June/July 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 3
The “sweet Betty Lou” of Rarey’s letters met her future husband on a blind date in the slightly bizarre setting of a Thanksgiving breakfast in Washington, D.C. He was a 21-year-old transplanted Oklahoman working in the art department of the Washington Star ; Betty Lou Hodges, the 19-year-old daughter of an itinerant newspaperman, was finishing business school and working part-time as a secretary. While it was’t love at first sight, she said, things started to “Percolate” a few weeks later, and the couple began talking marriage “darn soon.” The rub: Neither of them had any money. So in the fall of 1940 Rarey moved to New York City to seek work as a cartoonist. Letters flew in both directions, and after just one semester, Betty Lou dropped out of school, packed her bags, and followed Rarey to Manhattan.
She landed a job at the New School for Social Research working on a program for refugee scholars, a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and dedicated to getting Jewish and anti-Nazi scholars out of Europe. On December 7, 1941, life became very earnest and very real for the 20-year-old Betty Lou. Less than a month later Rarey was drafted into the Army. “We were both dazed,” said Betty Lou.
On his second day of military service, after a battery of bewildering psychological and I.Q. tests, Rarey was asked if he’d like to try to qualify for pilot training. Twenty-four hours of buck private status had convinced him that anything would be an improvement, and he said yes. A few days later he was sent south for preflight training. Aviation cadets were not allowed to marry until June 1942. At the end of May, Betty Lou received this letter: “I think the 6th of June would be ideal for your arrival in Ocala. It can’t come too soon....We can get the license and be married the same day.... You must write me and tell me what you think. I’m no damn good at arranging such things. As to the finances, I think we’re all set. We will he paid tomorrow or Tuesday and I should draw in the neighborhood of 85 bucks. I think that’ll see us through. I wish it were a thousand. Oh, how I love you, gal!”
With every penny she had stashed away in her purse, Betty Lou boarded a train in New York City bound for Ocala, Florida, where she established herself at the Candle-Glo Inn, a haven for newlywed cadet wives. Unable to live with their husbands, the “Candle-Glo Gang” had a lot of time on its hands, and Betty Lou’s wedding was a welcome project. After weeks of planning, the couple was married in a church ceremony, surrounded by aviation cadets, flight instructors, and three other service wives. Shortly before seven in the evening, the bride and groom made their way to the town square, grabbed a taxi—and deposited Rarey at the base gate.
The newlyweds didn’t see each other for a full week; and if the military had had its way, they wouldn’t have met again until after the war. The service provided neither housing nor work for airmen’s wives. If they chose to follow their husbands, they were on their own. “I was deeply in love and wasn’t going to leave Rarey, no matter what,” said Betty Lou. “And that was the smartest decision I ever made.”
On November 22, 1943, after more than a year and a half of stateside training that had taken Betty Lou from Florida to Mississippi, from Alabama to Massachusetts, Rarey and the men of the 362nd Fighter Group set sail from New York Harbor en route to their new home at the U.S. Army Air Force Station #159, Wormingford, England. Betty Lou was five months pregnant. “Rarey and I both wanted a lot of kids, and it seemed as good a time as any. I knew he probably wouldn’t be with me when our child was born, but that was okay.” Rarey’s letters, always sanguine, brimmed over with joy about the birth of his son, Damon, and the wonderful life that lay ahead.
But that was not to be. On July 13, 1944, Betty Lou was with friends when her father called to say she’d “had a telegram.” Capt. George W. Rarey, after flying 63 missions, had been reported missing in action since June 27.
“I would have hated myself if I hadn’t spent those months with Rarey on the road,” said Betty Lou. “And I always felt I could look Damon in the eye because I stuck with his dad to the very last moment.”
Two years after Rarey’s death Betty Lou married Bill Flavin, Rarey’s best friend overseas (eventually his commanding officer) and Damon’s godfather. Betty Lou and Bill had a daughter, Courtney, before Bill died in a plane crash caused by an assembly-line error at North American Aviation, where he was a test pilot. “Marriage had been a fine experience for me,” writes Betty Lou, “and a few years later I tried it once again—this time not so successfully although it gave me three fine sons. But I have been alone now with my memories for more than 40 years.”
Today Betty Lou, 83, does a number of special projects for the educational publishing house where she worked for 23 years as an editor and staff writer, volunteers at the secondhand bookstore run by the Friends of the Marin County Libraries, and travels both stateside and abroad.
As for Damon, he flourished. “Never,” Betty Lou wrote earlier this year, “was a son more like his father—not physically, but in every other way. He was the duplicate of the Rarey in the letters: sunny disposition, gentle, humorous, modest, compassionate—and my very good friend. He died last year of the ‘mad cow’ variant of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.”
A beloved son, Damon was also the last tangible connection to Rarey and the heady years of World War II. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of that time,” said Betty Lou “What a high penalty we sometimes have to pay for loving!”