The following article written by The Progress Contributing Writer Sophia Colitti was printed in The Progress, Feb. 10, 2021. To view the original article please click here.
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Book uses letters couple exchanged during Vietnam War
Sarajane Giere’s book, “My Pilot,” is about her husband, Bernard.
WEST CALDWELL TWP. – Although Sarajane Giere lost her husband to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2013, writing about him was not filled with pain.
Amid her reflection on loss as she worked on “My Pilot: A Story of War, Love and ALS,” published in November, the West Caldwell resident blissfully regressed to her memories of the great love of her life.
“It was like falling in love again throughout the whole six years I wrote the book. It was wonderful all this time; it was a work of love,” she said.
“As I wrote, I got (the music-streaming service) Spotify and put on all the songs from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Most of the songs were love songs in those days, and they all remind me of him. I think of them all the time and think of him.”
Giere will discuss the book online at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12. Her talk is sponsored by West Caldwell Public Library. To register, send email to email@example.com.
“My Pilot” embodies the ethereal feeling of being in love combined with hard-hitting truths about war, sickness and distance.
Giere incorporated the love letters that she exchanged with her late husband, Bernard, known as “Bernie,” who served as a pilot during the Vietnam War. He was in the Air National Guard for 15 years as air commander of the 106th Rescue Wing.
Their love story began at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The book covers their collegiate days, their initial move to Texas as a married couple in 1962 and their life together until he died of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. There is no cure.
The turbulence of their lives during the ‘60s is highlighted, based on Bernard’s letters sent during wartime.
“I think that most of our strength-building times were when he was in harm’s way. They are the backbone of the book. I saved all of his letters from Vietnam. It was very reassuring and comforting to know our love brought us together through letters,” Giere said.
“My Pilot” has resonated with folks beyond the Giere’s acquaintance as an embodiment of the military wife’s experience. It exposes the strength of these women and the trauma they endure. Giere explicitly stated the rawness that is not covered in cinematic and textbook depictions of the Vietnam War.
She credits “My Pilot” for her rekindled connection to the military wives with whom she shared unfathomable grievances. She recounted one time where she witnessed another woman receive a knock on the front door.
“I was like a fly on the wall because the men notifying her of her husband’s death were at the front door and I was behind. I watched what happened. My mind had said, ‘Never forget this moment, look in the window and see this wonderful woman. See what she was going through’ as I was comforting kids who didn’t know their father was gone.”
The Gieres lived in six states as they pursued their careers. While Bernard was flying planes, Sarajane taught elementary reading, art and English for 23 years.
Years later, when Bernard was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 at age 73, Sarajane’s one wish was to make him happy.
She shared her memories of their final year together, which included taking Bernard to fly a biplane despite his physical setbacks.
During that year, Sarajane asked Bernard questions about his life as he was mentally slipping. He willingly shared details that she would later channel into her writing.
After his death, she joined The Write Group in Montclair, where she found her motivation to work on the book.
“I was with people who love writing and we encouraged each other to get better. I would get good reactions after reading the letters from Vietnam, which helped me continue. I always liked memoirs, seeing how people overcome adversity in their lives.”
Giere said she wears a necklace of an airplane on a chain with a diamond chip because her husband was a gem.
“Even in the letters we wrote to one another before we were married, I saw the humor, pathos and bravery of the man. I thought to myself, ‘I want my grandchildren to know this wonderful man; I want him to live on.’
“I wanted my seven grandchildren and one great-granddaughter to know how amazing he truly was. It’s a matter of passing things down, and the best way to do it is in writing.”
Giere recommends that everyone follow suit.
“I would say, because I love re-reading old letters, keep a diary and write in a journal. Write your feelings, write about what’s happening, the way you feel about the world, your inner self and expose yourself to other writers.”
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