“I’m leaving for church,” 11-year-old Dorothy Mengel called to her mother in the kitchen as she slammed the screen door shut. “I don’t want to be late . . .”
“You can help me with chores after lunch!” her mother called to Dorothy.
Although her full name was Dorothea Mildred Mengel, it seemed like such a big name for a young girl, born on a snowy January 15, 1919, in Rock, Pennsylvania.
Every Sunday, Dorothy walked three miles to Brown’s Lutheran Church through the Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, hillside. Although her mother, Emma Krause Schwartz, stayed home to cook Sunday dinner, Dorothy tagged along with the neighbor lady, Mrs. Marburger.
“I’m coming!” Dorothy called to Mrs. Marburger, as she ran down the dirt road after her.
The rolling, green Pennsylvania hillside surrounded Dorothy and Mrs. Marburger on their Sunday walk. Mrs. Marburger never said much, only that she hoped Dorothy made lots of friends at church and might have even met a special boy.
“How’s Wilson?” Mrs. Marburger asked Dorothy. “He might be the one for you . . .”
“He’s fine,” Dorothy said, blushing and shy, looking at the steeple on the wooden church. “Besides, I’m too young to think about grown-up things.”
She ran to the side door and headed to the Sunday school on the first floor.
“Make sure you get a rainbow pin,” her teacher said as she sat in the front row.
“Where’s Wilson?” Dorothy whispered. He must be running late, she thought to herself.
Later, she hurried to the service on the second floor, where hymns rang from the rafters. In between saying her prayers, Dorothy noticed the unruly Wilson Moyer. Although he was three years older than she was, Dorothy thought he was the most handsome of all the boys at church. He had a crisp, autumn entrance into the world on October 9, 1916. Every now and then, Dorothy would pass him letters in the middle of church, and he would pass her notes back, which she kept between the pages of her Bible.
“Will you please walk me home?” Dorothy wrote to Wilson on that particular day. She slipped him the note as she sat in the pew behind him.
“Yes, I’ll walk you home,” Wilson wrote and slipped the note back to her when no one was looking. “Meet me by the apple tree after church, but I’ll have to run back to my house before my mom misses me.”
During church, Wilson sat in the pew with his brothers and sisters: Russel, Leo, Erma, Ruth, George, Joe, and Robert. May, Wilson’s younger sister, had died at age four of pneumonia. Wilson’s parents, Carrie A. Werner Moyer, and Robert D. Moyer, insisted the children join Brown’s Church Band to play at summer picnics—but the Moyers didn’t last long, because they had a hard time sitting still, which was not much different than during the church service.
“Sssh,” the usher said to the entire pew of Moyer children, who were giggling.
Born March 11, 1891, in Jefferson, Pennsylvania, Carrie was a farmer’s wife. Robert Moyer was born March 18, 1886, in Wayne Township. His parents were Lewis Moyer and Mary Hain Moyer, and Lewis was the twelfth child of Christian Meyer, who was born in Blsass Kovigreich, Frankreich, on February 2, 1803, during the era of French military leader and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Educated in excellent schools in his homeland, he got passage on a sailing vessel to America at age 18. In 1829, Christian came to Black Horse, Wayne Township, Pennsylvania, becoming a schoolteacher at the request of Valentine Brown, who offered him board and lodging in his own house.
“Christian Meyer, your great-grandfather, was the first schoolteacher in the first school in Wayne Township,” Robert lectured the Moyer children. “He taught there for 41 years, and somewhere along the way, because of American accents, the family name changed to Moyer. He was also the ‘Singing Meister’ and organist at St. Paul’s Summer Hill Church for seven years. He was a farmer and a tombstone cutter. He married Catherine Fide and had thirteen children by her. He would expect you to grow up into fine young men and women.”
When Dorothy was five years old, her father, Howard Mengel, died of pneumonia on February 10, 1924. Born on March 5, 1892, in Auburn, Pennsylvania, Howard was her mother’s second husband. He was a carpenter who worked for the Reading Railroad. His parents were George Franklin Mengel and Rebecca Schullenberger Mengel. George Mengel’s mother, Ellen Moser, was a Native American, buried at Red Church Cemetery in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania.
“Did I tell you that I have a Native American ancestor?” Dorothy would say to Wilson. “I always thought that she was special, almost like Pocahontas.”
“It must be why you’re so pretty,” Wilson said, taking her hand and smiling.
One day after church, Emma decided to tell Dorothy about her first husband, William Moyer, who had died in the coal mines.
“Dorothy, now, don’t you tell a soul, but one afternoon, I was peeling potatoes for dinner and heard the screen door slam,” Emma said, crying at the kitchen table. “William, my first husband, appeared in a vision with his head bandaged. When I turned around, he wasn’t there anymore. Minutes later, the coal miners brought him home in a burlap bag, which they left on the porch.”
Feeling the grief of her mother, Dorothy’s face filled with tears, and she ran for a handkerchief. Although Emma married for the third time to Monroe Schwartz, Dorothy felt out of place. Her older sister by nine years, Helen, still grieved the loss of her father, William, while Dorothy and her brothers, Floyd, Harold, and Reynold, grieved the loss of their father, Howard. Dorothy worried that her mother’s third husband, Monroe, would die at any moment, leaving her family and his own children, Marie, who was nine years younger than Dorothy, and Robert, who was eleven years younger than Dorothy, without a father as well. Then her mother would have seven children and no husband after three marriages.
She tried to forget her foreboding feelings, but Dorothy always worried that something bad would happen. When Floyd, her older brother by two years, was 14, a tractor ran over his foot and caused an infection. Eventually, his foot became gangrene, and he died.
“Please God, let something good happen,” Dorothy prayed in her heart.
Although she spoke English, whenever she was worried, she mumbled in Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German that the whole family spoke.
“There’s not going to be a thunderstorm tonight, is there?” Dorothy whispered to Wilson over the church pew. “You never know when lightning is going to strike . . .”
“I don’t think so,” Wilson said in a quiet voice. “Don’t worry so much.”
“I try not to worry, but just make sure you never take a bath during a lightning storm,” Dorothy said, looking at the sky through the stained-glass window.
When Dorothy was 12 years old, she was taking socks down from the outdoor clothesline with her mother. A storm was nearing, and lightning struck the aluminum pole and clothesline and threw Dorothy to the ground. She landed in a pile of stones and water. At the time, her mother was bent over placing laundry in the basket, and the lightning missed her mother. Emma ran to Dorothy, grabbed her, and rocked her in the rocking chair inside the house until she stopped crying. In fact, lightning was known to strike often in the Pennsylvania hillside.
During another bad storm in a village near her home, a strong wind blew lightning through an open front door all the way to the back door, destroying a chocolate cake on the kitchen table to pieces. Bits of the cake splattered across the ceiling, cabinets, and windows, with dark stains still found months later. Still to this day, the chocolate explosion is legendary in the Pennsylvania countryside.
Despite all, Dorothy kept walking to church, praying to find true love.
“Come on, Dorothy,” Wilson said, meeting her under the apple tree after church. “Mrs. Marburger told me before service that I should walk you home.”
“Do you like my rainbow pin?” Dorothy said, showing Wilson the treasure she had received in Sunday school. “Rainbows have something to do with promises. I tried to pay attention.”
“I like the music at church,” Wilson said. “The sermons are kind of long . . .”
As the children neared Dorothy’s home, Wilson picked her a wildflower from the field.
“This is for you,” Wilson said, handing the flower to Dorothy.
“Thank you,” Dorothy said, watching her mother standing at the screen door.
“Now, I’ve got to run home before my mom gets angry,” Wilson said, sprinting away.
During the week, Dorothy attended De Binders School House, a one-room school where she studied for eight years. With a woodstove and no running water, Dorothy received basic education. Wilson attended nearby Seigarts School House for eight years, also a one-room schoolhouse. At school, Dorothy played baseball and horseshoes for fun, but she missed Wilson and didn’t see him unless she walked to church with Mrs. Marburger.
“I wish Wilson and I were in the same school,” Dorothy said, doodling on the chalkboard. She tried to make elegant cursive letters and perfect her signature.
After graduating the eighth grade, Dorothy did housework for the wealthy families in Schuylkill County, which often made her feel inferior and less-than her potential. Her favorite employer was Miss Margaret, who always gave her extra money for her hard work. When Wilson graduated eighth grade, he started working in St. Clair for the Reading Railroad car shop, where he built railroad boxcars that carried coal. As Dorothy got older, one of her friends bought a car, and a group of the teenagers piled in the car to go to dances and movies on Saturday nights. Of course, Dorothy was happiest when Wilson came with them.
“Could I have this dance, Dorothy?” Wilson asked, taking Dorothy’s hand at one of the dances.
“I would love to dance with you,” Dorothy said, walking on her tiptoes to the dance floor. Her below-the-knee frock danced in rhythm to the music as Dorothy moved.
“Hitler has still been on the prowl in Europe,” Wilson told her.
“I know,” Dorothy said, closing her eyes and resting her head on Wilson’s shoulder. “Things always seem to go wrong, no matter what I do.”
“We have to focus on what’s going right,” Wilson said, taking her hand and twirling her.
Despite the war, which started in 1939, Dorothy, 22, and Wilson, 25, were officially dating. Dorothy expected that Wilson, like all the other young men, would be drafted into World War II. Then one day it came: a letter from the United States military requesting that Wilson report to Pottsville for military duty where the men would then be shipped to Scranton, and then to basic training. Dorothy was devastated. All her hopes of marrying Wilson seemed to be crushed. Wilson had to leave for the war, while Dorothy was forced to get a higher-paying job in a factory putting buttons and snaps on baby clothes.
“I’ve had enough of buttons and snaps for the rest of my life,” Dorothy said, folding the baby clothes into piles. With each button and snap, all Dorothy could think about was having her own children with Wilson, but he was now supposed to fight Hitler. “I hate Hitler,” she said.
At least Wilson had military leave and still managed to come back for occasional Saturday night dances, where he romanced Dorothy.
“Where are you going tonight, Dorothy?” Emma said to her daughter. “Are you going out with Wilson again? I don’t know if he’s good enough for you. Men are so much trouble.”
“Talk to you later, Mom,” Dorothy said, running out the front door. “He’s waiting for me.”
Dorothy tried her best not to be discouraged by her mother’s grief.
“I won’t be gone forever,” Wilson said, dancing with Dorothy. “The war won’t last too long. Unless you want to get married before I leave?”
“What if you die? Just like with my mother’s first two husbands,” Dorothy said. “Since you’re leaving for the war, I doubt Monroe, my stepfather, will allow me to marry you. Just promise to write me all the time. It will seem like you’ve been gone forever.”
“Don’t think the worst, Dorothy. I’ll write you as often as I can,” Wilson said. “You’re my girlfriend. When I get back from the war, you’ll be my wife. We’re going to get married. I promise.”
Then Wilson kissed Dorothy, and they danced all night.
After two years of military training, the worst news came when Wilson told Dorothy that he would be sent overseas, and there would be no military leave.
“I’m never going to see Wilson again,” Dorothy told her sister Helen, crying.
Helen handed Dorothy a handkerchief to dry her eyes. Before World War II started, Helen had married Charlie Grim, who worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. Because of his age, he wasn’t drafted for the war. It seemed unfair to Dorothy that Helen’s dreams were not shattered, but Dorothy’s were. Helen had no idea what to say to her.
For almost four years, Wilson wrote Dorothy love letters. Every time she got a letter in the mail, she remembered passing notes at church and wished Wilson was that close again. She usually received a letter every other week or once a month.
“Did the mail come yet today?” Dorothy asked, running to the mailbox and sorting through the letters. “Oh, there’s a letter from Wilson . . .”
She ran to her bedroom, opened the letter with a knife, and never showed it to anyone.
Then she quickly sat down at her desk and spent all night replying to his letter. She made sure to send her letter out the next morning, running to the postman before he made it to her mailbox. She smiled at the postman, holding the letter close to her heart.
“Please give this letter to Wilson with special care,” she said, handing it to the postman.
“I will, Dorothy,” he said, grinning, placing it in the front pocket of his leather bag.
Several days, Dorothy stood before an empty mailbox, with the postman shaking his head, and she was sincerely concerned Wilson’s letters went lost or missing.
When more than two weeks passed without a letter, Dorothy worried so much that she went to Brown’s Lutheran Church to pray.
“I just can’t sing a hymn today,” she cried to God. “Wilson is not here. I’m alone . . .”
Although she went to Saturday night dances with her group of friends, she had no other boyfriends. She sat in the corner with her girlfriends, looked at Wilson’s picture, and watched the other couples dance. Despite Wilson’s promise to her, she wondered if he had other girlfriends overseas and hoped that they would still get married, like Wilson promised.
Every Sunday, she would now walk to church by herself, since Mrs. Marburger was too old to walk with her anymore. Dorothy also wrote letters to her brothers, Harold and Reynold, who were drafted to World War II as well.
“Dorothy, why aren’t you married?” her supervisor at the button and snap factory asked her. “If I were you, I wouldn’t wait for Wilson to come back from the war. What if he dies overseas? Then you’ll never have any chance at all to get out of here.”
“Leave me alone,” Dorothy said, running into the bathroom, crying. “Why, oh, why?”
On February 8, 1943, when Wilson was overseas, Dorothy’s mother, Emma, died of a sudden stroke, leaving Dorothy more heartbroken than ever and responsible for running the home for her stepfather Monroe. She spent countless hours taking care of her younger siblings, Bobby, and Marie, dreading that something might go wrong at any minute. From time to time, Foster, Monroe’s son by his first deceased wife, visited to console Dorothy.
“Do you really want to get married anyhow?” Monroe said to Dorothy. “I know you have your heart set on marrying Wilson, but I need your help at the house. Marriage can really be a lot of trouble. Just look at your mother, she had three husbands. Wilson could die any day now in the war . . . and then what would you do?”
She stacked Wilson’s letters in a shoebox and shoved them under her bed. When she missed him the most, she reread each of the letters in order of their dates.
“Upon arriving in Europe, I’ve been serving in England in the United States engineering department,” Wilson wrote Dorothy, looking out the window as lightning flashed in the rainy British sky. It reminded him of the lightning in the Pennsylvania countryside.
“I’ve been helping organize the rebuilding of bombed bridges, where my department sends materials on boats to France and beyond for reconstruction,” he wrote. “I haven’t seen your brothers Harold or Reynold, but I’ve gotten a few letters from them. I think about you every night, and I know we’ll soon be together. I’d cross the rainbow bridge to be with you forever.”
“Harold has been in combat in Africa, where he had a minor wound in the knee with shrapnel from a bomb,” Dorothy wrote to Wilson. “I’ve been praying for all of you. Please come home. I miss you terribly.”
As the war progressed, Wilson continued working in the United States engineering department in England. Despite Harold’s wound, he served in Sicily, Italy, England, and Germany. Reynold fought and then barely lived through the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“I think we’re close to the Nazis giving up,” Wilson wrote to Dorothy. “Soon we’ll be married, and this will be behind us . . .”
“I hope you’re right,” Dorothy corresponded to Wilson. “President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill borrowed you from me for a while, but it’s only for a while.”
Then word came across the news radio: “All forces under German Nazi control ceased active operations at 23:01 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945.”
“As I’m sure you know by now, the Nazis surrendered,” Wilson wrote to Dorothy. “I thought we would be coming right home, but my department is traveling to Marseille, France, on the train. Then we board a U.S. military ship and sail to the Panama Canal. The ship heads for Japan, where I’m worried that I might face man-to-man combat. Up until now, I’ve only been rebuilding bridges. I’ve heard it might be a costly invasion of the mainland. I’ll write you as many letters as I can from the ship. Tell everyone to pray. I’ll be home soon.”
As soon as Dorothy read Wilson’s letter, she ran to Brown’s Lutheran Church in tears. She threw herself on the church pew, sobbing and demanding that God send Wilson home.
“How can this be? The Nazis surrendered! Now, he has to go to Japan?” she cried.
She spent all night on the church pew praying until the morning sun broke through the stained-glass windows. It almost looked like a rainbow, which reminded Dorothy of her Sunday school pin that she had kept clasped to her Bible with the notes Wilson wrote her as a child. Despite her puffy eyes, she managed to get herself to work on time that morning, still putting buttons and snaps on baby clothes.
Weeks later, after arriving at the Panama Canal, Wilson received word that the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the war was finally over. Japan surrendered to the Allies on September 2, 1945.
“Good news is that the war is over!” Wilson wrote Dorothy from the banks of the Panama Canal. “I still have to head to the Japanese Islands for clean-up efforts, but I won’t face combat. We have to help send American weapons in Japan back to the United States.”
More excited than ever to return to Dorothy, Wilson wrote her on colorful Japanese origami paper. He folded two swans from origami paper and flattened them in the envelope.
“Several nights, I’ve gone to bed with muddy boots due to heavy Japanese rains,” Wilson wrote Dorothy. “I was so tired, and my boots were so muddy that I couldn’t get them off.”
After months in Japan cleaning up the devastation of the war, Wilson flew back to California, then to Indian Town Gap in Pennsylvania to be discharged from the military.
“Did Wilson say he would be back soon?” Dorothy said, stopping by his parents’ home. “Any word from him? My family still doesn’t have a telephone, so it’s hard for him to reach me.”
“Not yet, Dorothy,” Wilson’s father said. “We’ll let you know as soon as he arrives.”
The day after Wilson returned in February 1946, he came to Dorothy with his family, and both families, including Dorothy’s stepfather, Monroe, wept in tears. Sitting beside her at Dorothy’s house, Wilson asked her to marry him, and they married on June 22, 1946, at Brown’s Lutheran Church in Summit Station, Pennsylvania, with a rainbow stained-glass window in the church. During the reception after the wedding, Dorothy’s brother Bobby and her bridesmaid Jane Krater snuck into Dorothy and Wilson’s wedding-night bedroom and threw Rice Krispies breakfast cereal on the bed. Snap, crackle, and pop!
“I’ll finally have my own home and children,” Dorothy said, crying. “I’ll never clean someone else’s house or put buttons and snaps on someone else’s baby clothes.”
“I told you that I would keep my promise,” Wilson said to Dorothy.
In the years to come, Wilson worked at Alcoa Aluminum Company, and the couple lived in a two-story house with a wrap-around porch and attic full of endless treasures. They raised a son and daughter, who never experienced the sacrifice and danger of World War II. In a very true sense, Wilson and the other noble men of the Second World War saved the world.
For her entire life, Dorothy didn’t show anyone the love letters—except her daughter’s daughter. She gave her Bible and the love letters to her granddaughter after Wilson had passed away September 16, 2004, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Dorothy was sure that she would also soon die. Although the letters were a secret, she told her granddaughter to keep them as a promise of true love—which conquers all even in times of war and great peril.
Copyright 2016 Jennifer Waters