In 2007, I’d been an oft-published author for over twenty years, writing nonfiction books on anything from menopause remedies to Princess Diana’s last romance. But I’d never written anything about myself, until I realized that I did have a story to tell, and a good one, which eventually became If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story.
The story begins when, at age thirteen, I discovered that my mother had once been married to a World War II pilot who was killed in action during the war. After much prodding and prying on my part, Mom finally told me stories about their relationship, about what it was like to lose her first love to war, and about her decision to quit her job, move across country, and marry my father before she really knew him. Mom’s fascinating tales of love and loss, wartime romance, and lovers separated by war provided a sharp contrast to what was currently going on in our home: alcoholism, psychological abuse, oppression, and endless volatility. Like many World War II women, Mom simply learned to live with all of these things, but I never did. Through her stories, Lyndon became an icon to me, an example of romantic possibility. They gave me hope that my own marriage would be different from my parents’, something wonderful, or at least not such a disaster.
Decades later, when Mom passed on in 2000, I developed a burning desire to return Lyndon’s war medals and other war memorabilia to his family. Since Mom hadn’t been in contact with the Raff family for 57 years, I had no idea where they were, or even if any of them were still alive. It hadn’t yet become a common practice to Google people, so I was stumped. But fate stepped in when my husband and I took a trip to Mom’s home state of Minnesota to scatter her ashes and made an unplanned stop at the Minnesota Historical Society. When wandering through the Reading Room, I happened to pull a book off the shelf – the only book I picked up that day – and lo and behold, the author was Lyndon’s brother, Bill! I contacted Bill, he replied, and soon I was able to return the war medals, wedding album, pictures, and other memorabilia to the Raff family nearly six decades after Lyndon’s death!
Yet that wasn’t the end of the story. Five years later, Lyndon’s niece Dixie and I had lunch together. During our conversation, I wondered aloud why it took six whole years for Lyndon’s body to be returned to the U.S. after his death. And that’s when Dixie dropped a bomb on me. She said it was because my mother had refused to grant the Army permission to exhume Lyndon’s body and bring it home! And since Lyndon was buried in a common grave with eight others, Dixie said, the Army couldn’t bring home the bodies of any of the nine soldiers who died in the plane crash. Thus, they remained in India until my mother remarried and Lyndon’s parents regained next of kin rights and gave the Army get permission to bring the soldiers home.
Absolutely certain this couldn’t be true, I came up with an alternate scenario that made perfect sense. And suddenly, I had enough amazing material for a book. Still, seven years would pass before I got serious enough about writing the book to contact Dixie again. This time she told me that she had 28 of Lyndon’s wartime letters, plus his entire Army personnel file, and I was welcome to read them. I could hardly contain my excitement! After more than 60 years, the pilot who had married my mother was about to speak for himself about their relationship as well as his adventures as a transport pilot flying “the Hump.” And the documents in his personnel file would tell me for certain who had stood in the way of bringing Lyndon and his fellow soldiers home for those six long years.
Part romance, part mystery, partly the story of escaping an abusive environment and finding fulfillment, If My Heart Had Wings turned out to be quite a different story than I’d first imagined. It’s much more complex and much more satisfying. I hope you enjoy it!