Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Love Story

I've spent the better part of March transcribing the interviews I conducted in February. One of those was with John Sweren of Mesa, Arizona. John was the tail gunner on a B-26 and flew 58 missions in Europe before his plane was shot down.

About five years ago a French aviation historian, Christian Levaufre, contacted John and told him that the village where his plane crashed, Fierville-Bray, was going to put up a monument and hold a ceremony. Although his pilot and co-pilot survived the crash, while the other three crew members were killed, John was the only surviving crew member to attend the monument's dedication in 2005.

Some time later, John was on an airplane and he found himself sitting next to Brett Schomacher, a history buff who became fascinated as John told him his story. He visited John on several occasions and recorded their conversations. He had the tapes transcribed, but the transcription service subsequently lost or threw away the original tapes.

After Brett sent me the transcript, I decided I'd like to interview John myself, and so I spent two days visiting him in Arizona on my recent trip.

What follows is a small portion of John's story, as he told it to me, and earlier to Brett:

"I used to call the west side of Longview, Washington, the blue chip neighborhood, because that's where the people who had more money and bigger houses lived. Most people had wood stoves, and some of them had sawdust burners, so they'd get sawdust hauled in, and they had doors that opened up but somebody had to shovel it into the basement. So I'd go around, and if I saw somebody with a pile of sawdust I'd knock on the door and ask if I could help them. That was my way of earning a couple of dollars. One place nobody was home, so I stacked all their wood before they even got home. Then I knocked on the door and said I stacked your wood up there.

" 'Thanks kid.' That happened a couple of times, when I didn't get paid, but I guess that's life.

"One day I saw a house with a pile of sawdust outside. I knocked on the door and a lady answered. I said, 'I hope you're not busy. I see you've got a load of sawdust out there. Would you like me to shovel it into your basement?'

"And she said, 'What's your name?'

"I told her.

" 'Do you live around here?'

"I said, 'No, I live all the way over on the east side.'

" 'Have you done this before?'

"I said, 'Yes, several times.'

"She said, 'Okay.' So she brought me a shovel and I shoveled it into the basement. Then I knocked on the door and asked her if she had a broom. I swept the driveway, and she looked and said, 'What a beautiful job you've done, Johnny.'

"And I said, 'Thank you.'

"And she said, 'Did you ever trim any shrubs?'

"I said, 'Yes. I worked for a landscaper and he showed me how.'

"And we spoke some more and she said, 'If you've got the time, I'd like to have you full time. I mow my lawn every week, and the shrubs I trim about every month, and sawdust I get,' I forget how often. 'And I get planer ends, too,' which she used for starting the fire in her wood stove.

"She kept me pretty busy, and she paid me some and kept track of everything. Then one day she said, 'I'd like to meet your mother and father.' She never did. She said, 'You seem like a nice boy. You were raised properly. I always wanted to have a boy, but I never did. The only boy I had was my husband, and he's gone.' And she'd go to the store and bring me cake and cookies out there, so I was just like part of the family.

"She went away for two weeks, and left the key to the garage with me so I could get the tools, because usually she brought the tools out to me. That's when I saw the Cord.

"When she came back she was so happy at all the things I did, and she said, 'How did things go, Johnny.?

"I said, 'Oh, fine, Mrs. Jacobs. But I fell in love while you were gone.'

" 'Oh,' she said. 'Who's the lucky girl?'

" 'It wasn't a girl,' I said. 'It's that car in your garage.'

"Then, after I talked to her, she said she would sell me the car and I could work it off. I think I worked for her until Pearl Harbor. She cheated herself, I know. She gave me the title to the car and said it was paid for.

" 'It can't be,' I said.

"She said, 'I kept track of everything.' So she gave me the keys and the title, and God, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

"I sold it when I went in the service, and got $1,750, which was a lot of money. But I went to the Barrett-Jackson car show in Scottsdale this year, that's one of the biggest collector car shows in the country, they have it every January, and they had a Cord for sale. It went for $575,000. And I didn't see it last year, but they said they sold one last year for $1.2 million."

A 1937 Cord (generic photo)

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