Sunday, February 12, 2012
A South Dakotan in New Zealand
Pheasant hunting in South Dakota.
The world, as we are constantly being reminded, is a small place.
I was just speaking to my friend Rick Christopherson from South Dakota about his father, Darrel, a Pearl Harbor veteran (see below post) who recently died. We were reminiscing about Darrel and his life when Rick let slip a corker.
After telling me what a great and fulfilled life his father had led, Rick confided that Darrel had had only one regret: that he hadn't gone AWOL in New Zealand.
It turns out that my good friend Darrel had spent seven months in Aotearoa during World War II. Rick took me under his wing when I moved to South Dakota, which can be a strange and discombobulating place to people from other parts of the States, far less a guy from Scotland. We hadn't been in touch since I moved to New Zealand in 2010. The last time we'd talked, though, he'd told me he was doing an oral history project involving his father.
While recording that, Darrel mentioned that the only time he'd considered doing something bad (militarily, at least) was when he was in New Zealand. He described it as a paradise from which he did not want to depart - this from a South Dakota boy who was based in Honolulu. Being from South Dakota, of course, he'd done the right thing and gone back to his ship and fulfilled his duty. But, he'd told Rick, he sure had given it a long consideration.
With 2012 being the 70th anniversary of the arrival of U.S. troops in New Zealand, this bit of information hit me hard. To think of a young South Dakota lad like Darrel all the way over here during the war powerfully reinforced to me the sense of dislocation so many of those young men must have felt. To hear of his love for the place forcefully underscores the narrative that, for many of these Americans, New Zealand was the last friendly place they visited before being shipped to the hellish battlefields of the Pacific. For many of them New Zealand was the final time they received a friendly hug or a home-cooked meal. Many of them never returned from those blood-soaked isles and atolls.
Rick has promised to send me all the documentation he has about Darrel's time in New Zealand. He can't remember where, exactly, Darrel spent his time in New Zealand. I eagerly await information about where he was stationed. It would be wonderful to try to discover if any of his bonds to this land are still alive - and to reconnect. Rick deeply respects his father's service and is a man who would honor the ties of history. And I know, having been around civic organizations in this country, that memories are long here too. It might just happen.
Darrel did not like to talk about his time during the war. I had to drag his Pearl Harbor story out of him. So it does not surprise me that I knew nothing about his time in New Zealand. Hell, when we were in South Dakota together, New Zealand might as well have been in a different galaxy; Minneapolis seemed a long ways off. Having known Darrel and the sort of man he was, to think of him having been here just emphasizes the meaningful linkage between our countries. If we were shipping blokes like Darrel to New Zealand, I believe New Zealand was seeing the best of America: down home boys, respectful, appreciative and, no doubt, more than a little scared about the fate that awaited them.
Now if only I could get Rick out here.
We spent a long time talking today, Rick and I. He told me of the efforts made to get his kids out to Pearl Harbor for that last visit with their grandfather - lots of people helped with the fund raising. He told me about the funeral, about how people came from all over the country and how the American flag was flown around the town of Vermillion. He told me that Darrel knew his trip to Hawaii was going to be his last trip.
And, yes, Rick was nice enough to point out, my sharp-tailed grouse story still lives on in Philip. It was even brought up by some of the West River boys who drove to Vermillion for Darrel's funeral.