Expressway: An Angel once told me, 'Vaya con Dios'

U.S. Army Lt. Angel Norat in Korea in U.S. Army Lt. Angel Norat in Korea in the early 1950s. He served as a forward observer whose duty was to call artillery fire on targets. Photo Credit: John G. Aicher

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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.

Anne, who lived in Queens, and my parents and I, who lived in Rockville Centre, went to Lake Champlain in Vermont to spend a few days before I had to ship out.

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.

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