LOVE, LOSS & RESILIENCE
I’ll go on record: It wasn’t until 2005 when I interviewed dozens of men and women of “The Greatest Generation” for my book, Thanks For The Memories: Love, Sex and World War II (a shameless plug), that I kicked myself for having bought into our culture’s blanket dismissal of seniors as burdensome shadows—invisible elders often warehoused in senior facilities, out of view.
My research for the World War II book brought me to senses.
I found Betty Lou Kratoville, then 81, online. She and her son, Damon, had written Laughter and Tears: A Combat Pilot’s Sketchbooks of World War II Squadron Life. I knew within minutes of the first of many phone calls over the next decade, that I’d chanced upon a vibrant, thoughtful, wise woman whose life experiences would serve as a centerpiece of my book.
Betty Lou met George Whiston Rarey (“Rarey”) on a breakfast blind date on Thanksgiving morning, 1941. It wasn’t love at first sight. But things began to “percolate” a few weeks later. They started talking marriage “darn” soon. But Pearl Harbor and the country’s entry into World War II delayed their plans. Rarey was drafted almost immediately and trained as a fighter pilot.
Aviation cadets could not be married until June, 1942. Betty Lou took a two-week vacation and traveled to Maxwell Field in Birmingham, Alabama, to marry Rarey. On their wedding day, a glum Rarey called his bride-to-be to say that he’d been restricted to base for the week end because his navigation marks were low. The wedding would have to be postponed for a week.
Then there was a second call. Rarey had been given a reprieve and could come to town for the day but had to return to base that night. The wedding ceremony went off without a hitch. The “honeymoon” would have to wait.
The couple saw each other on Saturday and Sunday nights. In between visits, Betty Lou and other wives spent time together. “Lord knows, we had a lot in common.” At night, the women went out to the base, hung out behind the fence, and talked to the “boys.”
Following Rarey was, said Betty Lou, “The smartest decision I ever made. . . . I learned how to be independent. I never imagined that I could do what I did. I wasn’t a bit afraid. I would tackle anything.”
When Rarey was sent to Springfield, Massachusetts, to continue his training, he and Betty Lou lived together for the first time. Betty Lou’s pregnancy was planned. She knew Rarey wouldn’t be with her when their child was born, but that was the reality of war.
Rarey left for England at the end of November, 1943. Damon was born in March of the following year.
Rarey’s letters home, peppered with cartoons, depicted the war but, more than anything else, captured his thoughts about his “dear” Betty Lou and his son. He couldn’t wait to return home.
Three months after Damon was born, Betty Lou was told she had a telegram.
Rarey had been reported missing in action. It wasn’t until that Thanksgiving that she got the final word. Rarey’s plane had been shot down over Normandy, and Rarey did not survive. When a girlfriend asked Betty Lou what she was going to do, she said, “I don’t know . . . just go crazy I guess.”
But she didn’t go crazy. She landed a job as a secretary and went to work.
“You never get over a loss like this,” she said. But two years after Rarey’s death, Betty Lou married an officer in Rarey’s squadron. They had a daughter. Tragically, her second husband was killed in a test pilot training accident.
She tried marriage a third time, but it was not a charm. But she did have three more sons.
As she looked back on her life, Betty Lou was philosophical. “I would have just hated myself if I hadn’t spent those months with Rarey. I always felt that I could look Damon in the eye because I stuck with his dad to the very last moment. I’ve learned that you can either grow from life’s experiences and somehow stagger on. I learned to cope with a certain amount of strength.”
Betty Lou died with grace almost seven decades after Rarey’s death and sixty years after the death of her second husband.