She was 21, he was 24, they’d known each other for three months when they decided to get married. They were both graduate students in bacteriology at Iowa State College in Ames. It was December 22, 1942 and they ran away to a neighboring county for a secret wedding: the laws of the time meant that one of them would have had to quit graduate school if they were married. The secret leaked out, as these things do. He had a draft deferment because he was working in a field with defense potential, but his thesis advisor, a man named Workman, was furious; he withdrew the draft deferment. A few months later the man was drafted. He did basic training in Georgia and shipped out in 1944. His first child, a boy, was conceived during his last home leave.
His wife spent the war years first with her inlaws in New York City, where she worked as a bacteriologist, and then with her mother in the small Illinois town where she’d grown up. He spent the war in New Guinea and the Philippines, although he later said the only action he saw was when the camp chef threatened him with a machete for suggesting the food in the mess hall be covered with fly screens. He wrote love letters home, quoting Homer in Greek as he tried to compare his wife’s beauty to Helen. The censors thought the Greek was likely military secrets and blacked out the poetry.
He finished his PhD, they had a second child, a girl, they moved to Kansas, they had three more sons. The love that blazed like Helen and Paris charred and burned out and left behind an ashy bitter residue. They spent the last forty years of their marriage in a bitter and biting warfare. They ate each other up, they damaged their children, they drove away their friends.
Maybe that’s how Paris and Helen ended, too. We only hear the beginning of love stories, not their endings. If Romeo and Juliet had lived how would their love have fared during those bleak middle years, when Romeo was off testing himself in battle and government, and Juliet was home alone with the children. Would she have gotten fat, turned to alcohol, would he have come home to the carefully prepared meals and scowled that she didn’t cook the way his mother used to?
What’s the difference between love and infatuation, my granddaughter asked recently. It all starts with infatuation, I said, you only know it’s love if it endures the nights of fever and vomiting, the times of helplessness and anger, if the person you are beneath Helen’s dazzling beauty or Romeo’s charm is someone you can accept.
It’s a melancholy day, this 72nd anniversary. They’re both dead now, those ardent lovers of 1942, their children struggle some days to put one foot in front of another. As the Song of Songs suggests, don’t awaken love unless you know what to do with it.