Preface to “In Bad Times – As in Good. The Story of a Bond formed in WWII”, the surprise best-selling narrative biography of Ronald Speirs and Carwood Lipton written by upcoming author Joanne Summer:
“I saw Ronald Speirs and Carwood Lipton for the first time on my sixth birthday. Actually, I first met Bull, their huge Great Dane.
It was early morning, and I was lingering around in the living room, because my mom had told me I wasn't allowed in the kitchen since she was preparing a surprise for me. I had wished for a dog for my birthday, but my parents had told me 'no', so when I saw a black dog sitting on the front lane, I thought they had changed their mind and this was the surprise my mom had talked about. I was out of the door and hugging the dog before anybody could react.
I remember hearing the panicked voice of my mom behind me, but it didn't really register, I was too busy cuddling a dog that was almost taller than I was. I only looked up when I heard a man chuckle and say, “I see you've made friends with Bull already.”
Then my mom reached me and pulled me away from the dog, apologising over and over again to the man for my behaviour. Only then did I understand that the dog wasn't meant for me, but that he belonged to our new neighbours who were just moving in that day. I think the realisation broke my child's heart, and it must have shown on my face, because the man smiled and said, “I think Bull likes you. You can play with him later, if your mother allows it.”
That was how I met Carwood Lipton. To me, he was a friendly old man with this huge dog I had already lost my heart to. I remember that I thought that he looked like the grandfather I'd never had, with his kind face and his white hair. He was sixty-three years old at the time and to me, that was ancient. I begged my mom with eyes and words to be allowed to play with Bull later that day, and after more excuses and a slightly embarrassed 'thank you' to the new neighbour, she accepted. It was the best birthday gift I can remember ever getting.
Bull and I were inseparable before the day had ended, and I think my parents couldn't decide whether to be embarrassed in front of the new neighbours for my outright love for their dog, or relieved that they wouldn't have to put up with me begging for a dog of my own anymore. As a thank you and a welcome, they invited the new neighbours over that night, offering dinner and wine seeing how they were still moving in and their kitchen wasn't operational yet. That was how I met Ronald Speirs.
When the new neighbours arrived that evening, I didn't pay them much attention; I had my arms wrapped around Bull before they had even entered the house. Bull always carried something around, be it his current chewing bone, a stick or even his own leash, and that night he brought a ball and we began to play immediately, without caring for the adults. When I heard laughter from the door, I glanced back at the entrance and found the adults watching me, smiling. There was a man standing behind the neighbour I had met that morning, and he was just as old, with salt-and-pepper hair and a very straight posture. He just looked at us and shook his head with a smirk. “I see what you mean. They're like Pee-Wee and Bull.”
Somehow, the name stuck. For the next thirteen years, we were known as 'Pee-Wee and Bull' in the neighbourhood, and even in high school I was called 'Pee-Wee' or just 'Wee'. I think some kids never knew my real name. Only now, twenty-four years later and six years of research wiser, I understand the names. I've even talked to John Martin when I visited him for an interview about four years ago. I told him about my nickname and showed him a picture that my dad had taken of Bull and me sitting next to each other on the steps of the porch. I was maybe ten or eleven years old in that picture, but sitting, Bull was still taller than me. Mister Martin couldn't stop laughing for several minutes, reassuring me that the choice of names for me and the dog were entirely fitting, then he showed me a picture of him and Mister Randleman from 1944, and I understood what he meant. I couldn't help sharing his laughter.
I spent as much time growing up at my parents' house as at Ron's and Carwood's, and after the first year, I came and went in both houses as if I actually lived in both. My parents and Ron and Carwood got along really well after that first evening, and soon they became part of the family. There wasn't a single family barbecue without them.
At the time, I was too young to understand why some people avoided Ron and Carwood or talked bad about them behind their backs. For me, Ron and Carwood were always mentioned in the same breath, they just belonged together, like my mom and my dad, and it took me until I was twelve to understand what all the talk was about. Having grown up with Ron and Carwood, I never really saw the problem these other people seemed to have, though, and I even got in a fight with an older boy once when he bragged on the school yard about how Ron and Carwood were dirty faggots and should be shot. I had hit him before I had even thought about it.
When my mom had to come to the principal's office to get me, she was silent. Only in the car did she tell me that I had done the right thing and that she was proud of me, but next time, I should find a way that didn't involve my fists. Then she told me that if she had to come to the principal's office again to get me after a fight, I'd be grounded for a month, and that would include going for walks with Bull. It was probably the most effective threat there was, and she knew it.
I got in a few other fights afterwards, but I made sure not to be caught so that my mom never had to come to the principal's office again. I wouldn't have wanted to miss time with Bull for anything. Every now and then, Bull waited for me outside the school, and sometimes he brought Ron with him. Then I'd throw my bag in Ron's old, battered pick-up truck and the three of us would range the woods for hours, until it was time for dinner. I loved those afternoons, they're among my fondest childhood memories.
When I was fourteen, I asked my dad to take me with him on one of his hunting trips and teach me how to shoot. I think I actually shocked him, because he stared at me for a whole minute before he told me that I was too young for a weapon and that girls didn't have the strength for it anyway. When later that day, instead of doing my homework, I stared with a deep frown at Carwood's rifle that was mounted on the wall, Ron caught me staring and asked me what was up. I repeated what my father had said to me, and after a moment of silence, Ron told me to be at the back door at dawn on Saturday morning in clothes that could get dirty. Over the years, both Ron and Carwood went hunting with me and taught me everything there is to know about every weapon they owned, from various guns to rifles to knives. We made sure my father never found out.
Bull died when I was nineteen. Carwood told me when I came over after school, and I sat on the couch and cried for hours. I remember the safe circle of Carwood's arms around me and his soothing hand on my back until I fell asleep from exhaustion. When I woke up the next morning, Carwood brought me a cup of strong coffee and we sat on the porch and drank in silence. Ron joined us a bit later, sat down on my other side and wordlessly wrapped his arm around my shoulder. The three of us sat there for a long time before Ron asked me if I wanted to join them in burying Bull in his favourite spot in the woods. I just nodded, and I think it helped me to find some kind of closure, although I still miss Bull today.
Carwood died when I was twenty-four. I hurried home from college when my mom called and told me, and I just stopped briefly at my parents' house to deposit my bag, then I hurried over to Ron's. I found him in the living room in Carwood's favourite rocking chair, head bent and something in his hand that his fingers were passing over again and again in a slow caress. He didn't look up when I entered and I didn't say anything, I knew him too well to offer meaningless words. I just sat down on the armchair on the other side of the little table and waited. After maybe an hour, he opened his hand and stared at what I could identify as a set of dog-tags now that the light of the lamp reached it. Ron stared at them for a few minutes, then he looked up, his eyes bloodshot but dry, and he held my gaze for a long time before he asked, “Do you want to hear a story, Jo?”
I just nodded, never breaking the gaze, and he began to talk. In all those years I've known him, Ron has never said more than a few sentences at once. He had always been a quiet man, but that evening, he spoke for hours, his voice sometimes rough with emotion, sometimes dark with anger, sometimes light with a smile. I saw a side of him and Carwood that I have never seen before, and sometimes I think I got to know them both better in that one evening than in the eighteen years beforehand.
When I sat on the couch after Ron had gone to bed, I felt my mind spinning with all the things he'd told me. After an hour of unsuccessfully trying to find some sleep, I got up and found a pen and a notepad and began writing down Ron's memories. When he got up around dawn, I had half of the notepad filled and I was still writing. He just looked at me with a little smile and made breakfast for us. And so it came that I began to research, began to track down people from Ron's memories, met with them, talked with them and slowly, I completed the picture I had got from Ron. I always regretted that I couldn't ask Carwood anymore, and sometimes I hate myself for never having asked when I still could have.
At Carwood's funeral, I stood next to Ron, our shoulders touching. He stared down into the grave and his face was devoid of any emotion. When I remembered his words from the night before I could see through his mask and I found things I had never expected. Sometimes I wonder if maybe for a short moment, I saw what Carwood had seen.
Ron passed away three months ago. He read the finished draft of this book that I spent almost six years writing. When I visited him, he had tears in his eyes when he told me that it had been the most beautiful gift to relive his life once more, to relive the fifty-six years he had been allowed to spend with Carwood. I had never seen him that emotional, and I don't think I can ever put in words how much that single tear on his cheek meant to me.
I want to dedicate this book to Ron, who was a guiding light for me in my youth, and to Carwood, whose honest affection was a haven I could always turn to; and of course to Bull, who was my loyal partner in crime for thirteen years and the best friend I have ever had. Thank you for having been part of my life.
I won't ever forget you.”
Joanne 'Pee-Wee' Summer, July 2007