The early summer of 1953 was a bittersweet time. My girlfriend, Anne Mulhern, and I cared deeply for each other, and were facing a situation familiar to many of our generation and the one before ours. A nasty little war was going on in Korea, and as a new second lieutenant in the Army field artillery, I had orders to leave for Korea on July 2.
There was a popular ballad of that time, "Vaya Con Dios," sung by Les Paul and Mary Ford. I didn't know it then, but the title means "Go with God." I knew from the lyrics that it was a song of loss and longing -- all of which touched us in a special way:
Wherever you may be, I'll be beside you.
Although you're many million dreams away.
Each night I'll say a prayer, a prayer to guide you.
To hasten every lonely hour of every lonely day.
Now the dawn is breaking through a gray tomorrow.
But the memories we share are there to borrow.
Vaya con Dios, my darling. Vaya con Dios, my love.
In those few days, Anne and I spent much time on dance floors in Vermont roadhouses listening to that song. I always liked it, and still do.
In Korea, I became friends with a lieutenant from Puerto Rico named Angel Norat. Angel had been through some terrible times at a meat grinder battle with the Communist Chinese called Pork Chop Hill. He constantly needled me good-naturedly by singing that song, and telling me that Anne probably had a new boyfriend by now.
"You don't think she's waiting for you," he said. "She's probably dating a draft dodger."
"Vaya con Dios," he would croon.
The night before I left my artillery battery for home, I playfully sang the song to him. I came home, Anne and I were married and over time raised our five children in Rockville Centre, retired to Vermont, and then years ago moved to Southold.
These many years later, I am still reminded of that song and of Angel, who died in 1991 and is buried at the Puerto Rico National Cemetery.
These days, I volunteer on Wednesdays at the North Fork Parish Outreach, a food pantry in Greenport. A good percentage of our visitors are Hispanic. Many of them speak little or no English. In broken Spanish, I can ask simple questions: "How many are in your family?" "Do you have special food needs?" "Do you need Pampers?" They always respond, "Thank you," in English.
A few weeks ago, on the spur of the moment, I said, "Vaya con Dios" to a woman and her small children.
They were startled, but gave me a big smile and said, "Muchas gracias," as if I had said something remarkable.
Of course, the expression is a farewell that long predates the 1950s song.
I say it now whenever a Spanish-speaking visitor leaves the pantry. Each time I am rewarded by the same sincere gratitude. They are walking away with more than food.
I wish Angel Norat were alive for me to tell him.
Reader John G. Aicher lives in Southold.