Thursday, May 25, 2006

Remembering Captain Eleanor Alexander (1940-1967) this Memorial Day Weekend

Eleanor’s military career as an operating room nurse in Vietnam during the Vietnam War is well documented. I'm putting a link about her military service in the links section to the right. Her name is on The Vietnam War Memorial Wall, one of only nine women listed.

This is a more personal remembrance of Eleanor. She was born in September 1940 and I was a month older. We met in Ozone Park, Queens, New York City at about age four. We both lived in corner houses across the street from one another. She had a brother, Francis, who was the same age as my sister, Susan. Both had been born in 1943. So the four of us grew up together until 1947 when my family moved to Nassau County on Long Island.

My father and I went to the new house in the moving van. We didn’t have a car. My mother and Susan were driven to the new house by the Alexanders, Frank, Grace, Eleanor and Francis. That was the beginning of a longer distance relationship between the Alexanders and the Haans. From 1947 on, we went back and forth visiting each other, usually having dinner at each others’ houses. Mrs. Alexander frequently served lamb for dinner. I loved it but more than once I heard my mother bemoan the fact we would probably have lamb. I still eat lamb regularly.

In Ozone Park, Eleanor and I played a lot. I remember once we got the idea to grow some apple trees. We extracted some seeds from apples and planted them in the bed of shrubs that surrounded her house. Every day for a while, Eleanor and I would crouch next to where the seeds had been planted, waiting for them to pop up. The seeds never had a chance because they never saw the sun.

We went to kindergarten and first grade together at PS (Public School) 100. The bathroom for kindergarten was one room for both sexes, two stalls with openings at the bottom and top. One day Eleanor and I were in the two adjoining stalls and I took it upon myself to peek under the stall wall to see what she was doing. She turned me in to the teacher.

In first grade, they advanced Eleanor one year up to second grade in the middle of the year. She was a bright kid and they did that sort of thing back then. I remember feeling a bit lonely that we weren’t in the same class anymore.

After we moved to Nassau County, my father installed a ping pong table and a regulation shuffleboard court in the basement of our long house. The picture here shows Eleanor and myself posing inbetween shuffleboard games. I’m the one with the big mouth. We were 16.

My mother and father also purchased nine untamed lots in Kings Park, Suffolk County, New York. The property was so wild we had to hack and saw down the trees to make the road to reach it. My father built a prefab, 10’ x 16’ cabin on the property for summer vacations. The Alexanders visited us there often and we had some wild croquet games on the top of a sandy hill with no grass. Just clumps, surrounded by forest. Our favorite thing to do was to shoot each other’s balls into the woods. Eleanor was an attractive brunette and a lot of fun.

We both went to college in upstate New York, she in Buffalo and me in Rochester. We’d meet at rest stops on the Thruway at Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.

I think it was 1961 when her father died from a heart attack. He was only 54. Eleanor called to tell us. My father kept Frank Alexander’s picture in his top chest drawer until he died himself in 1981.

After college, she was an operating room nurse and was paid well. I served in the Peace Corps in India for two years. Six months after that I was drafted into the Army, serving for two more years, mostly in Germany.

The last time I saw Eleanor was in early spring 1967. We were both still single. She was at my parents’ house with her mother and I expressed concern about what she was doing. I told her if she wanted to give back, it was safer to join the Peace Corps than volunteer to go to Vietnam. She replied that she knew that but felt that her skills were needed in Vietnam.

My mother called me in November 1967 to tell me Eleanor was dead, a victim in a plane crash in Vietnam.

I took my wife and two daughters to the Vietnam Memorial in the 1980s and we all looked for and found her name on the wall. And every Memorial Day, I remember Eleanor and her family. They were wonderful people. ---Walter Haan,


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