GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, from PRX and NPR, "The Pact" episode. My name is Glynn Washington, and there are some promises that you make when you really don't have a choice. David Dobbs's (ph) mother was at the very end of her life. It was a time for last words and final requests. The family gathered all around. David's mother spoke.
DAVID DOBBS: She made the strange request of us in the Methodist Hospital.
JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: David Dobbs and his five siblings were at the bedside of their aging mother, Evaline Jane (ph).
DOBBS: It seemed possible so that she could die. So it was fairly all solemn. And then she said that she wanted to talk about after. And we all understood that to mean after she died.
DEWITT: Her first strange request was that she be cremated, which was a surprise. Her kids always thought she wanted to be buried with her parents. But OK, last minute change of heart, that makes sense.
DOBBS: And then she said, and I want my ashes spread in the water off of Hawaii. This was a complete stunner. We all looked around the room at each other, you know, thinking, well, maybe there's something we don't remember or I never learned and you did. But shrugs all around, you know, and quizzical looks. We were all obviously completely in the dark as to why she would want this. And Sarah (ph) said, sure, mom, we can do that. Can we ask why Hawaii? And she said, I want to be with Angus (ph).
DEWITT: Angus was someone David's mother only mentioned once when David was a little kid. He knew that he was a man that she loved once, and that he died in World War II. Otherwise, David knew basically nothing about the guy. Since they war, she'd been married, had kids. David had no idea why Angus would be so important five decades later. And he never got a chance to ask her because a month later his mother died.
DOBBS: My brother honored her wishes and took her ashes out to Hawaii - and rented a kayak and went out into this one bay and dumped her ashes into the water and watched it curl down to the coral there. And he sent pictures of all this and a description. And somehow, seeing the pictures and thinking about her actually down there stirred this up in me. I suddenly decided I want to find out who this guy was if I can.
DEWITT: The natural place to start for David was his mother's cousin Betty Lou (ph) - the closest thing his mother had to a sibling.
DOBBS: So I called Betty Lou and ask her what she knew of this. And she said a lot. She told me that - 'cause all I had was Angus, which I assumed might be a nickname. And Betty Lou said, yes, that was a nickname. I'm trying to remember what his name is, she said. Norman - Norman, I think it's Norman. And it starts with a Z the last name. And he disappeared really close to the end of the war. Oh, the one other thing, this is very important that Betty Lou remembered, was that he was from one of those I states - Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, one of those.
DEWITT: So David started with Iowa. He found a register of fallen shoulders of which there were thousands, each listed by the 99 counties in the state. So David started from the top. Adair County, no. Adams County, nope. Black Hawk, Chickasaw, Ida, Hancock County, no Norman Z. Then at the end of Johnson County, he found a Norman E. Zart (ph). So he looked up every Zart he could find in the entire state of Iowa, and he emailed them.
DOBBS: And I got a bunch of no's. And then one day I got a yes. This is a story of, like, multiple sort of shocks. And that was when I got the first one, which was a response from a David Zart who wrote back saying, yes, I know Norman E. Zart. Norman E. Zart was my father. I was just assuming this was a young, single man. And I find out that my mother, who was a sort of paragon of moral rectitude, she was in an affair with a man with two children.
DEWITT: Norman was a married man. He had a daughter named Christie (ph) and a son also named David.
DOBBS: David wrote - I'm reading from the letter here - I don't have words to describe the mixed emotions that come to me when I revisit this issue. You can imagine that this inquiry - meaning my email - fills me with questions, he wrote.
And then he had 19 questions for me, which were kind of a mix of prosecutorial and curious. I've come to learn that in the process of growing up one accumulates scars, and the challenge is learning to own your scars and live them. It was clear from his letter, the one thing that was clear, was that these kids are 7 and 5 when he disappears. And ever since then, they had, in some sense, been wondering who broke up their family. That person was my mother.
DEWITT: David and Christie also knew next to nothing about Norman because he died when they were so young. They knew there was an affair but that was it. And they gave him the go-ahead on his search for Norman. The search would last nearly a decade. What David figured out was that in 1943, his mother met Norman on an Air Force base where they were stationed. One night a friend convinced him to go on a double date, just a casual thing. His date was David's mother Evaline Jane. This is where their love affair started. In a letter to his friend later explaining the affair Norman wrote...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading as Norman) She was very intelligent, sharp, good dancer, pretty wonderful figure, etc., etc. Does that sound like I'm gone? I told her I was married the first night. She has been married, divorced to some guy who must have been awfully stupid not to realize what a good thing he had. I realized that similar statement might aptly apply to me. You'd like to know something of her, I suppose.
She's a woman in love, so naturally she wants the obvious. But she's very broad-minded about it. And what about me? I want her. She's the kind of gal I'd consider marrying if I weren't already, and I haven't seen many of those. This all may seem to be written very calmly. It is fairly so, but it was not arrived at calmly. There has been a tremendous battle of Zart versus Zart going on for the past six months. But after battling with myself over and over, I seem to get the same answer - I want this gal. I'll never get her out of my mind.
DEWITT: It was 1944, and the allies were winning the war.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Germany has surrendered. The war in Europe was over.
DEWITT: The Pacific was the last front to go. When Norman was stationed in Hawaii, Evaline followed him to the tropics. Only pictures that David found after his mother died tell the story.
DOBBS: So there's all these pictures of him and some of my mom, some of them together while they were in Hawaii. They're just clearly utterly in love. And there's another one where she's looking at the camera. And my mother was a really, really good looking woman. She was a knockout. And she's looking at the camera, and it's a light coming out of her eyes that unless you're a really good actor or actress, you only see it when someone's just really in love.
DEWITT: But as blissful as they were, the war raging on the horizon was never far from their minds.
DOBBS: And there's another picture, they do not look happy. Angus is looking straight at the camera. He's got aviator sunglasses on, and he's looking kind of sternly at this camera, which is down low. And my mother is looking off to the right, and she looks stricken. And that just spoke of a sense of trouble to come.
DEWITT: Norman was trained to fly dangerous rescue missions over the ocean. Evaline must have understood the risk when Norman was called to duty. Evaline Jane went back to the mainland to wait for him to come home. She would never see him again.
DOBBS: The war was two weeks over. Everyone had celebrated. People were starting to hear from, you know, their kin that were coming home. And my mother gets this letter from a buddy of Angus's in his unit saying that Angus had gone out on a mission about two weeks before the war ended, and the plane vanished with the crew. This letter just destroyed Evaline Jane, my mother, just shattered her. For weeks she was a mess - just destroyed her.
DEWITT: Evaline moved on to become a doctor, and eventually she got married and had five kids. As a kid, David remembers playing with a gold locket hung around his mother's neck. When he would click it open, there was a picture of his grandparents inside of it. Right before she died, she sent it to her cousin. But when her cousin opened it...
DOBBS: The grandparents' picture is not there. What's in there is Angus's picture, a picture of Norman. Norman's picture was behind that picture all the time. She carried Norman around her neck for 55 years.
DEWITT: Evaline went to her grave imagining Norman still out in the Pacific. And she imagined her ashes would be with his, except that David discovered just one other thing - Norman wasn't in the Pacific. Because she wasn't next of kin, Evaline was never told that his body was found in a shallow grave in Japan four years after he went missing. He was reburied in Northern California. The remains were still thousands of miles apart. Even in death, Norman and Evaline would never be together.
DOBBS: So I had that photo album, and there were spaces at the end of it. There was a picture of him in there - quite a few good pictures of him. And one was on the last page. And there was an empty spot. It was one of those things where there's four little corners you put the photo in. There was a little spot next to it. And I printed out two pictures. I printed out a picture of his gravestone, and I printed a picture of her gravesite - the spot on the water with the leis in it that my brother had dropped where he put her ashes. And I put those two pictures on the last page in adjacent little squared-off spots in this photo album. It's impossible, too, and it wouldn't be my place to, like, put them together. So they're not really touching. They're still apart, but I figure that's as close as I could get them.
WASHINGTON: Thanks so much to David Dobbs for sharing your story with the SNAP. No we heard about this piece from the amazing multimedia publisher The Atavist. I have a link on our website to the atavist.com. That piece was produced by Julia DeWitt with sound design by Nancy Lopez. You made a pact with yourself, and you made good SNAP nation. But there's even more SNAP goodness where this came from. Podcasts, movies, full episodes - snapjudgment.org. Facebook, Snap Judgment. Twitter, Snap Judgment. We apologize for earlier assertions that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting maintains their head office at Area 51. That might not be true. Much love to the CPB. PRX, the Public Radio Exchange - exchanges for public radio forever is in your pocket - PRX.org. WBEZ in Chicago the place of WBEZ in Chicago. And you know this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, you could meet a pretty girl in France, promise her that you'll return to that train station in precisely one year. And then you could meet her there by accident in two years, holding the hand of your new girlfriend as you show her this cool train station you went to once and you would still not be as far away from the news as this is. But this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.