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Longtime Ashlander publishes book of World War II love letters

At age 97, retired professor Vaughn Davis Bornet of Ashland has published a touching and passionate book of love letters between him and his late wife, Beth, called “Lovers in Wartime, 1944 to 1945: Letters From Then, Insights From Now.”

The love affair began at a party where two lonely young people met and quickly fell in love over the ensuing two weeks — he a 27-year old Navy lieutenant at Naval Air Station Alameda, who could be shipped off to the Pacific war at any time, and she a 20-year-old college student and class president at University of Nevada, who was pledged to finish her senior year before marrying.

The two did indeed marry within months, but exchanged deeply felt letters until war’s end. They were only able to be together for the two weeks of their honeymoon in Florida. They went on to a 68-year marriage with two children, with Bornet winning his Ph.D. at Stanford and joining then-Southern Oregon College in 1963 as a full professor and chairman of the Social Sciences Division. (This paragraph has been changed to correct the length of the Bornet's marriage and the name of the Social Sciences Division.)

The book is a charming tale of two people of high intelligence and old-fashioned standards of love, finding the life partner they’d both been searching for, all in the pressure cooker of a global war that held them — very teasingly and sweetly — apart.

The 209 letters are immensely readable as we track the development of their bond, flirting and complimenting each other at first, unveiling their strengths and humor, declaring their terms of partnership — and trying to hold back the gushiness of their longing.

“You swept into my life very suddenly and altogether without warning,” said Bornet,in his first letter, August 1944. “When I saw you at the door an active thought came into my mind in somewhat his fashion: ‘There is your evening — sweet, vivacious and charming; never mind what manner of beauties may be hidden elsewhere on the premises. You like her, so grab!”

Beth replies, “Sure have been missing you — but suppose you’re able to catch up on sleep again anyhow … I never did thank you for showing me such a wonderful time. I only hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. Don’t let me hear you’re drinking King Alphonses (Kahlua and cream).”

Retelling the tale recently to a visiting reporter in his Brookdale apartment in Ashland, Bornet said it was a lonely, difficult time in his life, being in charge of barracks for as many as 7,000 sailors headed to the Pacific war, but meeting Beth changed everything. (This paragraph has been changed to correct the capacity of the barracks.)

“I was looking for a leader. I was educated, six years of college and she had three. I wanted a woman who could appreciate me, someone who could keep up with me — attractive and articulate. I wanted quality and I got quality. Her father was mayor of Susanville and her mother a teacher. I liked her immediately …There was kissing and some touching but (until marriage) sex was out of the question.”

The letters are affectionate and pragmatic, the words of two people aware they’re building a new life together. Bornet takes the lead, explicating that he likes a drink but will not tolerate any drunkenness. No swearing, especially from a woman. He details his military pay, $197 a month and, it is clear, he said in an interview, that he will be the leader in career goals and she will run the home, food, entertainment and shopping.

The arrangement was perfect for both of them and, he adds, they virtually never had a fight. Affection and respect reigned, as in this October 1944 note from Beth: “So you think of me when you wake up, huh? Well, don’t you get my kiss at night? … No!!! You’re not ‘just someone to love.’ It’s more ‘always’ and that’s the way it’s got to be! ‘Important’ — yes, that’s what you are to me! Without faults? No, but I hate perfection. It’s too impersonal … I’ve known all sorts of fellows … have gotten hurt a couple times badly … now both my heart and head agree.”

The pair married at Christmas 1944 and soon their letters are full of love for their new child.

“I want to cuddle into your arms every night and have you hold my weak old tummy,” she writes. “It’s hard to make love to you, dear, when every minute I feel like my last or next meal is on its way up … thanks from the bottom of my heart for being so good to me … Just think, a family! Darling, I love you so much that nothing could be more perfect that a child of ‘ours.’ Child is such a beautiful word!"

Bornet is the author of a dozen books, his favorite and best-selling being “The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson.” He also wrote one on President Herbert Hoover. His next book is on James Butler, Duke of Ormond.

How did Bornet get to be 97?

“It was no accident. I had every childhood disease. I was skinny and decided to become strong. I weight-lifted and gained 10 pounds. I nearly died with a heart attack in ’77. I never smoked. I have one drink before dinner, Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. My high school class is all gone. When I was having one drink, they had four. When I was out (exercising) they were watching television. I never retired. I came here (retirement community) to work. I live as a person in real life. Others go to old people events and talk like old people. I don’t.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.