I’d like to share my favorite Valentine’s story. It’s about a twenty-two-year-old woman named Wanda, and how she helped hundreds of couples celebrate Valentine’s Day—every day of the year.
During World War II, Wanda worked at the Fayetteville, North Carolina train station selling tickets, making reservations, and helping passengers locate their luggage.
Trains ran full in those days, and getting a ticket without an advance reservation could mean waiting on a hard bench for hours, until the next train traveling in your direction had an empty seat or someone with a reservation didn’t show up.
Servicemen on leave seldom had reservations. Traveling on a weekend pass, they took the chance of getting a coveted ticket, hoping to see their family for a day or two before they had to make the trip back. Unfortunately for many soldiers, their passes were spent entirely in the station, sleeping on wooden benches, waiting for a cancellation that never came. And because Fayetteville was home to Fort Bragg, the largest training facility during WWII, many of the boys were only days away from being shipped overseas. Being able to get a seat on the train meant seeing their family, wives, and sweethearts one last time—until the war was over.
During the first few weeks at her job, Wanda saw how disappointing it was for soldiers who had to watch train after train leave the station, not knowing if the next one would have an available seat. A service-wife herself—her husband stationed overseas—Wanda also knew firsthand how difficult it was for the waiting wives and family watching the trains pull in, praying their loved one was on board, and hoping they would be able to spend a few precious hours together.
One morning, Wanda noticed a soldier standing expectantly to the side of her window. The red stub of numbered paper between his fingers meant he was on the standby list. She also noticed that under his arm were two small tins of candy, both tied with identical red bows. And while the ribbons were a bit worse for wear, it was obvious he was trying to keep them from being crushed.
After the next scheduled train pulled out from the station—without him—the soldier stepped up to Wanda’s window and politely asked if there was any chance of getting on the next one. She explained that since projected passenger and seat counts were often in error, the conductor would have to actually check the number of vacant seats after the next train arrived. Until then, she had no way of knowing.
He smiled and thanked her, and then stepped off to the side to wait.
By the time Wanda was ready for her break, the soldier had moved to one of the benches next to the window overlooking the boarding platform. As she often did, Wanda walked through the waiting room with her cup of tea, checking on the passengers and reassuring the wait-listed—especially the soldiers—that she was doing everything she could to get them on the next departure. Occasionally, she would sit down next to one of the servicemen and spend a few minutes chatting, usually about his hometown or his plans for after the war.
Wanda told me they were always great stories, but the ones she remembered most were about the sweethearts and wives that were waiting. She said she often imagined her husband telling a very similar story, whenever someone was considerate enough to ask, and kind enough to listen.
Since this particular soldier looked as tired as he was anxious, Wanda wasn’t sure he would appreciate her company. But as she walked by, he immediately invited her to sit next to him and finish her tea. After the young man introduced himself, Wanda learned that “Danny” had recently completed basic training and would be shipped overseas in five days. The night before, he had called his girlfriend—Peggy—and asked her to be his wife. If he could manage to get home today, they would have just enough time to find a Justice of the Peace and spend one day together as a married couple before he had to return to his unit.
Wanda’s break ended far too soon, and as she shook Danny’s hand, she asked about the two boxes of candy. “One’s for my girl,” he said. “The other one is for my mom.”
Wanda silently swore she would get Danny on the next train.
She took her position behind the window and her supervisor handed her the stack of banded tickets for the next departure. After carefully counting them, she found there were 31 available seats. But the number of reserved passengers, plus those wait-listed with lower numbers than Danny’s, totaled over forty.
With as much courage as she could muster, and after turning around to make sure no one was watching, Wanda pulled the bottom ticket from the stack and slipped it under the cash drawer. She knew if she were discovered it would mean her job—a job she couldn’t afford to lose.
After waiting for the call to board, she motioned to Danny to come to her window. As she pressed the ticket into his hand, she whispered that a “cancellation” had just opened up a seat, and then shook her head and smiled, a signal that he wasn’t to say anything. He slid a few folded bills across the counter and nodded. Turning to leave, he hesitated long enough to slip one of the boxes of candy into Wanda’s hands. Before she could say anything, he was outside on the platform, and in seconds had disappeared into the nearest passenger car.
The date was February 14, 1942.
From that day on, Wanda always tried to pull a single ticket from each train’s final seat allocation—not stealing it, but saving it—waiting for the opportunity to place it into the hands of a hopeful soldier.
A good day for Wanda was getting one or two servicemen on board and headed home to see their wife or sweetheart. A great day was four or five.
I asked Wanda how many boys she was able to put on those trains. She told me she didn’t know for sure, but “it was quite a few.” I estimate that during the two years she worked at the station, it had to be in the hundreds.
And yes, Wanda’s husband finally returned from the war. He arrived on one of the very same trains that had carried so many other soldiers home for the weekend—a weekend that never would have happened without Wanda.
As I said in the beginning, Wanda’s story has always been one of my favorites. And while obviously biased, I’m also certain it’s true—because Wanda was my grandmother. And if she were alive today, I’m sure Valentine’s Day would still be her favorite holiday.