NEW PORT RICHEY — In the shade of the screened-in garage, on the faded floral cushion of an old patio chair, Ed McCarron waits for the mailman. There isn't much else to do each day. ¶ He's almost 90. He can barely see, can hardly hear. He can't drive. His world is contained: a phone call from his daughter, Pavarotti on cassette, maybe some Jeopardy at night, though the answers float somewhere out of his grasp. ¶ Then, in late September, a package came. McCarron couldn't make out the words. His neighbor read him the letter, bearing the name of a stranger a world away. ¶ By the end of its four pages, the World War II veteran's blue eyes brimmed with tears. ¶ Who would do this? McCarron thought. Who would go to all this trouble — for him? ¶ "It's not fair to be blind," he says, "when you get a beautiful thing like this."
• • •
The nuns at school always told McCarron he didn't have his head on his shoulders, and maybe that was true.
He dropped out at 16, took a job as a dishwasher in Greater Boston to help his family get by.
Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and killed his friend.
McCarron lied to his mother so she would sign the enlistment forms. "They're not going to send a young guy like me into war," he told her.
Nine months later, he was on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, a Marine private first class with the 11th Regiment, gun division.
McCarron hauled and assembled artillery field machines, jammed 3-inch shells into the Pack Howitzer, hid from bombs screaming down through the canopy, slogged through the jungle. He suffered 24 bouts of malaria and spent his 18th birthday in a Melbourne hospital, hardly able to walk because of an ulcer on his shin.
Troop reinforcements came, and in 1944, he returned to the United States.
"I'm no hero. I just did what I was told," he says now, sitting at his tidy dining room table, his white hair combed neatly to the side. "All the heroes are still there."
• • •
In 2003, a decade before she would write the letter that moved McCarron to tears, Jade Hood went to the creek to get her boots polished. There, she found a local selling dozens of old dog tags looped on a wire ring.
A member of the Australian Federal Police, Hood deployed to the Solomon Islands to help quell civil unrest. The police force forbade her to possess memorabilia, but leaving without any of the tags felt like a betrayal of the heroes who left them behind.
She was a student of military history with a history of service in her family, and dedicated her free time on the islands to understanding World War II. She explored foxholes littered with old shell casings, marveled at the wreckage of bomber planes. She felt a kinship with soldiers: their distance from home, their uncertainties, their desire to protect. She worried that future generations would forget the hardships endured, the sacrifices made.
She had already found one dog tag in the dirt near an airfield. She considered the rest, and what they meant to those who once wore them — a tangible reminder of the place where, for better or worse, a part of them remained.
She bought two.
• • •
In the decades after the war, McCarron bounced from job to job. He drove trucks, sold Chevrolets, spent nights dispatching drivers for a limousine service. In 1987, he retired and moved to New Port Richey with his beloved wife, Audrey, who first caught his eye when they were teenagers.
He counts the days since her death in January.
"I can't help it," he says. "I'm a strong enough guy for my age, but I just can't get over it."
In the bedroom they once shared, spread carefully across a pillow, is a pink T-shirt with black script: "A Marine's Wife." On the dresser rests a framed photo of Audrey.
He lifts the photo and touches the glass, gently stroking her cheek. He starts to cry, softly. "My girl, my beautiful girl."
• • •
Hood tried to return the three dog tags that first year, but the emails she sent to the U.S. Marine Corps went unanswered, and time slipped by.
This summer, on a trip to England, she told an American couple about her hunt for the tags' rightful homes. To her surprise, they offered to help.
Jim York, 71, tracked down two of the tags easily. One went back to the family of a veteran, the other to a widow.
Last was the tag of Edward T. McCarron.
Hood, now 37, found an organization that helps reunite people with dog tags. The most likely owner, the organization told her, was an 89-year-old man in New Port Richey.
"I nearly fell over when I found out that he was alive. I was beside myself," Hood said on the phone from Australia. "I just wanted to jump on a plane and shake his hand."
York called McCarron to see if he was the right veteran. McCarron suspected a scam. But as York explained everything, McCarron softened. He said he would wait for the package.
• • •
When the small package arrived in New Port Richey, mailed express from Queensland, Australia, McCarron struggled to make sense of Hood's unprompted kindness.
"It was so potent," he says, shaking his head. "I mean, imagine, someone going to all this trouble for a little piece of metal … that this total stranger would do this. She must be a beautiful person."
It turns out the dog tag was a replacement that McCarron never wore. Not that it matters to McCarron.
Scattered throughout his home are carefully placed mementos of that time: a model of the USS Arizona, a box of badges and medals, a dusty uniform jacket, and now, the dog tag, kept on his key chain. It's a reminder of the four most difficult years of his life, of that brash 16-year-old boy, of the way war stretches across continents and generations.
These old mementos remind him of a song he loves about what's left after heartbreak, about the things people collect and remember.
His voice wavers as he sings:
There's nothing left for me ...
Of days that used to be ...
I count them all apart ...
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @clairemcneill