My father-in-law sent four sons to Notre Dame and helped send five grandchildren as well. He did not attend college himself. He went to war, enlisting the day after his high school graduation in 1944. Leonard joined in the Navy and was sent to the Pacific theater. This much we always knew.
Leonard told us he was a cook in the Navy, and so he was. He liked to brag about cooking pancakes and eggs, hundreds of them, flipped and scrambled for the waiting sailors. Mostly, though, he did not talk about the war. He was not one to reminisce, not like my husband’s Great-Uncle John, who sat on his sister’s front porch and told us stories of his time in France during World War I. Uncle John was animated, glad to have an audience, telling us about the trench rats able to detect poisonous gas before the soldiers. He was fine until he mimed taking the gas mask and placing it on his face. Then his hands began to shake and his voice to tremble and he could not go on.
Uncle John was old. He had time for stories. Leonard was building a business and raising a family, and those were the topics of interest to him. He spoke easily of tax policy and real estate opportunities and the dangers of buying on credit, but personal stories, his own and others’, bored him.
Then Leonard, too, grew old and ill and he began, at last, to talk. He wanted to tell us about the summer when he and his older brother, Arnold, were taken to the family farm in Hereford, Texas, the day after Saint Mary’s School let out and were left there to work. Leonard was 8 and Arnold was 10. They lived with their young cousin, Walter, in an old bus that Leonard’s father towed to the site. They took their meals in the home of the Doerfler cousins, who lived nearby. They traveled the 46 miles home on weekends and received occasional supervisory visits from Joe Doerfler, who made sure the little boys were working and not playing.
When I say this summer regimen sounds harsh for such young children, Leonard waves me away. There was work to be done. He was told to do it. He did. It is the pattern of his life.
Leonard wanted to talk about the war. He wanted to talk about his first job in the Navy. Leonard was assigned to landing craft, the boats that breached the heavily guarded islands of the Pacific as the soldiers fought to wrest them from Japanese control. The fighting was long and bloody, and many young men died on the beaches of islands so small they had no names.
Because they were tall, Leonard and another sailor were assigned to jump off the craft as it neared the shore. They leapt into the surf and held the long ropes of the boat taut so that it did not get turned around or overturned in the waves. They held the boat as sailors raced from it into gunfire and grenades.
The enemy soldiers shot at Leonard, too, his strawberry blonde hair and sunburned face shining in the sea. Leonard remembers that he and his fellow rope-holder were forbidden to duck under the water or let go of the rope. They had to hold the boat steady.
He remembers boys in the water, on the sand. Then he shakes his head, refusing to speak further. He will not tell us more of what he saw or what he heard. Perhaps he cannot; perhaps he does not know the words for such sounds, such sights.
One morning, Leonard woke on the ship and was told by an officer to prepare for a beach landing. Then he met another officer who told him they were short in the galley and to report there immediately. Leonard wasted no time heading for the kitchen.
That night he learned that most of the men on the landing craft to which he had been assigned were dead. The officer who had expected Leonard on board the craft was still alive, and enraged.
Leonard heard his name on the PA system. He was ordered to the brig, where a court-martial had been convened.
He tells us now that he expected to go to prison. He was saved when the officer who sent Leonard to the galley heard of the proceedings and went to speak on his behalf.
Leonard was freed and told to return to the ship’s galley. He cooked right through the surrender of the Japanese government, frying bacon in his ship as it lay anchored in Tokyo Bay while, above him, solemn ceremonies of defeat and victory were performed.
He says they cooked with filthy water from the bay. Soon, sailors were falling ill with dysentery. Leonard took sick just as the ship began its long voyage home. He was sick as the ship waited in line to dock in the overcrowded San Diego bay. He was sick as the ship, turned away from the California coast, began its trip through the Panama Canal and into New York harbor.
In New York, Leonard, still sick, boarded a troop train for San Diego. He suffered his way west across the continent and then east back to Texas. By the time Leonard arrived home, he had lost 50 pounds. On his 6-foot-4-inch frame, he carried 140 pounds. He was, he tells us, too weak to lift his sea bag when he stepped off the train at the Amarillo depot.
“Why,” we ask, “didn’t you tell someone how ill you were? Ask for help?”
His eyes fill with tears, as they often do these days, and he says, “I was afraid. I was afraid if I told someone they’d take me off the train. Then I wouldn’t get to go home. I wanted to go home.”
I know this is a true story, for Leonard is a strong and stubborn man. Strength and stubbornness have been his glory and his grief. He is not a gentle man nor an understanding one. He usually sees only one way to live a life or solve a problem—his way—and he is dismissive of those who disagree. All of us who know him can well imagine a young man so intent on home that he would vomit his way across two oceans, through a canal and across a continent and a half, rather than allow anyone to turn him from his destination. That was the strength he brought to courting a wife and fathering six sons and making a living for them.
Leonard loves his home. He married Elizabeth, a hometown girl, in 1947, staying close to his family and hers. He always liked to eat at home, three meals a day, except for lunch at the Executive Club on Mondays and the Rotary Club on Thursdays. If he had customers in town, he preferred to entertain them at home. He wanted to show off Elizabeth and her cooking.
As the boys grew up, Leonard and Elizabeth traveled widely, but he never longed for other places or other people. He wanted to be home.
Now, Leonard, who has begun to talk about the past, wants to talk about the future. He wants to talk about our first and final home, the one we all hope to share. When he can, he spends Saturday mornings at a men’s Bible study. He listens there, and learns, and he leaves with questions.
One day we were sitting at the table—Elizabeth, Leonard and I—when he asked me, “Where is heaven?"
I said, “Heaven is wherever God is.”
That answer didn’t satisfy him. Leonard is a man who belongs to a place, a town in the sky-blest Texas Panhandle. He knows places and trusts them more than concepts. He wants directions.
“But that’s not a place,” he said. And then again, “Where is heaven?”
I said, “Leonard, where is home?"
He was silent.
I said, “Home is where Elizabeth is. The place doesn’t matter—this house, a tent, the side of the road. Home is wherever she is. And heaven is wherever God is.”
His eyes filled with tears and he placed his large hand over Elizabeth’s smaller one. He had his answer. He knows how some one can give some place its meaning.
Soon he will pass from Elizabeth’s hands into God’s, from home to home. It is the blessing of his life that he had to leave home only once, and that he returned. He returned battered and weary, but he made it, all the long way home.
Leonard will survive this battle, too, with its trials and dangers, and he will go home.
When I think of Leonard now, I remember the words Robert Louis Stevenson wrote for his own epitaph. It begins,
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Melissa Musick Nussbaum is a writer and speaker and the author of six books. She is a monthly columnist for the liturgical journal Celebration and a regular contributor to GIA (Gregorian Institute of America) Quarterly. She and her husband, Martin ’74, are the parents of five children, including Notre Dame graduates Mary Margaret ’01 and Anna Cate ’06. Her father-in-law went home to God on March 2, 2007.