A Great American Love Story

The year was 1932, the year air conditioning was invented and the Zippo lighter. Americans were in the throes of the Great Depression and many were out of work and standing in long bread lines. Times were tough.The year 1932 would also mark the beginning of a great American love story that would last for 75 years and still be going strong as of this writing! This is not your typical love story, not by a long shot. But it is indeed a story filled with love, and comradeship, heartbreak, sacrifice, and sheer joy.

It is the story of three American men who have been best buddies since the ages of 12, and 13, when first they met and started playing sandlot baseball together. Little did they know at the time, that their new friendship would last throughout all their high school days, World War II, and continue to flourish throughout their lives, even though geographical locations would eventually separate them physically.

But true friendship survives distance and circumstances. These three men are living proof of that. They share a unique bond that most of us would envy. They are emotional doppelgangers of each other.

They started out in those prewar years, playing sports – varsity baseball, basketball and football, all of them excelling or lettering in one sport or another. This was their life. Life was good despite the times. They were young and all that mattered was sports and listening to, and dancing to, the sounds of the Big Bands.

Living in south New Jersey, it was only a hop, skip and a jump to the Jersey shore where they would go to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to listen to Benny Goodman and other well known musicians. Sports, Big Band music and the three of them together. It just didn’t get any better than this.

One of the men is my dad, Jack “6 for 6″ Letzgus as we call him, having earned that monicker for getting a hit in 6 successive turns at bat (four singles and 2 triples). He played semi-professional ball, in one game even hitting three triples, tying a national record. Who knows what heights he would have achieved had it not been for the war. As his friend Ted Lewin said “Jack, the war interfered with our baseball careers.” My dad was described as a husky third sacker, although later, years of suffering from a very bad duodenal ulcer would see his slender but well built body diminish to a mere 132 pounds on his 5’10” frame.

Our next door neighbor had commented that “Poor Jack is going downhill. I can see it each day. He won’t be around long.” If only she were alive today to see him a mere 2 ½ years away from his 90th birthday. She wouldn’t believe it. I can’t believe it either. He’s even healthier today than he was in his twenties through his sixties. The adage “You can’t keep a good man down” is apropos in this situation.

The school years were now coming to a close. They would graduate from Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, New Jersey, in 1938. But one of the three is a bit younger than my dad and the other friend. His graduation year would be different…or at least it should have been.

Jim Dunn is the baby of the three, a mere 86 now compared to my dad’s and Ted’s 87 years. He had skipped a grade in elementary school and for some reason he would have graduated a half a year ahead of my dad and Ted. School calendars were a bit different back then and they had half years.

Jim wasn’t going to graduate without his two best buddies though, so he did something that most people would not do. He purposely failed a grade so that he would be put back and graduate in 1938 along with my dad Jack, and Ted. Most kids are anxious to get out of school. Not Jim. He wasn’t going anywhere without his pals.This is indeed a love story!

The three of them continued to pal around, play sports, earn a living and be happy, carefree young men. Then it happened. World War II. The Big One. This would be the first separation of these three dear friends.

Their colorful love story takes on a different hue now as members of the fair sex slowly steal into their lives.

Jim went into the Navy, positioned off the coast of Normandy on the USS Texas during the D-Day invasion. He also served in the Pacific. Jim had met his future wife, Dorothy, in the little town in which they all grew up, aptly named Fairview. It wasn’t long before sports took somewhat of a backseat to the feminine charms of Dorothy. They soon would marry.

Ted had also been distracted from all things sports as he matured into his older teens. He had met a lovely young girl named Ruth and they married before Ted joined the Merchant Marine. The years would take him around the world but his heart was always back in Fairview with the lovely Ruth.

My dad, Jack, received the Greetings from Uncle Sam and soon found himself drafted into the US Army, stationed in Texas and Louisiana before being shipped out to what was supposed to be duty in the Philippines. Fate stepped in, however, and steered the ship and his life in a much different direction.

The Japanese had attacked the Philippines so my dad’s ship was diverted to Australia where he would soon win a marital victory, not necessarily a martial one. There, in Melbourne, Australia, he met the love of his life, my mother, the great Australian beauty, and dancer, Iris Robertson.

The times being uncertain, as they are during war years with no one knowing what would happen in this unstable world, whirlwind courtships, and marriages were not uncommon. Within four months of meeting, my mother and father married.

During these years, the best buddies were settling down with their wives and the children started arriving.

I was born in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. My dad was sent to Hollandia, New Guinea, and after a long time, was shipped back home to the US, where my mother and I joined him 8 months later. He had been away from home for almost 5 years, a sacrifice hard to imagine today.

Jim and his wife had four children and relocated to Arizona precipitated by the poor health of their middle daughter who suffered from severe asthma. The dry, desert heat would help her, they reasoned, and off they went – another rent in the rich tapestry of the three friends’ lives, but a necessary one.

Meantime, enhancing the love story, Ted and his wife Ruth had three children, all boys whom they named Jack, Jim and Ted! Ted, Ruth and boys moved to California, motivated by a wonderful job opportunity for Ted. He landed a job with Shiley Corporation where he invented the blood oxygenator used in cardiac surgery. Years later he would be named California Inventor of the Year.

With Jack still living in New Jersey, Jim and family in Arizona, and Ted and family in California, the visits were not as often now as any of them wanted. They stayed in touch though by telephone and letters and the occasional visit. How wonderful it would have been for them had they been able to avail themselves of the computer technology with webcams of today, but none of them can be persuaded to try it.

My parents’ marriage would last for 50+ years, ending only because of the devastating disease of Supranuclear Palsy that would claim my mother’s life and make my dad the first widower of the three friends, a most unwanted distinction.

Sadly, Jim’s wife, Dorothy was the next of the wives to pass away, she of cancer, after 50+ years of marriage.

It wasn’t long before Ted would join their ranks of widower, when his wife of 50+ years, Ruth, passed away a few hours before 9/11.

The three best buddies were now widowers and living far apart from one another. How strange that all three of them would outlive their beloved wives when statistically women outlive men. After Ted’s wife passed away, Jim remarked how incredible it would be if all three of them could share a house together and share the rest of their lives together, to be close together again, to play a little ball together in their twilight years. But life happens and we all must make the most of what we have left.

Jim now spends his time running marathons and invariably comes home with a gold medal. So far, he’s won 9 of them. He quips that there aren’t many 86-year-olds to compete with him. Ted spends his days golfing, and reading, and enjoying the California lifestyle. My dad, Jack, who is as witty and humorous as he ever was, spends his time writing poems and limericks and recently had a short story that he had written during the war, bound and printed. These men are not going gently into that good night. They are an inspiration to all who know them.

Jim visits Ted in California from time to time. Before their wives passed away, Jim and Ted and wives visited my dad and mother in Florida where they had relocated years before. It was a wonderful reunion. Their conversation was centered mainly around, of course, sports! No one knew it at the time but this would probably be the last time the three best pals would be together.

My dad hates to fly. So the three of them confine their contact to phone calls and letters. But what wonderful phone calls they are. They can spend hours on the phone talking about “the good old days” of their youth, their sports accomplishments and wonderful reminiscences of 75 years of profound friendship, of three lives well lived, and well loved. The love story that began all those years ago continues, and may it continue for many more years for these three remarkable gentlemen. I love them all!

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