him. So, in reading his letters, many questions about his past came up, which further fed my hunger to know more about him. Of course, the most obvious person to ask was my mother; however, these letters were written ten years before they met, so like me, she also knew very little about this part of his life. Couple that with the fact that there was an eight year age difference between them, and she would have been fourteen years old when he wrote his first letter, and the likelihood of them being aware of each other would have been low.
When I'd ask her about some of the people he mentioned in his letters, she would tell me what she knew, but in truth, that was very little. She had been brought up in an era where women did not pry into the lives of men. Her position was, "If he wanted me to know, he would have told me." In today's environment of "too much information," this did not make sense to me, but that was her stance in the 1950s and with no other living relatives who knew my father, I was left on my own to uncover what I could of the people who had been central to his early life.
I'd like you to meet some of them now as they will pop in and out of his letters; it would have been helpful to me if I had I known a bit about them as I read the letters. You may choose to read these descriptions now, or you may simply come back to them as they crop up in the letters; either will work. However, I've chosen to share them with you now to provide you with a familiarity I would have been grateful to have beforehand, instead of having to track them down as his story unfolded. Allow me to introduce you to Frank's "people."
THE TENTH-STREET THOMPSONS. Frank and Harry's father, Harry Theophilus, was the first son of Alan William (Gramps) and Ada Thompson born in the United States. Both Alan and Ada were born in England though they married in Australia. The family emigrated to the U.S.in 1890 with their second and third children, the first having died shortly after his birth. Upon arrival, they settled in Jersey City, New Jersey where two years later they welcomed their first child born in America, Frank's father Harry Theophilus. In 1904, Alan and Ada, and their now seven children moved into a single family home on Tenth Street in Niagara Falls, New York
Harry Theophilus, Frank's father, attended Niagara Falls High School, from where he graduated in 1909. His whereabouts are unknown until the birth of his first son, Harry Thomas, in Buffalo where, like his father, he had a successful career in the insurance business. Marriage records indicate he married Barbara Agnes Thompson on November 15, 1916. In 1924, he left his position as deputy superintendent at Metropolitan Life in Buffalo to accept a promotion to Niagara Falls District Manager. He and Barbara, together with their two boys Harry and Frank (born in Buffalo in 1921), returned to Niagara Falls and moved into a double family home on Chilton Avenue. Harry flourished in his role as manager of the Niagara Falls district. All seemed to be going well for Harry and his little family until May of 1928. Young Harry was nine and a half years old and Frank had just turned seven two months prior when, at age thirty-six, their father succumbed to pneumonia after being ill for only one week.
Barbara, referred to by names in my father's letters such as Mother, Little Babry, Contessa, Tessa, the Mater, and other terms of endearment, was born in 1892 in New Philadelphia, Ohio, to immigrant parents from Ireland and England. She was the eldest of her siblings, which included one sister, Mary Ellen (Maime) and one brother, Frank George. City directories indicate the family had moved to Niagara Falls, New York, sometime before 1918, with all three children eventually marrying and calling Niagara Falls their home. After her husband's death, Barbara moved into the two-family home owned by her parents on Ninth Street, where she would remain until her death in 1955, the year my mother and father met.
Harry Thomas, Frank's brother, graduated from Niagara Falls High School in 1937, and continued his education at Niagara University, which he later graduated from with a degree in accounting. After working his way through school as a clerk in accounts payable for the Carborundum Company, Harry left "Carbo" after over ten years of service to pursue a lifelong career in hospital accounting and finance. In 1941 Harry's number came up on the draft list in the Niagara Falls Gazette. Prone to epileptic seizures, Harry did not pass the Army physical, and therefore did not serve — at least not in the military, though he certainly served at home. In September, 1958 he married Mary Ellen Fritz from Niagara Falls. His brother Frank was married and practicing medicine in Niagara Falls by then, treating patients at both Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital and Mt. St. Mary's Hospital, where Harry was employed as business office manager and accountant. I often wonder if my father stopped to see his brother after completing his rounds at St. Mary's on the day he died.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Unexpected Coddiwomple"
Copyright © 2019 Loretto M. Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of W. Brand Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Author's Note 1
THE CATCHER 6
THE BOX 10
FRANK'S PEOPLE 13
THE MIX-UP 17
FORT DIX, NEW JERSEY 22
THE GOLDFISH CLUB 44
GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA - Part 1 49
THE TURNING POINT 68
GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA - Part 2 70
HEAVY DATE 99
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA - Part 1 101
NICE TO MEET YOU 141
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA - Part 2 144
POP OTT 179
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA - Part 3 183
THE CONUNDRUM 216
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA - Part 4 218
THE DITCHING 257
YUMA, ARIZONA - Part 1 259
THE DECISION 308
YUMA, ARIZONA - Part 2 311
FRANK'S FELLOWS 337
TAMPA, FLORIDA 344
THE CHRISTMAS GIFT 364
GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI - Part 1 390
CONNECTING THE DOTS 439
GULFPORT, MISSISSIPPI - Part 2 441
THE CURIOUS THING ABOUT GRAMP 490
SAVANNAH, GEORGIA 493
ONE RETURNS, ONE DEPARTS 519
HORHAM, ENGLAND - Part 1 522
THE REVELATION 551
HORHAM, ENGLAND - Part 2 553
FINDING "BIG SUNDIN" 588
HORHAM, ENGLAND - Part 3 593
LOST AND FOUND 599
HORHAM, ENGLAND - Part 4 608
BIG BIRDS 612
SIOUX FALLS, SOUTH DAKOTA - Part 5 616
MEMORIAL DAY 638
RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA - Part 1 643
MARCH FIELD 689
RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA - Part 2 692
OVER THERE 733
BORING BLYTHE 737
BUCK HOUSE AND BEYOND 773
Movies, Books, and Music 801
Frank's Fellow Soldiers: May they never be forgotten 803
About the Author 809