A Tale of Two Fathers

Norton Eubanks, 1943

Norton Eubanks, 1943

A chance encounter between two men during wartime provides a family with an opportunity to rebuild.

By Tom Gordon


When Sept. 12, 1944, dawned in Birmingham, Elzie Emens was still adjusting to motherhood. Elzie’s first child, a daughter named Betty, had been born a few weeks before in the front bedroom of her mother’s West End home, and she needed plenty of nursing, clean cloth diapers, and midnight TLC.

As Elzie went about those daily maternal tasks with the anxiety of a new mother, she also felt another anxiety common to several million other American women during that era—that of a wife with a husband at war.

Elzie’s husband, 2nd Lt. Theodore N. Emens, was flying missions as a bombardier with the 8th Air Force out of England. At this stage in the conflict, wave after wave of Allied bombers were hitting German targets all over Europe. On Sept. 12, a headline in the Birmingham News noted that fleets of 8th Air Force bombers were hitting oil plants that day in central and eastern Germany.

Theo, with whom Elzie hoped to have six daughters and live in a house on a hill in Woodlawn, was on that massive mission.

It would be his last.

Theo Emens was among the more than 6,000 Alabamians in uniform to die in World War II, leaving  behind grieving parents, siblings, children, and wives.

With time, many of those wives would regain their capacity to love, and remarry.

But not many would marry someone who had served with their fallen spouse.

That’s what happened with Elzie Emens and Norton Eubanks. The war first brought Eubanks and Theo together in training and allowed Eubanks to meet Elzie and then share in Theo’s excitement when his bunkmate learned Elzie was expecting. Years later, Eubanks would cite his war time as he and Elzie discussed whether he was mature enough to be her husband.

In the foreward to an unpublished memoir about his Birmingham boyhood and war experiences, Eubanks, now 90, credits his union with Elzie to something more powerful.

“It has been my often expressed belief that our meeting and ultimate marriage was no coincidence, but was orchestrated from above,” he wrote.

That marriage, which lasted until Elzie’s death in 1999, gave Theo’s daughter, Betty, a second father, the only one she has ever known. And while people who were aware of her first father’s death tended to feel sorry for her when she was growing up, Betty Efird says she now considers herself doubly fortunate.

“It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized, you know, I have so much to be thankful for,” she said.  “I have two Christian dads who loved their country and were willing to fight for our country, for our freedom. I’m really proud of both of them. Both of them were very responsible, respectable, good men.”

And both men, in their own particular ways, were present in the households in which Betty and her sister, Kathe, grew up. Eubanks, with his booming voice and teasing nature, was a constant physically. Theo, forever frozen as a cherub-faced kid in a bomber jacket or dress uniform, never was. But there were times when he, and he alone, would be on Elzie’s mind. Efird would recognize those moments because a veil of sadness would seem to envelope her mother.

“There were times when she was really, really miserable because she missed him so much,” Efird said.

“She never stopped thinking about him and every once and while, she’d mention him,” said Efird’s husband of 50 years, Jack. “She didn’t dwell on it, you know. She married Norton and she was pretty happy, but she missed Theo a lot.”

As Sept. 12, 1944, ran its course at her mother’s two-story frame home along 4th Avenue West, Elzie Emens did not know she was about to join the ranks of the nation’s war widows. It would be days before a telegram arrived to break the news. She also had no way of knowing that on this same day, Norton Eubanks, whom she and Theo had met shortly before the two men left to start their aviation cadet training, was trying to evade German capture along the coast of Yugoslavia. Eubanks, a West End boy based in Italy with the 15th Air Force, had parachuted from his crippled B-24 after its mission over enemy territory came under fire as he was descending and injured his knee upon landing. In a day or two, Eubanks was able to get back to his base, fly 20 more missions, and learn in October that his old bunkmate had been killed. More than a few times afterward, he found himself dwelling on memories from that short but intense friendship, one of them the December 1943 day in a barracks in west Texas when Theo proudly told him, “I’m gonna be a poppa!”

That memory of that friendship was with him when he came home after the war, and it drove him to make periodic visits to Elzie and Efird. Courting was not on his mind then. Elzie was still living at her mother’s house on 4th Avenue West, not far from where he was living, and “it was strictly a friendship deal for a long time,” Eubanks said. Neither he nor Elzie could afford to do something fancy, so they would eat dinner with Elzie’s mother, take a walk and get some ice cream cones from a stand on 3rd Avenue, be spectators for whatever Efird happened to be doing, or go to a free spectacle, like the downtown Christmas parade where Eubanks would put Efird on his shoulder so she could see the passing floats.

Eubanks with his daughter

Eubanks with his daughter

“I was lonely. I didn’t have anybody that I knew around my age or around where I lived,” Eubanks said. “I always knew that Theo was the love of her life…I never thought that it would ever be a chance that I would be drawn to Elzie or Elzie would be drawn to me.”

Over time, the visits became more frequent, and Eubanks and Elzie were married on May 9, 1948. Eubanks said he thinks he first proposed the previous fall, in the breakfast room of Elzie’s mother’s home, as he and Elzie sat across the breakfast table from each other. She told him she did not think it would work because she was four years his senior.

“I had to do a sales job on her,” Eubanks said. “That four years was a big deal to her. I said, ‘The first thing, Elzie, you may be four years older in years, but I’ve been through a hell that you haven’t been through…I’m older than you are in experience.’”

He was referring to his war service, the intense, adrenaline-filled experiences of tracking a target from a Norden bombsight as the pilots in his bomber sought to avoid flak and swarming attacks from enemy fighters. But he just as easily could have cited parts of his not-too-distant youth, a time when cardboard soles covered the holes in the bottom of his shoes, his father lost a job as the Depression took hold, his parents lost their home because they could not make the mortgage payments, and he had to leave West End High before graduation to find work after his father was struck by terminal cancer.

Elzie knew a lot of this history by the time Eubanks proposed to her. She also had told him about a lot of her own, including the fact that her own father had died when she was a child. She also could not help but contrast Eubanks with Theo, a Woodlawn High graduate with an accounting degree from Howard College, where he was in a fraternity and president of his senior class. He was smaller, slighter, not as loud as Eubanks, but liked to pull jokes and amuse people with a little dance step he had invented.

Because Eubanks and Theo lived on opposite sides of town, the chances of their getting acquainted under normal circumstances were fairly remote. But the onset of the war brought a lot of people together, and so it did them. In late 1942, Eubanks, who was living at home and working as a stock clerk at Graybar Electric Co. to help support his mother, took and passed the Army aviation cadet qualifying exam. Two months later, he received orders to report to a training facility in Miami Beach. The names of about 20 other men were listed on those orders.  Besides Eubanks, the only other name listed with a Birmingham address was that of Theodore N. Emens.

Eubanks telephoned Emens. They agreed to rendezvous shortly before their train was to leave for Florida, and to do it where a lot of people met in those days: under the clock at the downtown Loveman’s department store. In his memoir, Eubanks described Emens as small boned and slender, with twinkling eyes and a prominent Adam’s apple. Emens’ wife was with him, as well, and Eubanks thought the small round hat she was wearing was not flattering to her round face.

Eubanks would see more of Elzie in the coming months, because she was able to join Theo at some of the training sites to which he and Eubanks were assigned. The site at Miami Beach was not one of those, however. There, as Eubanks wrote in his memoir, the cadets were getting a no-nonsense introduction “to changes so completely different to our accustomed lifestyle,” and constant reminders that the country was at war.

“Several times a day, an A-20 attack bomber would buzz the oceanfront in search of submarines,” he wrote. “Daily, we saw ships on the horizon as they made their way up or down the coast. Almost daily, a slow moving blimp searched the immediate off-shore, looking for submarines. But the buzzing A-20s set our hearts on fire to be in the air.

“Something else happened at Miami Beach, too,” Eubanks said. “The bond of friendship between Theo Emens and me was forged into the strongest of all friendships that the army calls ‘buddies.’” More than that, Eubanks would say later, Theo became “the little brother I never had.”

The friendship deepened as they continued their training in such far flung places as Galesburg, Ill.; Ellington Field, Harlingen and Big Spring, in Texas; and Tucson, Ariz. Most of the time, Theo could not arrange to stay somewhere with Elzie, so he and Eubanks would share a bunk, Theo usually taking the bottom mattress, and Eubanks taking the one on top.

Graduation came in Big Spring in January 1944. Eubanks and Emens were no longer cadets, but second lieutenants. Elzie was on hand to pin Theo’s gold bars on her husband’s green blouse.

“He looked great, and he looked proud,” Eubanks wrote in his memoir. “After all, he was going to be a poppa.”

By mid-May, in Lincoln, Neb., both men bid farewell and good luck to each other. They were assigned to separate crews and units and were heading to different overseas destinations. Eubanks, who had gotten the nickname “Eubie” at bombardier school, would fly on 35 missions. Theo was on his 17th  when, according to a newspaper article, he was “killed in aerial action.” His family was told his aircraft had gone down in the North Sea.

Emens was still missing when Eubanks and Elzie were married in the living room of her mother’s house on 4th Avenue West. Theo’s mother, Ella Lee Emens, was among those in attendance. Efird, who was just shy of 4, was there, too, wearing a simple white dress with vertical ruffles on the shoulders. Later, Elzie would tell Eubanks that her daughter had been pushing for them to tie the knot. He had worried how she would take it, but he got a reassuring answer once he and Elzie came home from their Panama City honeymoon.

Newspaper clipping about Theo Emens

“She called me daddy,”  Eubanks said, “and it was the sweetest thing.”

As he won Elzie’s hand, Eubanks knew he would always share the space in her heart with the Woodlawn boy with whom he once shared a series of bunks.

“She really loved that guy with all her heart,”  he said on a recent afternoon. “She tolerated me.”

Efird, who was at his side, begged to differ.

“She loved Daddy too, but in a different way,” she said. “It wasn’t always easy but she loved Daddy, or she wouldn’t have stayed with him for 51 years.”

It was sometime during the first or second of those 51 years that the phone rang in the 4th Avenue West home, and Elzie took the call. Betty watched as her mother hung up the phone and started crying.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Betty said. “I just remember that she was crying her heart out.”

The caller had told Elzie that Theo’s remains had been found, and would be coming home.

There was a military service at Elmwood Cemetery. The Theodore Emens VFW Post No. 6226 did the honors, and Eubanks was one of the pallbearers. Efird wore a black velvet dress trimmed in white lace. There was a 21-gun salute, and a bugler played a tune called “Taps” that she had never heard before but has hated ever since, so much so that she leaves the room, hits the mute button, or changes the channel if the mournful melody is part of a movie or another TV program.

“It’s too sad,” she said.

“That particular thing brings back the memories,” her husband said.

The memories include those of the burdensome melancholy that sometimes surrounded her as she grew up, not just because of the sadness she could sometimes feel emanating from her mother, but because of the pity, spoken and unspoken, that she received from adults.

“Everybody felt sorry for me, so I began to believe it and feel sorry for myself,” she said.

Her outlook is different—more positive—now, because she says she had fathers she has loved and admired.

“A lot of people don’t even have one good dad, and I had two, so I’m blessed. I’m so thankful,” she said.

She felt that gratitude in a special way four summers ago, when she and Eubanks joined other area World War II veterans on a day-long Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C.  They visited various monuments, were greeted by then-Gov. Bob Riley, and were applauded by their present-day counterparts in uniform.

“I insisted that she be my escort,” Eubanks said.

“He didn’t even want me to sit in the back of the plane,” Efird said. “He wanted me by his side the whole time.”

“They tried to get her to move,” Eubanks said, “and I said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

From time to time, you’ll hear stories about men who are about to go to war making a pact. Something along the lines of “If anything happens to me, do what you can to help my family,” or “Look in on my wife and kids.”

Jack Efird has never asked Eubanks if he and Theo Emens ever made such a pact, but he has wondered about it. Pact or not, Eubanks picked up where his buddy left off and stayed with it.  He supported his inherited family by working as a salesman for Graybar Electric Co., and that family grew to include a second daughter, Kathe, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

And somewhere in the family’s possession, perhaps in a drawer, closet, or wooden chest, there are letters and photographs that bear the handwriting and youthful visage of Theo Emens. Through all the years that Eubanks and Elzie were married, those items were never on display. But last summer, Efird picked up a framed, 11-by-14 photograph of Theo, in uniform, that used to hang in a classroom at the former site of Woodlawn Methodist Church.

Eubanks wanted it, so he could put it where it now hangs, in the living room of his home.

One Response to “A Tale of Two Fathers”

  1. Paul Smith says:

    I worked with Norton at Graybar for almost 10 Years. He mentored me and turned over his accounts to me after he retired. I have since retired from Graybar and thought of him often . I have fond memories of this heroic man. I was told this story by Norton on me of our drives as he was introducing me to my future customers and I still as I was then am so intrigued by his story. There should have been a movie! Godspeed Norton . Your admirer and friend Paul Smith

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