You’ve read the 3 free articles available to you this month.

To keep reading, buy the issue.

To read more, join The Atavist Magazine

You’ve read the 3 complimentary stories available to you. Get unlimited access to The Atavist Magazine and enjoy any story from our award-winning catalog, along with a new title every month.

Subscribe

Subscribe

My Mother’s Lover

You’re reading of 3 free stories from The Atavist Magazine.

We have more than 40 other award-winning, cinematic stories available only to subscribers. Join now and read them all, plus a new story every month.

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother’s ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat’s paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

Allen wouldn’t get a better cue. He lifted the leis one at a time and dropped them onto the water. They formed a loose, expanding circle around him. He turned the latch on the box and opened it; the contents looked denser and darker than he expected. They shished and gently rattled when he tilted the box. He had traveled a long way to bring her here, but there wasn’t much to return. Five pounds of hard ash. He tilted the box and poured her into the sea. Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, as if eager to get there, dove straight for the bottom.

Four months earlier, she had been lying in a bed in Houston’s Methodist Hospital, where decades before she and my father had trained as physicians and where she had given birth to four of her six children. She had long been fearsomely strong. Tough? we used to joke. Our mother’s so hard you can roller-skate on her. Now she struggled to breathe. Her once thick hair lay thin and dank. Tubes fed and drained her. Purpura stained her skin. She was 80 years old and had been sick for most of the previous decade—breast cancer, hip replacement, bowel obstruction, pelvic stress fracture, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis. She’d had enough. “A stroke,” she said. “Why can’t I just have a stroke and die?”

Allen, an emergency-room doctor, stood at the head of the bed holding her hand. “Mom, I hate to say it. But a fatal stroke is about the only thing you don’t seem at risk of.”

“Damn it, Allen, I’m a doctor, too,” she said. “I’m quite aware of that.” Allen looked at us helplessly. Until then it had seemed as if the world would need her permission to finish her. Now she had given it. She closed her eyes. Allen shuffled. No one said anything. After a while she said, “Children, I want to talk about later.”

“OK, Mother,” said Sarah. Sarah was the fourth of the six children, the one who lived nearest to her and had done the most to look after her. “What about later?”

“When I’m gone,” she said, “I’d like to be cremated.”

This was new. In the past, she had talked about getting buried next to her father, who was in a leafy cemetery in Austin.

“OK,” said Sarah.

“And I want you to spread my ashes off Hawaii. In the Pacific. Will you do that for me?”

“Sure, Mom,” said Allen. “We can do that.” My mother smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

“Mother?” Sarah asked. “May we ask why the Pacific?”

She closed her eyes. “I want to be with Angus.”

We children exchanged glances: Had anyone seen this coming? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged.

What we knew of Angus was this: Angus—the only name we had for him—was a flight surgeon our mother had fallen in love with during World War II, planned to marry after the war, but lost when the Japanese shot him down over the Pacific. Once, long ago, she had mentioned to me that he was part of the reason she decided to be a doctor. That was all we knew. She had confided those things in the 1970s, in the years just after she and my father divorced. I can remember sitting in a big easy chair my dad had left behind in her bedroom, listening to her reminisce about Angus as she sat with her knitting. I remember being embarrassed, and not terribly interested.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

“Of course,” said my brother. “We’ll do that for you, Mom.”

A week later, seemingly on the mend, she was sent home to the elder center where she lived. For a week or so she continued to gain strength. But then she started to have trouble breathing, was admitted to the home’s care center, and, on her second day there, suddenly stopped breathing. Despite a standing do-not-resuscitate order, the staff tried three times to revive her, to no avail. The doorman told me later that when the ambulance arrived and the medics rolled her out, she was “blue as can be, Mr. Dobbs. Blue as can be.” The hospital, too, tried to bring her back, and they were still trying when Sarah arrived. By that time, our mother was brain dead but alive and could breathe only with a tube. Exactly what she sought to avoid. Sarah gathered her strength and told the nurses that this was against her mother’s wishes and she must insist they remove the breathing tube. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she told me later. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than pushing out a kid.” The nurses called the doctors. As they pulled out the breathing tube, my mother bit down on it. Sarah screamed, “Oh my God she’s fighting for life!” The doctors assured her that this was a common reflex and tugged it free.

Then they left. Sarah sat next to the bed and put her head next to my mother’s and held her hand. With the tube gone, her breathing slowed. Sarah cried against her neck. It took about 10 minutes. Finally, the room was quiet.

An hour later, my brother, sitting in his car on the side of the highway in New Mexico, called me to tell me she had died.

“So it wasn’t a stroke,” he said after we’d talked a while. “But at least it was fast.”

“Have to admire it,” I said, laughing. “Mom always got pretty much what she wanted.”

Or so a child likes to think.


By the time Allen got her to Hawaii, three months had passed. After the memorial services in Texas, I returned to my home in Vermont, where the coldest winter in a generation had the place in a lock. When I opened Allen’s email describing the ceremony he had fashioned, I sat at a desk overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River, frozen three feet deep and topped by three feet of snow. I read my brother’s email, looked at the pictures, looked out my window, read his email again. I wondered how much you could discover about a person 60 years dead when all you knew about him was that his name was Angus, likely a nickname. I’d had three weeks to ask my mother such things before she died—three decades, actually—but had not. Now, with the snow outside and Hawaiian light sparkling in my head, I picked up the phone and called my mother’s cousin Betty Lou.

“What do I know about Angus?” said Betty Lou, repeating my question. Betty Lou has a beautifully soft north Texas accent. She was down in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she and my mother had grown up together, sometimes in the same house, much as sisters.

She took a deep breath. “Well, there’s not a whole lot I knew about Angus. But I knew his real name was Norman, I’m pretty sure it was, and he came from Iowa. He was divorced. They met in San Antonio when he was stationed there awhile. She was out of her head with that man. At one point, when he got stationed to Hawaii, she followed him clear out there for a while. He ended up getting sent way out in the Pacific—Guam, Iwo Jima, somewhere like that—and got killed right near the end of the war.”

“How’d she find out?”

“Somebody in his outfit wrote her. Letter actually got there after the war ended. And that letter, David, just about destroyed your mama. She could not be consoled. Weeks. I’ve never seen anybody grieve like that. Before or since. She did eventually pick herself up and go on, because you knew her, David—your mama was a strong woman. She even scared me sometimes. But I’m not sure she ever got over losing Angus.”

“You remember his last name?”

“Best I recollect, was Z-something. Zert, Zaret, Zart. Something like that.”

“You sure it started with a Z?” I asked. “That could make things a lot simpler.”

“I hope so, David. Because beyond that it gets pretty dang complicated.”

It took me about 20 minutes online to find a copy of the World War II Honor List of the Dead and Missing, State of Iowa. The book was just scanned pages, not digitized, with the names listed alphabetically by county. All I had to do was scroll down to the end of each county’s listings, past the Adamses and Joneses and Moores and Smiths and Thompsons. There were not too many Zs. I found him about halfway through the book, at the end of the listings for Johnson County:

ZAHRT NORMAN E 01700383 CAPT M

The M meant he was missing.

I started searching genealogy sites for anyone in Iowa named Zahrt. Every time I found someone, I sent an email saying I was seeking information about a Captain Norman E. Zahrt, who was a close friend of my mother—sometimes I phrased it as “a dear friend of my mother”—who according to a letter she received was either killed or went missing in action toward the end of the war. I sent about a dozen of these emails and got a few replies, all negative. After a couple weeks, I opened my email one morning and found a new response:

David,

What a surprise to get an email from you. Yes, my father is Norman Zahrt. My mother is Luella. Norman and Luella had two children: David born Sep 37 and Christy born Jan 40. I have attached a file which I presume you can open. It is Norman’s graduating medical school class. Please let me know whether or not you can identify Norman.

I don’t have words to describe the mixed emotions that come to me when I revisit this issue. I’ve come to learn that in the process of growing up one accumulates scars. And that the challenge is learning to own your scars, and live them.

You can imagine that this inquiry fills me with questions.

I didn’t have to imagine the questions. He listed 19 of them:

1. What prompted this search?

2. How long has the notion of this search been ‘brewing’?

3. What brings you to the point of finding Norman’s descendants and asking these questions?

4. What is your mother’s name?

5. What was your mother’s occupation?

6. Do you have a picture of her you could share with us?

7. Are you certain that Norman and your mother met in San Antonio?

8. If so what was your mother doing at the time in San Antonio?

9. Was your mother in the military?

10. Was she assigned to Hawaii?

11. Did she travel to Hawaii with the express purpose of seeing Norman?

12. Did your mother affirm that Norman was divorced, or did you receive that information from a secondary source?

13. Who was Norman’s friend who wrote to your mother after the war?

14. Is Norman’s friend still alive?

15. Can we reach Norman’s friend?

16. Is your father still alive?

17. Can you tell us a little bit about your father?

18. Did he know that his wife wanted to be with Norman?

19. What else can you tell us about your mother?

As you can imagine this is, to say the least, an interesting surprise. My sister and I would like to entertain a continuing exchange with you, but this is probably enough to begin with.

david

I had never seen a note at once so prosecutorial and generous. I dithered for days. Finally, I wrote and answered all 19 of his questions as best I could.

When David, along with his sister, Christy, responded, they did so with an openness that showed they really did want to own their scars. My mother posed as big a mystery to them as their father did to me. We began a long collaborative search—dusty records, strained recollections, tree-shaded graveyards—that ends, for lack of a better marker, with the story I’m about to tell you.

For years my mother wore a gold locket. When I was a boy, I liked to pull it up from inside her blouse on its chain, tugging it up from between her breasts so I could squeeze the curved button that ran along one edge and make the curlicued gold cover, heavily sprung, pop open to reveal a photograph of my mother’s grandparents. On an elegant chair sat her grandmother and namesake, Ivy Evelyn Stone, a formidable-looking woman wearing a full skirt, a fuller blouse, and an immensely confident expression. Next to her chair stood her husband, Gene, a railroad engineer in their hometown of Wichita Falls. Especially in Wichita Falls, a railroad town, this was a high-status position then, like that of an airline pilot 50 years later. He is dressed in suit and tie, hair slicked, with his hand on the back of the chair.

I viewed this portrait as a fair representation of the distant world from which my mother came: a stable, solid existence full of aunts and uncles and her mother and father and grandparents all living toughly but carefully in the high bright sunstruck towns of north Texas. The picture agreed with the steady, accomplished, morally sturdy person I and many others knew my mother to be. But it hid the fact that she came from a world that moved violently beneath her feet.

When my mother was young, her grandmother Ivy Evelyn, the one in the locket, was about the only person in her life that moved steadily, trainlike, along predictable lines. My mother’s own mother, Clara Lee, ran fast and wobbly. In Wichita Falls, she earned a reputation as a rounder, meaning she got around. Soon after finishing high school, Clara Lee moved to Dallas, where she met and married George Hawkins, an 18-year-old busboy who shared her notion of a good time. This notion quickly produced my mother, Evelyn Jane, but it did not produce a steady marriage. They split within a year. Clara Lee took my mother back home to Wichita Falls, and Clara Lee’s mother soon found herself tending young Evelyn Jane, first occasionally, while Clara Lee went out, and then full-time, when Clara Lee fled alone back to Dallas. Ivy had barely finished raising Clara Lee to adulthood. Now she was raising Clara Lee’s 2-year-old.

My mother proved a cheerful, obedient girl—an ardent student popular with her schoolmates and lively and memorable enough to appear in a novel (If Wishes Were Horses, now long out of print and unobtainable) that a childhood friend wrote a couple decades later. She grew up keenly aware of what constituted proper behavior. Dark remarks about her mother stung. Yet, soon after she graduated high school, she got serious with a local man named Carroll Preston, and within a year she married him. She was 19, and he was only a year older. In some ways, this marriage seemed to reject Clara Lee’s errant path for Ivy’s straighter track. The story about my mother’s wedding on the society page of the Wichita Record-News, October 8, 1940, mentions her mother only at the very end. Still, soon after the wedding she became pregnant. Preston tried to make a go of it, working at a restaurant, but there are hints she found him boring, and they soon divorced.

And so at 22, Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston found herself in a position remarkably similar to the one her own mother had occupied two decades prior: She had a high school degree, a young daughter, a divorce, no husband, and few work prospects, and she lived with her parents—who, after an interval of almost 20 years, had remarried each other. This actually made Clara Lee’s sixth marriage and George’s fifth, for they had both married promiscuously since their divorce. This marriage, however, would last almost 25 years, until George died in 1967.

That my mother’s parents steadied only after letting others raise her must have chafed. Yet my mother made the most of it, letting Clara Lee help raise Lynn and, in an elegant Oedipal coup, enjoying some time with her father, whom she adored. A picture from this period shows my mother dancing with her father before a Christmas tree: she trim and pretty in a dark dress, he dapper and nimble in a pin-striped suit. Somewhere off-camera, presumably, Clara Lee tends Lynn.


It was about this time, in 1943 or early 1944, that my mother took a job at one of the cafeterias at Kelly Air Force Base, just outside San Antonio. The war was in full roar, and the base was growing rapidly, with pilots and crews training for the Army Air Forces.

Sometime in 1943, one of those crews brought Norman Eldridge Zahrt to Kelly. Norman had arrived in Texas the year before, bringing his own overstuffed baggage. Born January 5, 1915, he was almost six years older than my mother. He had lived a fairly ordinary boyhood in Marengo, Iowa, where his parents farmed corn. He did his share of farmwork, fished, and shot photographs, publishing at least one, of a tornado spout, while in high school. He was strikingly handsome and known for surprises. He surprised his family, for instance, by becoming the first Zahrt to attend college, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, 30 miles southeast of Marengo.

He surprised them again in the middle of his senior year by eloping with Luella Sprague, who had graduated as valedictorian at Marengo’s only high school and was attending a teachers college in Iowa City. During their Christmas vacation in 1936, Norman and Luella drove 200 miles west to Elk Point, South Dakota, a border town suited to a quick wedding. David, their first child, arrived exactly nine months later. Luella dropped out of teachers college. Norman finished his bachelor’s and then startled everyone further by entering the University of Iowa medical school. Christy, David’s sister, followed the year Norman got his M.D., 1940.

In the fall of 1942, when Norman was starting an obstetrics residency, he was drafted by the U.S. Army Air Forces. He went to Florida for basic training and then, over a 14-month stretch beginning in January 1943, to several Texas air bases. He fetched Luella, David, and Christy from Iowa, and they settled in Houston, where he sometimes worked at Ellington Air Force Base. David and Christy remember the house being on Houston’s western outskirts so Norman could easily travel west to San Antonio. Sometime that year he met my mother.

If Luella felt any foreboding at all this change, it would have been hard to separate from a wariness natural to her experience. Her father died two weeks before she was born. Her mother died when she was 3 years old. When she was 9, her adoptive mother died.

Now, in January or February of 1944, when she and Norman and the kids had been in Texas for just over a year, Norman informed Luella that he was going to Mississippi. There he would train as a flight surgeon for the Air Forces’ Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron, or 4th ERS, a new sort of outfit that would specialize in rescuing pilots shot down over water. It was hazardous duty and would pay accordingly. He would train for three months in Gulfport Mississippi, then head for the Pacific. In March he put Luella and the kids on a train to Iowa and moved east. About that time, he wrote his best friend from college, Don Reese, that he was trying to arrange for his lover, a woman named Evelyn Jane whom he had met in San Antonio, to follow him to Gulfport. When they could not pull that together, they turned their focus to Hawaii. My mother, aided by an acquaintance of her father’s who was in the Army Air Forces, secured a job in Oahu, where the 4th ERS was to move in July. To get the job, she had to sign a contract promising to stay for a year. She left for Hawaii that summer, probably June, by way of Seattle.

She was chasing a man with two small children. And she was leaving her own 3-year-old, my half-sister Lynn, with the very parents who had abandoned her 20 years prior.

Of their time in Hawaii no letters survive, nor diaries, and Angus’s military records are skeletal. But there are pictures, and the pictures tell a tale.

Angus had time to take a lot of them. The 4th ERS found themselves mostly idle in Hawaii, waiting for planes coming from the West Coast and then for the Allies to take and secure the bases in Guam, Saipan, and Iwo Jima that were the 4th’s ultimate destination. Angus performed physicals on the men and taught swimming—something, as a fellow medical officer in the unit later said, it seemed it might be useful to know.

Dozens of his photos now occupy an album my mother left in a box full of other things so varied and trivial that my sister almost tossed the whole lot. The leather cover is crumbling, and the thick pages have browned, but the photos, corner-mounted, remain sharp and clear. Amid pictures of buddies in flight suits, of Angus smoking in the bubble of a gunner’s window on an Army plane, of men playing cards, of a tired-looking Angus reclining bare-chested in a plywood easy chair, are pages and pages of Angus and Evelyn Jane.

They look like newlyweds. One photo appears as if it could be a snapshot of the day my mother came off the boat. It bears no date but carries a distinct air of arrival. She and Angus are walking down a sidewalk still patchily wet in the Hawaiian sunshine, as if a shower has just passed over. My mother, who liked to dress up, looks sharp in a tailored trench coat and sunglasses. She carries a newspaper under one arm and smiles cheerfully but with a slight wariness, as if the picture is a bit more than she would like on the record. Close beside her—there isn’t an inch between them—walks Angus. He wears his khaki uniform and leather jacket. He beams.

If my mother looks a bit recalcitrant in that photo, she seems to have lost all such reservations by October, the date on the back of a series of 10 photographs of the couple playing with a half-dozen puppies on the front lawn of a ranch house. Several photos show one or the other of them holding a puppy, and a handful of photos show both of them with the puppies, first standing and playing with one wiggly, short-haired pup, then sitting on the grass playing with the entire litter. A house stands conspicuously behind them. While it’s possible that this was someone else’s house and someone else’s puppies, no one looking at these pictures would think so. They reek of an effort to record a happy domesticity. They are family portaits. Of course, they probably were not living together; it’s hard to see how Angus would have been allowed to live off base. Yet the two of them certainly seem, to use a phrase of delicacy my mother would later favor, familiar with each other.

Other shots show Angus and Evelyn Jane with a merry group of young men and women in bathing suits playing croquet on a wide lawn, with palm trees beyond; posing on a porch, with my mother looking particularly lovely; and in a scandalous, highly posed shot, with the two of them lying on the beach on their sides, propped up on their elbows and facing each other. They gaze out at the sea, but they are all but pressed against one another in the sand: a half-roll and a juicy smooch and they’d be Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster.

They look good, even marvelous in some of these photos. Yet, in others an anxiety seems to pervade. They had to know that their time together would end in war. And they had left kids behind. You can’t find a single photograph here that looks the same when you view it with that in mind.

Around the time these photos were taken, Angus wrote Leulla asking for a divorce.

One later photograph looks very much like the one of her arrival yet utterly different in its subtleties. Again they walk down the street, again a sailor passes behind. This time, though, palm trees rise in the background. Angus wears his summer khakis with no jacket, and a soft garrison cap has replaced the billed crusher he wears in the earlier picture. His tie is tucked into his shirt placket. My mother also wears a khaki suit, skirted. It bears above the left breast an insignia that seems to be wings. She has got herself into something, some auxiliary outfit supporting the USAAF. She’s doing her part.

So what’s different? They look hot and tired, and where before perhaps an inch separated them, now a foot of tense emptiness stands between. Angus, hidden behind aviator sunglasses, walks slightly in front and to one side. He manages a defiant dignity by looking straight at the camera. But my mother turns an ashen face away from both Angus and camera. She looks distinctly as if she wishes she were somewhere else. Was she suddenly feeling ashamed? Had she and Angus been fighting? Had the regrets latent in the earlier photographs broken into the open? Or had the rolled-up papers in Angus’s front pants pocket—awkward to carry but apparently too important to discard—brought bad news?

Bad news found them at least twice in Hawaii. The first time was in late November, when Luella wrote Angus refusing the divorce. Whether Norman told my mother of this setback no one knows. The other ill tidings arrived in December, when the Army Air Forces ordered the 4th ERS to Saipan. Angus would ship out in January. Evelyn Jane, having signed on for a year, would remain in Hawaii—her lover 3,000 miles west, her daughter 3,000 miles east—another six months.

The Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron sailed from Oahu on January 19, 1945, aboard the USS President Johnson, a transport ship that had been around since 1903. It stopped at Midway, then, dodging Japanese subs on the way, reached Saipan, in the Mariana Islands in the far western Pacific, on February 6. According to a surgical tech’s account, the Johnson arrived with 10 female crew members: “seven WACs, two WAVES, and one Nurse, all pregnant. We just couldn’t avert everything.” The 10 women took the next ship home. The men met their duty.

If Norman craved adventure, the deployment almost surely answered. The Emergency Rescue Squadrons had been formed in the summer of 1943 to consolidate the Army Air Forces’ prior efforts to rescue air crews shot down or forced to ditch. In Europe, the ERS units worked out of the United Kingdom and, later, Italy. In the Pacific, they hopscotched west and then north along the long curve of coral archipelagos—New Guinea, the Philippines, the Marshalls, the Marianas, and finally Iwo Jima—that the Allies took to secure bases in their slow, bloody push toward Japan. Taking these islands required some of the war’s most horrific battles, indeed some of the most savage fighting the world has ever known. Hundreds of thousands died. The battle of Iwo Jima alone killed almost 7,000 American servicemen and some 19,000 Japanese. During this push, the ERS units played a small but critical role. Before their arrival, 80 percent of the Allied pilots shot down in the Pacific theater died or were taken prisoner. Once the Emergency Rescue Squadrons began working out of their far Pacific bases in 1944, they rescued more than half of the downed pilots, saving several thousand men. Angus’s unit alone, in the roughly 200 days it spent at Saipan and then Iwo Jima, flew 862 missions, rescuing 577 airmen.

The ERS crews relied heavily on two planes. One was the B-17, the flying fortress that was the war’s busiest bomber. The B-17 could fly up to 2,000 miles, and pilots and crews loved it because it could keep flying after suffering extraordinary damage. Dozens of these planes flew home with huge holes torn by anti-aircraft fire or enemy fighter planes. One survived having most of its nose torn off. Another famously had its tail section all but severed in a collision with an enemy fighter yet still made it back to base, where the tail collapsed on landing. B-17’s also ditched well, floating up to half an hour, whereas the B-29’s and B-25’s that shared bombing duties in the Pacific usually sank in seconds. The B-17’s used by the rescue squadrons were adapted at the factory to leave the bomb-bay area largely empty. Each carried under its belly a 27-foot lifeboat that could be dropped by parachute to downed airmen.

The rescue squadrons also flew the Catalina PBY— a flying boat. The Cat’s wings and engines sat atop its boat-shaped fuselage, allowing the plane to land and take off in seas with waves as high as six feet. The PBY served well as either patrol plane or light bomber. Several squadrons’ worth, the Black Cats, were painted flat black to hide them from radar and anti-aircraft gunners when dive-bombing Japanese ships at night. Like the B-17, the PBY had enough range to support distant bombing missions. It carried a crew of eight, some of whom manned heavy machine guns in the plane’s nose and sides if the plane encountered fighters.

Rescue could be dangerous, dirty work. In the Pacific, the crews typically flew in support of the endless sorties of heavy bombers and support fighters that were attacking Japan every day. As the warplanes neared their targets and began taking fire, the rescue planes would hang back and circle, monitoring their radios for word of downed planes. If a B-17 found a crew in the water, it would drop its boat, then radio for a ship or submarine to rescue the pilot. A PBY might do the same or attempt a direct rescue.

These attempts were always risky, as the PBY was slow, lightly armed, and not terribly sturdy. Even successful rescues could be harrowing. One such rescue, for instance, occurred in March 1945, when a Navy Corsair fighter-bomber was shot down just 300 yards off the island of Koror, a thousand miles east of the Philippines. A Navy PBY piloted by a lieutenant named Fred Hopkins went in for the rescue, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire from shore. As Hopkins descended, a round of flak slammed the bottom of the plane so hard that Hopkins turned and headed offshore, expecting to have to ditch the plane. When his crew found they weren’t holed, he circled back and landed near the downed pilot as artillery shells exploded so close they threw water onto the plane. The crew tossed the swimming pilot a line, but the plane’s tail passed over it and tugged it from his hands. Hopkins spun the plane around for another try, but again the line slipped the pilot’s grasp. Finally, Hopkins drove the plane practically right over the downed pilot. The crew leaned out of the gun blister and hauled the bleeding pilot in by his life jacket, and Hopkins spun the plane into the wind and took off. They got the pilot back to base alive.

By the time the 4th ERS reached Saipan, Angus and his mates had heard such stories and plenty more with sadder endings. The Allied advance had taken enough territory from the Japanese that everyone knew what might await a crew shot down and captured. One PBY crew had been downed, captured, tortured, and then, as a spectacle to raise morale for the Japanese, dragged one at a time before the assembled troops, made to kneel, and beheaded with swords. This is why even pilots who didn’t know how to swim ditched at sea rather than on land.

Angus and his mates lived first in tents, then in plywood huts. The photos Angus mailed to my mother—most of them two-inch-square prints, a few blown up larger—show him and his buddies first building and then living in these large, open barracks. He sent shots of his mates playing cards and posing in combat garb and flight gear—Angus wearing full leathers with a fur collar, a bulky parachute, and a Mae West life vest, a .45 automatic on his hip. He took many shots of long, photogenic B-29’s with hyperfeminized mascots painted near the cockpit: Long Distance, a lounging, gowned brunette talking on a telephone; Heavenly Body, a bikini blonde astride a 500-pound bomb; Battlin Betty III, a Grable likeness curled atop a crescent moon. On the back of a two-by-two-inch print of a B-29, Patches, adorned with an absurdly leggy hillbilly blonde, Angus had written:

28 April 45

Saipan

“It ain’t necessarily human” —

look at the angle on that - uh - er - -

breast.

The angle of which is indeed most improbable.

Angus, perhaps enjoying extra privilege as both a captain and a doctor, received a corner area in the barracks, with room for a plywood writing desk and easy chair. The album holds a notable quartet of photos of Angus sitting in that chair. In one he reads. In another he smiles groggily. In a third he appears to sleep. In the last, he looks as if he’s tiring of either the photos or the photographer or the war or everything. On the wall behind him in these photos, tucked into a strap in his hanging suit bag, is a large print of a brunette in pinup pose. She reclines, apparently on a bed or couch or floor, with her arms up and bent so that they frame her face, her hands gently holding her wrists on the cushion just above her head. Within this tiny two-by-two-inch print, the pinup occupies less than an eighth of an inch square. I had to use a loupe to tell whether the woman was wearing a blouse. I had to use a magnifying glass and a bright flashlight to see that she was my mother

It’s not clear how often they wrote. Mail moved slowly—weeks to clear the censors, miles, chaos, and bureaucracy between Saipan and Oahu. Later, when my mom had returned to San Antonio, the letters, three or four weeks old, came every week or two. For six months, though, separated from both lover and daughter, she had only the mail with which to bind what she hoped would be a new family. Apparently, nothing in Angus’s letters made her doubt those hopes. Yet the war promised to stretch on endlessly.

Pushing the Japanese across the Pacific had required enormous savagery and persistence. No amount of firebombing—the USAAF was incinerating thousands, even tens of thousands of civilians a day now—seemed to weaken Japan’s resolve. Almost no one knew about the atomic bombs that would soon fall and speed the war’s end. By June, when my mother sailed back to the States, the Allies’ plans called for five more months of heavy bombing followed by a massive ground invasion. Most people expected the war to run into 1946.

On July 22, Angus wrote my mother asking if she had gotten back to San Antonio yet. He complained of heat, dust, bad food, thirst, of never getting enough water, of waking during a sudden storm to try to catch rainwater with the tent flaps only to have the rain stop as soon as he was outside and wet. He bemoaned “the 2-3 inches backwards you slide in this sand with each step, which makes me very tired.” All that, he wrote, “coupled with an extreme lethargy from the heat, I guess, left me pretty depressed. There’s nothing very good about this letter, I guess. It’s about as lifeless as I feel.”

Three days later, in the first hours of July 25, Angus was with the 4th ERS detachment at Iwo Jima when a call came in for a B-17 search and drop. Amid especially heavy bombing on the 24th, with hundreds of bombers igniting firestorms in multiple cities on the Japanese mainland, a P-51 pilot had been hit and bailed out near Lake Hamana, a coastal bay 150 miles west of Tokyo. The 4th readied a B-17 to find him.

Angus was not on flight duty that night. He was free to stay on base. B-17’s often flew without flight surgeons anyway, since they never picked anyone up. But the commotion either woke him from sleep or rescued him from its pursuit, and he gathered his gear and cameras, donned his flight suit, and joined the crew of nine aboard a B-17 known as Jukebox 21. Since he had no functional role, he was, in technical and bureaucratic terms, a passenger.

The crew aimed to hit the coast near first light, find the pilot, and drop him a lifeboat. A U.S. submarine, the Peto, lurked nearby ready to fetch him. Jukebox 21 cleared the runway at 0245 hours and headed almost dead north toward Lake Hamana, 750 miles away. At 225 miles an hour, it would reach the coast in about three and a half hours. The crew didn’t have to worry about enemy fighters—the Japanese Air Force had by then been decimated—but they surely expected anti-aircraft fire, and given the bombing the area had suffered lately, they could expect the anti-aircraft crews to be inspired. Only a month before, the Allies had firebombed the city of Shizuoka, just east of Lake Hamana, and destroyed more than half the city, killing over 10,000.

But Jukebox was well-maintained: a sturdy plane crewed by experienced men and a pilot who’d flown a full tour in Europe before joining the 4th in Iwo Jima. It was a good night to fly, dark but clear. And it was always a relief to climb from the heat of the islands into cooler air.

They called in right on schedule on their first two hourly radio checks, at 0345 and 0445. But at 0545, Jukebox neither called nor responded.

The 4th ERS waited several hours, then sent 12 planes on a search for them. For two days, in rotating flights out of Iwo Jima, Angus’s squadronmates and other crews searched for them, systematically working grids between Jukebox’s last radio position and Hamana Lake. No one found a thing. Months later the unit’s commander, William Lindsey, wrote the father of Jukebox’s radio operator, Sergeant Charles Hurn, that “the disappearance of this plane has always been a complete mystery.” It was the 4th’s worst loss of the war, and its last. Three weeks after Jukebox went missing, Japan surrendered.

My mother had moved back to San Antonio in June, and in the days just after the war ended, as she readjusted to life with her mother and father and daughter and cousin there, two letters reached her from Iwo Jima. The first was Angus’s of July 22, lamenting the heat and sand. “I love you very much,” he reassured her. “I miss you always, but not acutely, for the demands of my environment haven’t given me time to think of it too much.” The second letter, arriving a week or two later, was written by one of Angus’s squadronmates. It informed her that Angus’s plane had disappeared, that a two-day search had turned up nothing, and that the crew were now presumed dead.

With this letter, the last she would ever receive from or about Angus, my mother became a survivor of the unfound

Luella’s notice came through more official channels, and it came faster. She was informed in early August that Angus was missing. Later, she may or may not have received the sort of letter that Commander Lindsey had written in October to Charles Hurn’s father, explaining that the crew were presumed dead. She did receive, in October, $500 worth of war bonds that Norman owned, along with his last paycheck, for $209. Luella, who had moved to Iowa City earlier that year, responded with a change of address and a note saying that it was “reasonable, almost a certainty, that my husband had more money than this amount.” She asked Lindsey to please help her find out where it was. Conceivably, she suspected my mother had it. Lindsey wrote back saying no other funds were found or known of.

Then, around Thanksgiving, the Army quartermaster’s office sent something more substantial: Angus’s footlocker, which contained the personal effects he had left in his bunk area. The accompanying inventory listed four pairs of khaki pants, seven khaki shirts, two ties, one pair of boots, and one pair of eyeglasses; one medical-notes zipper case, one medical manual, and one Basic History of the U.S.; one set of dominoes; one record player (broken); one box of camera attachments, the camera having gone missing with Angus; and one “bundle miscellaneous.” Did that miscellany include the pinup photo of my mother? Did it include her letters? It seems reasonable, but far from certain, that Angus’s cabinmates removed all of that before someone packed and sent his things. One hopes so.

When Luella received the footlocker, a year had passed since she had refused Norman’s request for a divorce. She had refused on the advice of a lawyer who essentially told her, “Not now. It’s a war and he’s half a world away. Let the war end. Let another year pass. If he still wants a divorce then, fine. But not now. It’s a war. Everybody’s crazy.” This proved good legal advice. Had they divorced, Luella would have lost substantial death benefits for both her and her children, who went to college on them. And had Angus lived, it might have proved good marital advice. But as it was, even as Angus’s personal effects made it harder for Luella to leave him behind, her refusal to release him earlier allowed Angus to now leave her yet again. Having been abandoned three times by her parents, Luella had now been thrice abandoned by Norman, as well: when he volunteered for the rescue squadrons, when he fell for my mother, and when he fell from the sky.


Luella was not alone, however. She had David and Christy, now 9 and 5, to care for. And soon she had a new love, her husband’s old college friend Don Reese.

Reese had grown up in Turin, Iowa, and met Norman at the house of a fraternity they both joined at the University of Iowa. Though he did not attend medical school afterward, Don took a pre-med curriculum alongside Angus. It was then that he met Luella through Angus. Meanwhile, he already had a love of his own: a young woman named Nell, whom he’d known since he was a boy. In Don and Angus’s last year at college—the same year Angus married Luella, and perhaps inspired by that union—Nell began to press Don for marriage. Don’s parents objected, and he balked. He and Nell remained at this impasse when Don graduated and took a job in Chicago.

A year later, still at odds, he convinced Nell to move to Chicago for the summer so they could be near each other. She did and found a job at the Bon Air Country Club. Family accounts of that summer are vague. According to one, they spent a lot of time quarreling over Don’s continued fence-sitting. One evening late in August, soon before Nell would have to return to school, Don arranged to pick her up after work. He parked across the street from the Bon Air and waited. After a while, Nell emerged and started across the street. For whatever reason—distraction, tension, emotional confusion, fatigue, the late hour—she failed to notice an oncoming car. As Don watched, the car ran over Nell, killing her instantly.

Three years later, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Don enlisted in the Navy. For four years, he served as a medical corpsman on landing craft in the Pacific, undersupplied and overwhelmed, struggling to patch together Marines torn to bits in the beach landings. When the war ended, he was discharged and returned to Iowa City. There he learned that Norman had died. Returning to old haunts, he ran into Luella right about the time she received Angus’s footlocker. They married the following October.

According to David and Christy, Don and Luella seemed always haunted by the ghosts of their lovers as well as by things never said or done. Back in 1944, for instance, it was Don to whom Angus had written to tell of his hopes of bringing my mother with him to Gulfport. Did Don ever tell Luella that he had known this? Whether shared with Luella or held close, his knowledge of Norman’s affair, and the complicity it created, had to prove an awkward weight, and only one among many. Don and Luella were, says Christy, an affectionate couple, but they carried burdens and resentments that rose not so much from each other as from the losses they had suffered. “We grew up in anger soup,” Christy later recalled. My mother, of course, was a key ingredient.

In their house, says Christy, the name Norman Zahrt was rarely heard. “We learned,” says Christy, “that you just didn’t bring it up.”

Luella was doing the best she could to forget Norman. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, someone else was trying to dig him up.

Norman was one of tens of thousands of World War II soldiers, sailors, and airmen missing when the fighting stopped. In the months and years after the war ended, a section of the Army quartermaster’s office called the Graves Registration Services began a relentless effort, which continues even today, to locate them. One of the GRS’s first steps was to send crews to Japan to find crash sites. Using local interviews, archeological excavation, forensic exams, medical and dental records, and Missing Air Crew reports, they sought to find and identify the bodies of those missing.

In the early summer of 1946, a GRS team working near Hamana Lake learned that a B-17 had crashed there on July 25 the previous year. Locals said they had buried ten crewmen nearby. The team searched the area and found only a bit of a propeller and a few random parts—enough to know they’d found a B-17 but not to identify it.

A year later, another GRS team returned and found more wreckage, including three engines. The serial numbers conclusively identified the plane as Jukebox 21. They also found ten badly decomposed bodies buried in shallow graves. The bodies showed no bullet holes, blade marks, or other signs of attack. Many had crushed ribs and shattered bones in their hands, feet, and lower legs—injuries common in violent crashes. Locals in the area confirmed that the plane crashed on July 25, 1945, amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. Graves Registration concluded that Jukebox was downed by anti-aircraft fire and that the crash killed all aboard.

But the excruciatingly difficult task of identifying the dead remained. GRS could not simply say that the ten bodies found near Jukebox 21 were those of the ten crewmen listed in the plane’s missing air-crew report. They had to definitively identify each.

By this time, the GRS had established a large cemetery and forensics center in Yokohama. There they examined each of the bodies found near the Jukebox crash site and compared them with medical and other records for the plane’s crew members. They quickly identified six of the ten, but they felt enough doubt about the other four that they left them unidentified; they became Unknown Bodies X-408, X-412, X-415, and X-416. The skeletons of X-408 and X-416 were fairly complete, with a few bones missing from hands, feet, and lower legs. Scavengers or the crash impact had reduced X-412 and X-415 to fragments of skull, jaw, torso, and upper legs.

Graves Registration wrote the families of the six identified airmen and sent their remains home. It did not contact the other four crew members’ families, which included Norman’s. For a year, the four bodies lay buried in Yokohama while the GRS, in triage fashion, worked through more-promising cases.

In autumn 1948, however, the Service reexamined Norman’s file and lit on two pieces of information that the first examiners had either lacked access to or failed to notice. One was a record of distinctive dental work that Norman had received while in Saipan and were thus missing from the dental records made at his military induction. The other was a note in his medical history, probably easy to overlook, that as a boy he had broken his collarbone. With these two bits of information foremost, the GRS reexamined the forensic-exam files of the four unknowns remaining from the Jukebox 21 crash site. The file showed that Unknown X-408’s forensic exam the year before had shown a long-healed break in the left clavicle—and dental work matching that described in Norman’s dental record. A series of double-checks, sign-offs, and bureaucratic confirmations made it official: Unknown X-048 was Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The letter notifying Luella reached her during her third Christmas with Don, in 1948:

QMGMF 293
Zahrt, Norman E.
SN 01 700 783

20 December 1948

Mrs. Luella Zahrt
617 Rundell
Iowa City, Iowa

Dear Mrs. Zahrt,

We are desirous that you be furnished information concerning the resting place of the remains of your husband, the late Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The official report of burial has been received and discloses that the remains of your husband were originally buried at Yakute, Arai-Machi, Hamana-Gun, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, but were later disinterred by our American Graves Registration Personnel, properly identified, and reinterred in Plot USAF, Row 23, Grave 1129, United States Armed Forces Cemetery Yokohama #1, Japan, located at Yokohama on the island of Honshu, Japan.

The report further indicates that these remains have now been casketed and are being held at the United States Armed Forces Mausoleum, Yokohama #2, Japan, pending disposition instructions from the next of kin, either for return to the United States or for permanent burial in an overseas cemetery.

There are enclosed informational pamphlets…”

James F. Smith
Major, QMC
Memorial Division

Major Smith asked Luella to promptly complete a Request for Disposition of Remains so the quartermaster could send her the body.

Luella, ignoring the many questions raised by this letter, wrote the quartermaster to ask just one: Given that she had remarried, was she still next of kin? The quartermaster replied that she was not: Her remarriage gave Norman’s parents the sole right to designate his final disposition. She would hear no more from the Army.

Angus’s father, who meantime had moved to Long Beach, California, asked that Angus’s body be sent to Golden Gate National Cemetery for burial. The casket arrived in early July. On July 18, 1949, almost four years after Norman was killed, Norman’s parents stood across from a color guard and a chaplain and buried their son. Perhaps understandably, Don and Luella, once Norman’s best friend and wife, did not attend.

“There were any number of reasons not to go,” said Christy, decades later. “It was a long way from Iowa, of course, and you didn’t just pack up four people and fly in those days. It was probably far beyond our means.

“Besides, my mom was still mad at him. I guess she figured she had already buried him.”

My mother knew nothing of all this. Not being kin, she received nothing from the government, and Norman’s family knew nothing of her identity and likely wouldn’t have told her anything if they had. But she was not sitting around waiting for mail. She was studying medicine.

She had enrolled at San Antonio’s Trinity College in the fall of 1946; she burned through the curriculum in three years and then entered Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine in September 1949. She was a 28-year-old single mother with an 8-year-old and no parental support, but she was a far more focused person than she had been five years before. She had become the woman that both her Baylor classmates and everyone who met her later knew: smart, funny, and charming, as always, but also immensely disciplined and not one to cross.

She met my father during her first year at Baylor, where he was one class ahead of her. He came from Hempstead, Texas, a small town west of Houston, and was seven years younger than she. He was tall, handsome, shyly funny, and one of Baylor’s sharpest students. They fell in together a year after she graduated, in 1953, when they were both interning in St. Louis. They married three years later and soon had Allen, the first of five children. For a time they must have seemed a couple blessed—two smart, attractive, agreeable young doctors spawning a passel of bright kids. Yet somewhere my mother’s second shot at happiness went awry. My father, while enormously talented and beloved by many of his patients, lacked any knack for self-promotion or pricing. He stayed busy but was only modestly prosperous compared with his more mercenary peers. My mother, meanwhile, reveled in her rise through Houston’s medical culture. She was elated to make the Who’s Who one year and kept that dark blue volume prominently shelved among her counseling-room reference books. She began to resent my father’s seeming lack of ambition even as he grew uneasy with her own excess of it. Their fights grew more frequent. Over time and with each battle she grew louder and he quieter. Finally, he fell silent: His long work days mashed together so thoroughly that when he moved out, we were so used to not seeing him that my mother actually got away with waiting several days to tell us. They divorced in their 17th year.

My mother tried to take this stoically, but it showed. She often looked tired, and she was more likely to cry if one of us acted stubborn or mean. If I raised my voice, she would either lay into me with trembling jaw or, worse, sit down and wipe her eyes with her fingertips and say in a cracked voice, “Oh, Davey, I don’t see why you insist on being so … so … hateful about things. Why are you so angry at me?” Once, furious at my brother and me for some adolescent idiocy, she hollered us into the car, backed it squealing onto the street, slammed it into gear, and floored it. A few seconds later, we reminded her that she had forgotten something—I don’t remember what, but it was essential to her mission. She hit the brakes so hard, we did a one-eighty. Around us rose the smell of burnt rubber. My brother and I faked smiles of thrilled, cocky pleasure. But we did not speak, lest our voices crack with fear.

Amid all this, there’s a danger of missing how much fun my mother was and how much love she created. She played the piano (moderately well), played bridge (gleefully), punned (ruthlessly), and sang, exuberantly, in the church choir, the kitchen, the shower, the car—at every excuse. She liked to garden. She didn’t do it often, but on those occasions when as a boy I would seek her out and find her standing out front pruning the rose bushes or sitting in the backyard planting monkey grass, she seemed at peace. Some of this was the warm relaxation brought by working outside. But as a father now myself, I suspect that some of the happiness I sensed at these moments was the incomparable pleasure of being sought and found by one’s children. I had first to search the big house, nine rooms on two floors, then yell out the back door. On hearing her distant response, I am running. I let the screen door slam and fly through magnolia shade until the bright sun along the driveway slows me and I find her sitting at the edge of her rose garden. She wears old jeans, a green smock, and pale blue gardening gloves. The pruning shears, laid aside, bend but do not flatten the stiff blades of the Saint Augustine grass. She looks up, and with the back of her sleeve she pushes her black curls from her forehead and gives me a wondrous smile. She delightedly says my name. This smile will embarrass me at other times. But now it completely drives from my head whatever inspired this search only moments before. She smiles that radiant smile, and when she asks me what brings her the pleasure of this visit, I can’t recall what I’ve come to her for. Clearly this.

My mother’s romance with Angus formed a pivot on which her life turned. She credited him with inspiring her to pursue medicine, and with this new focus she moved from a self-destructive course to a life more disciplined, elevated, and rewarding. Her affair with him, even as it indulged her mother’s brand of impropriety, lifted her from the gravity of Clara Lee’s example. But it took an enormous toll. It undermined the lives of Angus’s widow and children for decades. And to my mother, Angus—the one love she lost to bad luck rather than failed effort—remained forever the idealized lost chance. His death took from her not just any happiness she might have found with him but also the ability to find peace with someone as gentle as my father. Angus had opened a door to happiness that, once closed, shut her out forever. The sound of it slamming echoed a long time.

And not just for her. Christy Zahrt once visited me in Vermont, driving all the way from Nevada to do so, and after a long afternoon at my backyard picnic table, excavating our past, she said, “Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around this. Everybody ended up married to somebody they wished was somebody else. Don married Luella but wished he was married to Nell. Luella married Don but wished she was married to Norman. Your mom married your dad but wished she was married to Norman. And your dad was the only one who didn’t know about any of this, and he ended up wishing he’d married someone else anyway.”

When I stopped laughing, Christy said, “We’re obviously not siblings—we can’t be, because Norman died way before you were born. Yet I feel as if somehow we are.”

I said I’d been thinking the same thing.

“Except, of course, if Norman and Jane had stayed together,” she said, “you wouldn’t be here.”

I had thought of that, too.

Given how different my parents were, their marriage would almost certainly have failed even without Angus in my mother’s past. Yet I believe my mother resisted that failure more ferociously and took it more bitterly, and blamed my father all the more, simply because my father was not Angus. My father was kind, smart, funny, strong, generous, and handsome. But he was not restless, daring, or self-absorbed. He did not exude the narcissist’s glow. After he left, my mother hinted at her resentment by telling us the fragment of the Angus story we possessed at her death. Her tale boiled down to this: She’d known real love once, by God, but lost it.

One afternoon a few weeks ago, when I was scrolling through the photographs for this story, my 9-year-old son, looking over my shoulder at pictures of Evelyn and Angus in their youth, asked me if I thought that telling this story would be OK with my mom. I told him I thought it would. I had once asked David Zahrt how he felt about this story going public. “The past is approved,” he said, “and the future is open”—another way of saying we must own our scars rather than wish them away. And to my mind, my mother had told us twice that she was finally ready to release her past, and thereby own it.

The first tell was her request that we put her in the Pacific. She had to know this amounted to a public declaration. I think that’s why she looked so relieved when she asked us to take her to Angus. It’s work, hiding these things.j

The other tell was the locket—the one holding the picture of her grandparents. About a year before she died, my mother sent the locket to her cousin. Betty Lou found it unsettling. The locket seemed a fitting thing to share, yet the timing made Betty Lou worry that my mother was declining and that this gift represented a good-bye.

That locket had held the same picture for almost a century. Yet when Betty Lou pressed the button and the locket popped open, she did not see the photograph of her grandparents. She saw a photograph of Angus.

Had my mother kept Angus’s picture behind that of her grandparents all those years? We agreed she must have. It’s not as if she would cut out his picture and put it there just to send to Betty Lou.

So it appears she had carried Angus with her all that time. It had been there when as a boy on her lap I tugged it up from between her breasts so I could look at it. Instead of Angus, of course, I had seen my mother’s grandparents. She had put them there because she loved them. But she had also put them there to cover and protect Angus’s memory: one past to cover another, just as she built one life to encase an earlier one.


A decade ago, I began chasing Angus as a way to better know my mother. A year ago, I went to see him. I did this partly as a way of once more visiting my mother, of drawing from her, in my mind at least, the smile she had once given me in the garden. To make sure Angus did not slip away yet again, I carried all the information needed to find him: the name of the cemetery, his grid, row, and plot number. I had built an empty half-day into the end of a Bay Area business trip. When I finished my work, I got out my phone, opened Google Maps, and found the big national cemetery at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It would be a two-hour walk across the San Francisco hills.

For April it was warm. Sometimes I would reach the top of a hill and see the bridge shimmering in the heat and distance, bigger each time. As I walked, feeling myself growing both excited and tense, I told myself that I was excited to finally meet Angus and tense because I had not yet worked out what I wanted to say.

I found the cemetery down by the water, just as the map showed, along one shore of the lovely old fort called the Presidio, and walked through the stone gates. To my right rose the bridge. Before me opened a broad rolling landscape of precisely laid rows of white headstones. A couple hundred yards up the driveway stood a visitor center. Attached to the building, right next to the door, was a little box that said “Grave Finder.” You turned a ratcheted wheel to the last name you were looking for and it would give you the grave location. I turned it to Z—but found no Zahrt. I checked everything and did it again. No Zahrt. I stood there like an idiot, alone and dumb amid thousands of silent headstones, and tried to figure out what was amiss. Either the Grave Finder had the wrong information or I did. I walked back so I was among the gravestones and again opened Google Maps on my phone. Again I checked my entry for the grave information. And then, knowing what was coming, I Googled “Golden Gate National Cemetery.” And I found that, behold, the Golden Gate National Cemetery is not the national cemetery that lies at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. That cemetery is the San Francisco National Cemetery. The Golden Gate Cemetery is eight miles south, in a place called San Bruno.

I looked at my watch. My plane was leaving in three hours. I would have to visit Angus another time. For now, surrounded by dead strangers, I could only sit in the grass and laugh. My sister Cynthia laughed, too, when I called her later and told her the story.

“That man,” she said, “is simply not to be found.”

A month later, contriving another business trip and taking another long, warm walk, I finally found Angus, on a bright slope in San Bruno. The Golden Gate National Cemetery sits surrounded by strip malls and big-box stores and six-lane suburban boulevards. Yet its gentle rolling expanse and the well-kept severity of its close-mown grass offer dignity and peace. Norman’s stone stands near an oak tree among the graves of others buried in 1949, none of them killed in the war. Many of the stones designated these men as “Son of” or “Husband of.” Some had the names of wives, buried there, too, carved into the reverse side. Norman’s contains no mention of family.

I sat for an hour, thinking of him lying here for 50 years while my mother thought he was still in the Pacific. When we granted her wish and flew her to Hawaii to join him, we instead left him far behind. Now she was slowly dispersing in the Pacific while he lay buried neat and deep in San Bruno; it would take a lot of time and rain to bring them together. If we had saved some ashes, I could have sprinkled some on his grave. But we had not, and I did not want to leave a picture that would just get thrown away. My mother would not have liked that. So I took some photographs and walked past a few thousand headstones and past the big-box stores and back to the train.

Later, at home, I made a two-inch-square print of Angus’s resting place. I found the photograph my brother had emailed me from Maui years before, showing our leis floating over my mother’s ashes, and I made a two-inch-square print of that. Then I opened my mother’s crumbling photo album and slipped the pictures into the two remaining empty sets of corner mounts. I considered pulling those mounts off and pasting the photos closer to one another. But I thought, No: My mom had glued those holders in that way, and I shouldn’t change it. This was as close as I could get them. 

My mother’s long-kept photo album today

My Mother’s Lover, by David Dobbs, is Issue No. 5 of The Atavist Magazine,
published in June 2011.

For more of our titles visit magazine.atavist.com.

We welcome feedback to this story at letters@atavist.com.

Author: David Dobbs

David Dobbs (www.daviddobbs.net) writes features and essays for publications including the Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, and the Guardian. Several of his stories have been chosen for leading science anthologies; most recently, his much-discussed feature for the Atlantic, "The Orchid Children," was included in Ecco/HarperPerennial’s Best American Science Writing 2010. He is now writing his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which explores the genetics of temperament—and the idea that the genes underlying some of our most troublesome traits and behaviors also generate some of our greatest strengths and accomplishments.

Additional Reporting and Sound/Video Editor: Olivia Koski

Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Photographs: War photos, by Norman Zahrt (when Zahrt pictured)

Photo of author and his mother by Herman Dobbs

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Music: Nicholas Thompson

Editor: Evan Ratliff

Special thanks to: the Zahrt Family, Alice Colwell, Cynthia Jane Dobbs, Allen Dobbs, Ann Dobbs, Herman Dobbs, Sarah Violet Kerrigan, Kathy Hall, Jimmie Holland, Chris McDermott, Maryn McKenna, Adam Rogers, and Steve Silberman.

© 2011 Atavist Inc.