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One of ours
Eileen Donovan-Kranz holds a portrait of her great-uncle, killed in World War
A soldier's story

This summer my family and I returned to Winthrop, Massachusetts, to witness the rededication of a beach. The beach is named for my great-uncle, a long-ago son of Winthrop, a 17-year-old casualty of World War I. It's just a little bit of a beach, a sweet place now, but in my Vietnam-era childhood and until quite recently it lay polluted, overgrown. When I was a child that beach spoke to me, in the mood of the time, of forgotten dead, lack of care, even cruelty. For my uncle's name—Simon J. Donovan—to be etched on a sign above that beach seemed equal parts honor and insult.

The beach faces one of Logan Airport's runways across a narrow recess of Boston Harbor, and on that Friday morning at low tide, the sounds of surf and speech-making were muffled by the roar of engines close overhead. My late father, who grew up in Depression-era Winthrop, used to swim across that brief channel. The runway didn't exist then. Just a spit of sand and beyond that, Boston. And the Boston skyline—well, that didn't much exist either, people tell me, except for the granite spire of the Custom House Tower. Boston sat low, Winthrop sat quiet, and the sea could be heard from the porches of the closely planted houses along the shore.

We went back to the beach in our usual way, as a clan. My family got wind of the beach's recent refurbishment by word of mouth, even though our branch of Donovans had long ago left town. My uncle David I. Donovan, a Jesuit, asked whether he could give a blessing at the dedication. The Winthrop selectmen were happy to hear from him, told him the date, and asked if he might also say a few words about his uncle.

A few words. None of us on the beach that day had ever met the man. Still, as both an absence and a presence, Simon J. has lurked at the edge of our collective family experience.

We brought to the beach a few tokens of his presence: some letters, his induction photograph. The framed photograph was heavy, awkward, and odd to carry to the beach. Oval, with curved glass and a brass ribbon at the top, it has long hung in my parents' house. Simon J. looks young, handsome, serious. As children we enjoyed being scared by his image; we dared each other to stare into his eyes, told creepy stories, asked Simon J. to communicate with us. Time and—depending upon your belief—supernatural forces or mildew have stained the photo in eerie ways: that white spot, for instance, in the middle of his high forehead. We're told he was indeed shot through the head.

The letters we brought to the beach were handed from Simon J.'s mother to her daughter, my great-aunt, then to my late father, Simon's namesake. We'd rediscovered them among my father's papers, and one Saturday we sat and read them aloud.

The first letter was written on a train out of Boston. Simon J. had lied to the Army about his age and enlisted at 16.

September 6, 1917

Dear Mother,

Just leaving New Haven. We are all having a good trip. All the fellows are going to sleep now. We are bound for New York. I don't want you to worry at all for I am feeling fine and will stay in the best of health until my return . . . . Expect to reach New York by two in the morning. We don't know where we go from there. Frank Hogan is just going on guard. He has to guard the door of the car so as not to let anybody get out. I was on from six until seven.

Bill Barry is singing Ireland Must be Heaven . . . . I cannot write this letter very plain as the train is so unsteady. I will write as soon as we reach the first stop after New York. I will close now with the best of health and many hugs and kisses awaiting my return?

Your loving son,


Simon J. saw action in the trenches of France with the U.S. infantry's Machine Gun Company 101. He wrote the following letter a week before he died, barely a month before Armistice was declared. It reached his mother after the telegram announcing his death.

Oct. 14, 1918

Dear Mother,

Just a few lines to let you know everything is alright. We are still in reserve and the news we are receiving now seems to make us all very happy. I guess the Boche have decided to quit and have a little peace for awhile. We are liable to go in the lines any minute but it would not surprise me if we would never get another wallop at the Huns.

Well, we met the old crowd and believe me it seemed like old times. The only thing missing was the park. Leo, John H. and a few of the other boys stayed with us last night. Leo slept with me. They all look fine and are anxious to get a little action but the trouble is they don't realize what they go up against when they go in the lines. I hope they never have to go in.

Well, Ma, there isn't much more to say so will close with love to all.

Your loving son,


The rededication of the beach was a small affair: a smattering of neighbors whose houses abut the place, some high school classmates of my father's (1948), a handful of local dignitaries, and one or two townspeople whose lobbying had loosed the federal and state funds for the cleanup. Our family doubled the crowd. It was low tide and my two young daughters and their cousins combed the flats for shells. Red, white, and blue balloons bobbed. When it came time to cut the matching tricolored ribbon, my girls, with steady hands and serious faces, held the ends taut. Their feet were still sandy and bare.

Just before my uncle David was to speak and give the blessing, the family huddled for a moment. My sister shoved the letters at him, letters he had never seen before, and he hurriedly agreed to read the few paragraphs I pointed to in Simon's last message. His voice broke when he did so. The years fell away, and the words of the young writer whom we carried with us were heard through the roar of engines.

Eileen Donovan-Kranz '84

Eileen Donovan-Kranz is a lecturer in the English Department and assistant director of the first-year writing program at Boston College.

Photo: Eileen Donovan-Kranz holds a portrait of her great-uncle, killed in World War I, on the Winthrop beach named for him. By Lee Pellegrini

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