November 5, 1945
San Diego, California
"Good luck, Dawson." Tom Bukater stepped back, watching Tom Dawson, his closest companion during the last three and a half years, walk towards the train that would take him back to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
The war was over. It had been almost four years since the United States had entered World War II after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, but the war had finally ended. The Japanese had surrendered two months earlier, and the men who had fought the war were slowly but surely being sent home.
Tom Bukater had joined the Army the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He could have avoided it—he was a wealthy man, one of the scions of Philadelphia society, and he was the partial owner of several steel mills throughout Pennsylvania that were even then being converted to war production. Working in one of these defense plants would have exempted him from the military, but he had felt he had a duty to help defend his country, and so, with his wife, Ruth, encouraging him and assuring him that she and their infant son, Tom, Jr., would be fine, he had joined the Army on December 8, 1941.
He had soon been channeled into the Army Air Force, his contacts with important military and political figures and his already-existing experience as a pilot ensuring that he would be placed where he wanted to serve. At twenty-six, he had already had a pilot's license and owned a small airplane—though he freely admitted that after one ride, Ruth had refused to ever fly with him again and had prayed for his safety every time he took the plane out.
Tom Dawson had been eighteen when the United States entered World War II. He had graduated from high school six months earlier and had been working for the Chippewa Springs bottling company, trying to earn enough to marry and make a home with his high school sweetheart, Katherine Adams, after she graduated from high school in June. The Depression was only beginning to loosen its grip on the American economy, and he was grateful for what he had, but still feared that it wouldn't be enough.
Dawson hadn't wanted to join the military, but after the United States had entered the war, he had known that soon enough he would be drafted and sent to whichever branch of the military the draft board saw fit to send him to. He would have no choice in the matter. If, however, he signed up on his own, he would be able to choose the branch of the military he joined, thus maintaining some control over his life. He had chosen the Army, and had requested specifically that he be placed in the AAF. He hadn't held much hope of being allowed to join the AAF, but, much to his surprise, his scores on the various tests had shown that he was suitable for it, in spite of having no flight experience whatsoever.
The two men, Tom Bukater and Tom Dawson, had met in the Marshall Islands in February of 1942 after being assigned to fly missions together. Although Tom was not an uncommon name, some members of their regiment had found it amusing that two men with the same first name had been assigned to fly together. Soon, it had become a nickname of sorts—instead of their commanding officers and fellow soldiers referring to them as 'Tom', or as 'Bukater' or 'Dawson', they had been called 'the two Toms' and were often regarded as a single person.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the teasing, the two men had soon formed a strong bond. They had worked well together while flying missions, whether in combat or for other purposes, and had demonstrated a willingness to take risks to keep one another alive. During the times when there was no fighting or work to be done, they had often shared the letters sent to them from their families and friends at home, and had often talked about their very different lives and backgrounds.
Dawson had sometimes envied Bukater, envied the way he came from a background where there was plenty of money and no fears over whether he would be able to find work and earn enough to keep food on the table, envied the fact that he was already married and had a family started. In spite of the fact that Katherine always assured him in her letters that she was waiting for him, he knew that she was one of the prettiest girls in town—and one of the smartest—and she could have any man she wanted. The longer he was away, the more worried he became that she would change her mind.
Bukater, for his part, had tried to reassure Dawson that his girl would be there when he got back, and had pointed out that many a married man was going to come home to find that his wife had found someone else, or had decided that she valued her independence over a husband she hadn't seen in years. He was reasonably sure that his wife wouldn't be one of them—his mother-in-law, Sarah Wolper-DeWitt, had often bragged that there had never been a divorce in the DeWitt family, and he knew that Ruth didn't plan to be the one to break that tradition.
He had confessed to Dawson that sometimes he envied him the simplicity of his life, of having only his family and himself to worry about, rather than worrying about half a dozen businesses and what effect the next shift in politics would have on his family's fortunes. Dawson had countered that at least he had some say in what would happen in the world, that he wasn't at the mercy of whatever changes came with no say in the matter, not even a vote until he reached the age of twenty-one.
After a while, both had realized that they would never quite understand the life of the other without experiencing it, but they did understand the life they were leading while the war was on, and it was that experience that formed the strong bond that differences in class and background couldn't breach.
Now the war was over, and they—along with millions of others—were heading for home and whatever awaited them there.
Bukater was turning away when he heard Dawson call to him.
He turned, heading in the direction of Dawson's train. "Yeah?"
"Don't forget to write!"
"You know I'll remember! Are you going to remember, or are you going to settle down with that pretty girl of yours and forget all about your old friends?"
"You know I'm not gonna forget. Who could, after all we went through?"
"Ah, but you'll settle back into life here, and start a family—and things like the war won't be so important anymore."
"I won't forget." Dawson's jaw was set stubbornly, much as Bukater had seen it many times during battle—he had no intention of forgetting his experiences in the war or the friendships formed there. His face softened after a moment into a slight grin. "You might forget, though, when you get home and see your wife and your little boy and start commanding all your businesses again."
"One of these years, after we're settled back in, we'll have to bring our families to meet each other—I'll bring mine to Chippewa Falls, or you can come out to Philadelphia. Or we can meet somewhere in the middle." The train's whistle blew, bringing them out of their conversation. Dawson hurried to climb aboard. "You know, if you ever need anything, all you have to do is ask," Bukater told him as he climbed the steps into the train.
"Same here…though I don't see you ever needing anything."
"Hey, you never know, right? As you've said, you never know what hand life's going to deal you next."
"Right." The train was beginning to move, so Dawson hurried inside and rushed to a seat, lowering the window and waving. "See you…sometime!"
Bukater hurried out of the way of the gravel flying up from under the train's wheels. "Definitely!" He waved, watching as the train gained speed and moved out of sight, before turning and heading towards the train that would take him back to Philadelphia.