Monday, May 18, 2009

True Stories That Read Like Fiction

by Julia Buckley
a wedding photo, November 17, 1956

I'm always interested in books that are said to be based on true events. One of the greatest true stories I know would make a terrific book, because no one would believe all of the coincidences involved, and I'm sure the average agent would say, "Sorry--this is just too unbelievable."

The tale I speak of is the story of how my parents met.

My mother was born in Germany; my father, the son of Hungarian immigrants, grew up in Chicago in a Hungarian-speaking home. When my mother was a teenager, she and her good friend Erika decided that they would like to improve their English skills, and that they would do so by finding a nice American boy with whom they could correspond. Since they lived in a little German town, they weren't sure how to do this, but they were enterprising.

They went to a little stationer's shop and looked at the magazines, some of which were published in America. They found a model-airplane enthusiasts' monthly, and in the back were letters from fans. They picked a name at random--Ed Mate--and wrote to the address he had submitted to the magazine.

Their letter to him, written in beautiful script in a mildly flirtatious tone, began "we are two German girls who would like to correspond with an American boy . . ." They sent it off, feeling quite daring, and waited for it to travel across the sea.

Weeks later, Ed Mate approached his best friend, Bill. He said, "I got this letter from these two German girls. I'm not going to write to both of them--how about if you take one off of my hands?"

And so Bill (my father) wrote his first letter to Kathe, the girl across the sea who would one day be his wife. Unlike Ed, who soon gave up the whole pen-pal thing, my father was fastidious about writing. We still have his letters (the ones my mother will show us) and they are impeccably neat and full of interesting information about America and him. He sent my mother a photo of him in his Army uniform, smoking a pipe, and it's as dreamy a picture as any of MGM's public relations material for Cary Grant or Gene Kelly.

My parents corresponded happily for a time; but the Korean War was going on, and my father was going to be sent to the front. However, because he spoke fluent Hungarian, he was one of only three soldiers who was not sent to Korea, but instead was sent to Europe (apparently the Army thought that one European language allowed one to communicate with all of the others) and a field office there.

So my father never saw active duty, but he was, serendipitously, stationed in Germany. Soon enough he contacted my mother, and they arranged to meet. My father took the train and my mother took the streetcar; it was twilight when my father climbed down onto the platform, and he scanned the faces for the girl he had seen only in a blurry photo. My mother walked past him (so they tell it), but then they both stopped. "Katie?" he said.

"Bill?" she responded.

He spoke no German, but her English was fairly good. She took him home to meet her parents and her four siblings, and over the next week they fell in love.

My mother eventually came to America with him as his fiancee, leaving her whole family behind to start a new life in Chicago.

The best part of the story? This November my parents will have been married for fifty-three years. He refers to her as his "bride," and he is utterly devoted to her still.

What's your favorite true story?


Sandra Parshall said...

What a story! Just wonderful. And it seems to me that the best part of it is that their marriage produced YOU. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

How kind of you to say so, Sandra. But I do think this is a fantastic tale--so dependent on the whims of fate.

There's a whole part 2 to it: my mother was told, after my oldest brother was born, that she could have no more children. So she and my father adopted my sister Claudia, who was living in Hong Kong in an orphanage. While the adoption was going through (it took two years), my mother gave birth to my brother Chris, and then to my sister, and then to me. We are the three babies who weren't supposed to happen.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Wow, I love this story and it would also make a good movie!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Lonnie!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Besides the sweetness of the love story, I enjoyed the details, especially that the US Army thought someone who spoke Hungarian could communicate with other Europeans. My mom was born in Hungary (came to the US at the age of 4), so I know that Hungarian is one of the few languages that isn't related to anything else.

Julia Buckley said...

And really hard to learn, as you and I have both probably figured out. I've attempted it a few times and always get stuck on the pronunciation key.

But it's all part of the fateful tale. :)

Anonymous said...


It's a beautiful photo and a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it.

Re Hungary -- I was a tourist there in 1979. It's a beautiful country, with interesting people, and I remember it so well.


Pat Browning

Cindy Fey said...

Julia - What a beautiful story! I love that meeting at the train station where they pass each other, then turn back. Lovely!

But I always picture your father as towering over your petite mother - in their beautiful wedding picture they look the same height.