It was a chilly day many years ago when Phyllis and her friend hiked from their homes in Roxbury, Massachusetts to the Blue Hills Reservation. For just $3, the girls were able to ride horses amid the serene surroundings in this state park just south of Boston.
When Phyllis returned home, her father greeted her at the door. He told her that there would be no more horseback riding.
It was December 7, 1944. That afternoon, while Phyllis was out, Japanese fighter planes bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States would now enter the war that much of the world had been waging for years. Normal activities were placed on hold.
Phyllis relays this story in a meeting room in her new residence, a nursing care facility. Although she is still a newcomer, she had spent the morning kibitzing happily with a group of women. When we begin our conversation, I acknowledge that she has made friends quickly.
“Oh sure,” she says with confidence. “I’m a people person.”
She continues to tell me about the war years. Soon after her 20th birthday, Phyllis decided to enlist. She stepped forward to join the armed forces because she wanted her family to be represented in the war effort.
She shares another factor that motivated this decision.
“A friend had already enlisted. I thought she looked good in her uniform. I wanted to have one too!”
She shrugs in amusement.
“I was 20. What did I know?”
The Navy accepted women in two divisions: WACS (the Women’s Army Corps) and BAMS (Wikipedia indicates that it stood for Beautiful American Marines but Phyllis said it was mostly known as the Badass Marines).
Phyllis chose the Marines based on her interest in law. She was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where she was assigned to assist with reporting in court martial proceedings.
She recalls another reason that, to her 20-year old eyes, the BAMs were preferable.
“The WACS’ uniform was an ugly khaki color. Ours was kind of a pretty green.”
Long after the war ended and her two children were out of the house, Phyllis had the urge to explore the world. Her husband Lou did not share this longing.
“My husband’s idea of a great vacation sitting by the ocean with a good kosher corned beef sandwich.”
Lou’s disinterest did not deter Phyllis. Her good buddy Ruth was a perfect traveling companion. Her children were grown, and her spouse also lacked the itch to explore new lands.
“We went everywhere in the world except China”, Phyllis says with pride.
For 30 years, the women took trips together. Phyllis was charmed by the warm welcome they received in every location.
As she recalls, however, the food was often much less pleasing than the ambiance.
“The beef in Russia, you can get killed trying to chew it. And that so-called ice cream… they’re not cooks, but they are very nice people.”
It’s been almost 20 years since their last trip, but Phyllis and Ruth remain the closest of friends.
“She’s in Florida. She uses a wheelchair and she can’t really see. When I call, she says ‘Sweetie, I’m so glad to hear from you.’ We talk about our trips and all the crazy things we did, and we laugh and laugh.”
When our conversation is over, Phyllis carefully lifts herself out of her chair and grabs the handles of her walker. As we stroll through the halls, she chats about her new home. We stop at a wall with framed photos of eight of the aides who work on her floor. She affectionately identifies each by name. Then one of the aides appears before us – she and Phyllis share a warm embrace – and we are introduced.
As Phyllis is escorted to lunch, she offers a final comment.
“The aides here, you know, are our lifelines.”
Phyllis’ broad smile lets me know that she feels safe, comfortable and truly at home.