He was a teen-age boy, recently drafted into the Army, and now stationed near St. Louis. It was his first exposure to urban life and he missed the more familiar setting of cattle and crops and distant horizons.
She was a high school senior, very much at home in the city. Her life centered around ballet lessons and her aspiration for a career on the state.
They met at a USO dance in that summer of 1943.
It was a time when the whole country was caught up with a sense of urgency to get the job done, to get the war over with. Airplanes and tanks streamed from the assembly lines of the war plants. Ships were fabricated in a week or two. Everything seemed to be running at twice the normal speed.
He would be shipping out to another camp in about a month. She knew the places of interest and the cultural events available in St. Louis; he was eager for new adventures. So, on succeeding weekends, they took in a symphony at Keil Auditorium, explored the Jefferson Memorial Museum, sat enchanted under the stars at a musical in Forest Park. He was invited to dinner at 797 Yale, her home in a trendy neighborhood of University City.
The shipping orders came as expected. There was time for a last date. He showed up at her door with a gardenia. They took the streetcar to the Candle Light Inn on the King's Highway, where they sipped hot chocolate at a corner table.
There was a tender moment of parting on the steps at 797 Yale.
"It's been fun. I hope that we can meet again."
"Oh, we will, we will. I'll come back to see you after the war."
Letters found their way to 797 Yale from army posts in North Carolina, Connecticut and Nevada. Later, from distant places with APO designations in Asia, Africa and Europe. The round trip for V-mail between St. Louis and India took up to two months. When there was nothing more to be written the correspondence came to an end, but the 797 Yale address remained etched in his memory.
Strange how after 46 years the old veteran can still see in his mind's eye some shadowy, dreamlike images from that summer of 1943. The house where she lived, is it on the west side of the street? He pictures the house with a dormer and a front porch. There is a compulsion to see it again, to fill in some of the blanks.
His pace quickens as he nears that area where the streets bear the names of universities. An old-fashioned street post shows Dartmouth branching to the right and Yale curving down the hill to the left. The area is vaguely familiar, yet strangely devoid of movement and eerily quiet. There is no sound of laughter from children at play, no one is to be seen in the yards or on the street. The words from a song of that war-time era come to his mind: "What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours." Well, what a difference forty-six years makes! What had been a new family area in 1943 is now a neighborhood of adult working people.
The numbers are becoming larger — 793 and 795 and just around the bend is 797. Yes, there is a dormer and there is a porch that spans the front of the house. Now he remembers that a glider swing occupied one end of the porch.
He crosses the street, crosses the street again, hesitates, then takes the steps to the porch and raps on the door. There is no response. He is relieved that no one has come to the door. What kind of lame excuse would he make for rapping on the door of this house? Ask if they knew the people who lived here two generations ago?
Now he is heading back up the street, occasionally pausing to look back. In his heart he is glad that he has finally made this pilgrimage. After all, a promise is a promise.