Posted by: SJS | April 19, 2011

Friendship

Among my earliest childhood memories are the stories my father would tell me about his days on the PT boats during WWII.  Confined to bed as I endured the childhood sicknesses of the 1950s – measles, chicken pox, mumps – my father would sit next to my bed in a rocking chair and recount his experiences as a young sailor during the war. 

 The opportunity to hear those stories was better even than getting ice cream – it was a chance to be close to my father and enter his world very deeply.  The intimacy I felt with him during the telling of those stories was unequaled; it formed a bond between us that was deeper than words or even gestures of affection- something he was never comfortable with.

Whether the stories were about riding troop trains across North Africa, setting up a base, night patrols in hostile waters, or leisure time in the mess hall, my father always mentioned his good buddy, Tom.   I’m sure he must have mentioned Tom’s last name but in my mind, the association was always “Tom from the South,” because my father made the point that his best friend came from Tennessee, which was a long, long way from Philadelphia.  While I was still  very young, I knew that my father’s friendship with Tom was his deepest and most enduring memory from his Navy days.   Without knowing the harrowing details, I knew that my father and this friend had come close to death and helped each other deal with the trauma that resulted from the experience.

Red and Tom in Samar

Tom Saffles & Red Stahley on Samar 1945

By the time I began my serious research into my father’s PT boat days in 2009, I had long since given up hope of ever finding out anything more about “Tom from the South.”  I felt grateful for what I did have– the knowledge of my father’s friendship with an extraordinary comrade who was like the brother he never had. 

What a remarkable thing it was when I received a phone call last October and the voice on the other end of the line said, “I was your Daddy’s best friend in the war…”  I knew immediately that the person I was speaking with was not from anywhere near Philadelphia.  Something deeper inside me let me know that the voice on the other end of the line was that remarkable person whose friendship was so pivotal in my father’s life. 

 I’ve had many surprises in my life, but few were sweeter than that one.

 And in February, when my sister Mary Ellen and I flew down to Alabama to meet Tom and his lovely family, I could feel a closeness to my father that took me back to 1956 when I was a little kid in bed with the chicken pox and I was hearing those stories again.  But now I knew who that other sailor was and it felt like a miracle.

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