• U.S.

Nation: Living with Uncertainty; The Families Who Wait Back Home

9 minute read

A void, a limbo, imprisons as surely as concrete and bars; such is the confinement of the waiting families. Here is an account of three of them:

IT is a flawless picture: the tall, pants-suited woman, attractive in the years before middle age, her hair dyed black, her husky voice speaking well-chosen, mature words. The apartment bright with Florida sun and four children, and comfortable with the acquisitions of tasteful travelers: an inlaid bone chess table from Pakistan, tiny prints from Arabia, a brass samovar from Teheran. She has worked as a nurse and now attends college for a nursing degree; she goes to occasional cocktail parties.

It is all a facade; the life behind it is terribly flawed. It was July 5, 1968, when Air Force Lieut. Colonel Carl B. Grumpier, his Phantom jet struck by enemy fire, had to parachute into North Viet Nam. It was almost two years later, in May 1970, that statuesque Mrs. Jane Grumpier, 39, received the first six-line letter from a prison camp. The knowledge that he was alive—there have now been seven letters—helped. “Now I can tell the kids ‘When Daddy comes home . . .’ rather than ‘If Daddy comes home,’ ” she says.

The social pose is a daytime thing. “Everyone says you’re so brave, but you do your crying at night.” It is accrued pain: “I never forget it. I never stop thinking about him and what he’s going through. It’s just impossible to get it out of your mind. I’ve been married 14 years . . .” She cannot blend into the social mix of other couples easily, and she hates to rely on others to entertain her—”You feel like a fifth wheel.” The infrequent parties must inevitably end badly. “I come home, and that’s when I feel worst.”

Jane Grumpier thought that she had made an acceptable, if dangerous commitment when she married a fighter pilot in 1956, peacetime. But the 22-month period between his last flight and his first letter was a price she had not bargained for. She says widowhood at least has the finality she could learn to accept—”like a dark curtain falling over my life”—but imprisonment with no certain end is not graspable, a half-curtain. The price now, even with the knowledge that her husband is alive, is still too high for her and, she thinks, for the country. She applauds last week’s rescue raid on the Son Tay P.O.W. camp —”It’s the first time we’ve seen anything constructive done”—but decries the situation in which almost all other public efforts on the prisoners’ behalf have been the work of “women and children.” The disillusion of the prisoners’ wives “is coming to a boiling point,” she says. “The pats on the head are not enough any more. Calling us the bravest women in the world won’t work.”

But at least the facade is possible. Her husband’s letters counsel the children to study and not watch too much television; they inquire whether she has got braces for Mike, the oldest at 13. Mrs. Grumpier has other problems in a manless house. “I tried to sell a car and I couldn’t find—what do you call it —the title.” And she has a problem with Mike that her dentist cannot handle, nor can she. The blond, rangy boy was switched from offense to linebacker on the defensive platoon for his junior high school football team and came home unhappy. “I couldn’t tell him what to do,” Jane Grumpier says.

Navy Lieut, (j.g.) Charlie Zuhoski, 25, and his attractive girlfriend of a year, Patty Highley, 20, decided to get married in June 1967. They waited for an hour outside a post exchange until it opened, he bought a $5.95 silver wedding ring, and they drove to a justice of the peace. Their honeymoon took place at the Miramar Naval Air Station—in the bachelor-officers’ quarters. Ten days later he sailed to the war; the next month he was shot down.

The impact on young Patty Zuhoski was fast and hard. She says: “Before he left we discussed the possibility. If it happens, it happens. But we were kind of joking; every third sentence was a joke. But we knew what we were talking about.”

The resources of a 20-year-old, living in the world of the half married, half widowed, were slight supports. She tried going back to her bank teller’s job but had to quit; living in San Diego, a naval town where every uniform made her edgy, was too much. Finally, she achieved a bearable tension at her parents’ Southern California home. Talks with her father, a retired Air Force colonel, and a friend who had been a World War II P.O.W., at least reduced the unknown terrors.

She has done volunteer Red Cross work, audited college courses, played bridge, read a good deal. “I go to a lot of movies. I’ve had more than one lady say when I’ve gone out with friends, ‘Good heavens, what are you doing out?’ And I say ‘What am I supposed to do?’ He left a very alive individual, and that’s what he expects to find when he comes back. I can’t go out and date. But I can only put up with these wives [of other P.O.W.s] once or twice a week. They are so depressing.” She sums it up simply: “It’s a very lonely existence. You’re married but you’re not married. You’re not single. You’re not divorced or widowed. Where does that put you in society? That puts you in your own world.”

Charlie Zuhoski must have had his agile wit working when his Navy Crusader was hit. He survived, and Patty got her first letter last February, 30 months after he went down. Since then, there have been six others; in a recent letter, he spent one of his precious six lines talking about the grandchildren he was going to have. Patty’s literary criticism: “He was probably just horny.” She has sent him letters and packages; one contained a gift that brings a rare laugh from her, and may have been her response to his musing about grandchildren: some scandalous, yellow-striped underwear. “But I don’t think he got them,” she says. “Maybe some V.C. or North Vietnamese is walking around looking very pretty.”

Patty has had more good fortune than most P.O.W. wives. She has seen her husband in a Hanoi propaganda film. She says: “Seeing is believing. He has arms, legs, feet and head. I had them run the film over and over. He was kind of haggard but a lot better than some. He’s even getting bald.”

Before her marriage, Patty Zuhoski says, she “probably didn’t even realize there was a Viet Nam War. Now sometimes I feel like—well, just give me back my husband and you can keep that damn war going for ten more years. We used to park on the flight line and watch the planes bounce [practice landing]. I’d get more jealous over his airplanes than anyone else. I never realized what war was. I know now . . . If things don’t work out, I have less to lose than some people. Sure, I’ll lose a wonderful individual, but I can’t lose the memories. You couldn’t pay me ten million dollars for those ten days.”

Patty Zuhoski has changed in other ways. She has gained 20 pounds since her marriage because of a medical diet. At 23, she has a bleeding ulcer.

There is no saving grace in memory for Lynn Glenn, 25, who lives a few blocks from Jacksonville University with two Siamese cats, growing anger, and overflowing frustration at what has become of her life since her husband, Navy Lieut. Daniel Glenn, was shot down and captured in a paddy field four days before Christmas 1966.

She is frank about the sexual frustration of a vital young woman. She meets men who attract her, but nothing has happened “that I can’t tell him about.” But she adds: “I’m tired of not really living.”

She is also frank about what she thinks of the war and about the organized P.O.W. wives who throw themselves into the group’s work, combining their need for activity with a purposeful end. She did too, for a time, but she is ready to give it up: “I’ve stood in front of the Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis and told them to write letters. The hell with that. . . It’s out of the hands of the letter writers and the wives baring their souls.” As both hawk and dove, she condemns the war: there has been no will to win, and airmen—her husband included —have “bombed schools, maimed women, killed children.”

Finally, she speaks openly about whether she and her husband can really resume together the life they once had. She remembers him as an unreserved patriot with whom she spent four months of married life, and she sees herself as a woman who has become different in many ways. She is attending the university, majoring in English, and writing poetry; she does art work; she is close to getting her flying license. If she knew with certainty that her husband would be gone for five more years, she wonders whether the marriage could survive.

Her husband apparently senses the growing estrangement. In a recent letter he told her: “I still love you the way you were when I married you.” She is no longer that way. “I was a 20-year-old teeny-bopper.” she says. “What I’d really like is for him to come back and for us to court to see if we’re still right for each other. If not, forget it.”

But other men are still kept at a distance; her energy is spent, in part, in almost frantic activity. Her recent poem, War Waste, tells a great deal about Lynn Glenn. A portion of it:

Where are the big brave warriors now? . . . His silver, supersonic soarer. His bomb-blowing, truck-finding Sea-swooping carrier Where is it? Him, the educated engineer, architect, Geologist, economist, turned Bon vivant aviator, Where is he? . . . He drank at Cubi, swaggered at Yokuska, Rested in Honolulu. He was proud. Mom, apple pie and the red, white and blue were with him. Now he is in a cell. He wears pajamas, sleeps on a mat . . . And waits. He waits for the red. white and blue.

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