Ruth Crocker was only 18 years old when she went on the blind date that would change her life forever. The lucky guy was West Point cadet David Crocker.
It was 1965. The day after he graduated in 1966 they were married and soon after, left for Germany where they celebrated life together for two years. They returned to the states and on Veteran’s Day, in 1968, Dave left for Vietnam. Over the next six months their only communication was through old fashioned hand written letters. On Friday, May 17, Captain David R. Crocker Jr. was killed in action and a young widow was devastated. She was 23.
“The last time I heard his voice was the day he left for Vietnam,” recalls Ruth. He was a company commander and they had plans to meet in Hawaii while he was on leave, scheduled just a week and a half after he died. “I had been living with the suspense of worrying about him getting hurt and the anticipation of seeing him again. It (his death) was shocking on every level.”
Climbing Eiger Mountain
She thought about what she wanted to do that would make some sense of the horror of what was happening in her life. She used a coffin to bury her treasured mementos at Elm Grove Cemetery in Mystic, Connecticut. This included all of their letters, her wedding dress, his uniforms, scrapbook, and photo albums, all the things that reminded her of their short time together. She had his body cremated, and chose to scatter his ashes at Eiger Mountain’s north face in Switzerland. Ruth and Dave had gone there only the year before and she wanted to honor him by repeating their trip together. Accompanied by Dave’s sister Dottie, she made the 10,000 foot climb, the first section by cog rail train then hiking the north face to the summit.
“It’s an important thing for anyone, to let your mind be free to think of what might be a tribute to the person you love, and lets you feel like you’ve done something. The worst part of going through something like that is the feeling of helplessness, where you’re totally powerless to have prevented it or to change it, so let your mind be free to cook up whatever feels right. Come up with something you can share to celebrate their life. That’s what the healing process is – it’s four steps forward two steps back.
“When you go through something like this you have all these things to deal with about death and then there is the future. When people suffer like this, you become a person who has lost someone. People don’t really know what to do or say and it’s kind of a twilight zone,” says Ruth.
The trip to the Eiger gave her something to look forward to. Before her climb, she decided to take that trip to Hawaii anyway. The tickets and plans were already in place so why not? It was a long trip on a near empty plane and Ruth had never felt so alone. Still in a state of shock, she checked into a Hotel on Waikiki Beach. She connected with the family of a West Point classmate of Dave’s, aching for any connection she could have with Dave. The family sort of adopted her for the week. She toured the island, and she remembers hearing the account of Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon on the radio as she looked out over a volcano.
The Career Years
Ruth had a successful career in the field of community nutrition and health care administration and has a Masters of education from Tufts University, and a Ph.D. in nutrition and human development from University of Connecticut. She is a registered dietician and worked with T. Berry Brazelton, the noted pediatrician. Ruth has a Master of Fine Arts in creative non-fiction from Bennington College. She was called upon to manage the family nursing home when her brother Sam passed away in 1989. She wrote an essay about their brother/sister relationship that was published in the Gettysburg Review in 2012 and later listed in the Best American Essays in 2013. “Writing our story was a way to bring him back into the world,” says Ruth.
Her son Noah Bean, from her second marriage to Rick Bean in 1976, is her, “main muse” and encourages her creative endeavors. Ruth started a memoir, but unprepared just yet to put her own story out there, she created a fictional version that was performed at the Local Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in 1998. Her marriage to Rick Bean lasted 20 years, ending in divorce.
Reconnecting with the Past
In 2006 fate brought her together with many of Dave’s comrades who also served in Vietnam who had been writing tributes to him on a virtual wall. She had reunions with them and they shared stories of the time they knew him. The idea of exhuming the coffin that held all signs of their short life together became something she had to do.
“I began to get really curious about the letters. Dave was a prolific letter writer and he sometimes wrote in code to me, about what was going on.” After he died his effects came in “dribbles,” one box and then another, and once his diaries arrived she was better able to understand what he was trying to say. But years later as she contemplated the idea of digging up the letters, the task of exhuming a traditionally buried coffin seemed overwhelming.
“I just became curious and really wanted to be surrounded by his words again,” says Ruth. “Suddenly I wanted to have a conversation with him, to re-connect with his words. At the same time, I knew I didn’t need those to enhance my memory of who he was.”
But on Halloween, 2011, 43 years after she’d buried it, the coffin was exhumed with Noah filming it all. When opened, she recounts that the letters on the bottom looked like “a pile of gray mud.”
“It was devastating. But I was ready for anything.” She believes it was a flood at the cemetery in 2010 that did the damage and that prior to that, the items may have been intact. Ruth reached out to touch her wedding dress and it disintegrated in her had. The only thing she was able to retrieve were photo albums that she took home, cleaned off and then photographed the images. When the old photos dried, they too turned to dust. She finished writing her memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, her first book, and published it in May, 2014 with Elm Grove Press. The photos had turned to dust but her life since losing Dave has been full of life.
In 2007 Ruth married artist, Frederic Walperswyler. “When we met there was this connection because he was Swiss and he knew Grindelwald. It was very serendipitous. That’s the other thing, you think you’ve lost the love of your life, which you have, but you never know who’s out there. I was never hunting for a mate, but people found me. There are people out there.”
She advises friends, “Stop waiting. As soon as you stop waiting they will turn up. You should be aware and be open and see what happens.”
Crocker serves on the board of Gold Star Wives of America, an organization serving widows and widowers who have lost a spouse in combat or due to service related injury/illness. Through them, she was invited to the White House at Christmas in 2013 and again on Memorial Day 2014, when she presented a copy of her book to President Barack Obama.
“It’s very comfortable there,” says Ruth about her visit to the White House. “It’s like being in your own house…a very, very nice house.”
Visit www.elmgrovepress.org to order a signed copy of Those Who Remain, or www.ruthcrocker.com for more information. Visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdzJyeXi5ss to see a book trailer by Noah Bean, Director.