Written by Mary Challender
Photos by Duane Tinkey
They vowed at the altar to be faithful partners, as long as they both should live.
Even as they said the words, Larry and Cynthia Eisenhauer knew their time together could be fleeting.
It was the summer of 1968, and in just over a month, Larry would go to Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks for Army basic training while Cynthia would return alone to Emporia, Kan., for her junior year at Kansas State Teachers College.
I’ll write, Cynthia promised, when it came time to part.
I’ll write too, Larry promised back.
Larry was soon sent to Vietnam, where he read history books to try to make sense of serving in a war he didn’t support. While he was gone, Cynthia discovered she was pregnant and struggled to juggle classes and raising a baby alone.
For the first year and a half of their marriage, the young couple’s relationship consisted almost entirely of the letters—some short and silly, some long and poignant—they penned to each other daily.
Today, nearly 45 years later, the Eisenhauers—who moved to Ankeny in 1975—still have more than 700 of those letters. And this month, Larry, 66, the chief judge for the Iowa Court of Appeals, and Cynthia, 64, a well-known government financial consultant, will celebrate yet another Valentine’s Day together.
Many couples wonder if they have a relationship that will stand the test of time. The Eisenhauers were able to erase those doubts by their second anniversary, one line at a time.
Nov. 20, 1968 Fort Sill, Okla.
I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankel. I was just enthralled by it. I read the whole book today. Frankel was a prisoner at Auschwitz during WWII. I quote, “I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss be it only for a brief moment in the contemplation of his beloved.” I think our temporary separation will only sharpen our love.
April 28, 1969 Emporia, Kan.
… If you love me at the end of 18 months apart, you must really love me. It’s easy for me to love you for 18 months because I’m going to love you forever and that is much, much longer than 18 months. That is what I must remember—18 months is just a speck of our lifetime together.
They met on Cynthia’s 18th birthday in her hometown of Emporia. A friend of Larry’s worked at the same pizza parlor as Cynthia, and Larry—then a student at Kansas State Teachers College, where he later earned a degree in social science—accompanied his friend to pick up his paycheck.
“They were having a birthday party for her,” Larry remembers. “I burnt my fingers on a pizza pan. Cindy gave me a glass of water to put my fingers in and it was all over.”
A few days later, Larry asked Cynthia on a date, a fraternity party in the woods. An uncommonly wise high school senior, Cynthia turned him down. Larry tried again, this time inviting Cynthia to a showing of art films. They began dating, and after graduation, Cynthia joined Larry at Kansas State Teachers College.
In April 1968, Larry received a phone call from the draft board of Meade County, Kan., within which the city of Plains, where his parents lived, was located. The draft board had run out of bodies and was going to revoke his student deferment.
“I was engaged to be married, I was student teaching and I needed a summer school class to graduate,” Larry recalls. “In order to have time to complete my obligations, I went ahead and enlisted with delayed enlistment to go in August.”
He hoped he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam but ended up being sent on Jan. 29, 1969, for a one-year tour of duty. His job was to plot targets and direct fire for a field artillery unit using a primitive computer called a FADAC (Field Artillery Digital Automatic Computer).
Back home in Emporia, Cynthia, who had never lived alone before, got a crash course in home and car maintenance. Money was a constant struggle. Although Larry sent home most of his pay, Cynthia still barely had enough to buy her books.
No matter how busy she was, her day wasn’t over until she’d written a letter to Larry, although she insists she didn’t pursue the daily correspondence out of a sense of obligation. In the days before Skype and email, the letters were the only way for the couple to stay connected.
“I wrote because I had to tell him the experiences I was having,’’ Cynthia says. “I was always just anxious to tell him what was going on with everybody.”
Jan. 28, 1969 Plains, Kan.
I keep thinking of your being gone a year and I can’t conceive it. When I think of having to take care of everything from financial matters to blown fuses, besides work, go to school and have and raise a baby, I can hardly believe it. When I think of how much I hate the Army, I just get upset.
Please tell me when you write, all the little household jobs that should be done, like cleaning out the eaves, when I should turn off the stove and how, and anything else I should do. How often should I change the oil in the car? How often should I have it checked?
Feb. 28, 1969 Vietnam
I worked hard today laying a floor in our hooch. It is amazing that I can attain a degree of satisfaction by laying a floor in a sandbag hooch 3,000 miles from home.
Sometimes they wrote to each other more than once a day.
Cynthia wrote letters in class or home in bed at night to keep her loneliness at bay. Larry wrote during the off hours of his 12 hours on/12 hours off shift, filling page after page—he sometimes amused himself by writing in spirals—in an effort to fight off boredom and his deepening sense of isolation.
Cynthia asked Larry’s advice on professors he’d already had and told him about anti-war protests breaking out on college campuses. Larry wrote about the books he was reading, his spiritual musings, and about the casual racism he saw in the military and how helpless he felt to stop it.
March 3, 1969 Vietnam
It’s March 3 already and I haven’t seen a VC [Viet Cong] or had the war touch me in any way. It’s happening all around, but I’ve been lucky so far. Mass out here is at 11 a.m. and I think I will get up and go. Prayer comes easy when things aren’t going too well for you. I pray for you mostly and for our baby.
… I’m reading “Six Crises” by Richard Nixon. I get the impression that Tricky Dick is trickier than I thought he was. I still wish him much luck in his presidency. If he would bring me home to my wife and baby, I would overlook some of his faults…
March 4, 1969 Vietnam
… I’m awfully lonely tonight. I’m also very sleepy. I haven’t been able to go to sleep, I always wake up about 1:00 and can’t go back to sleep. I love to get letters from you. I think that is one reason I wake up. Your letters always make me dream of home. Home. It seems so far away and yet it is as near as a thought.
Cynthia mailed her letters every day. Larry put his in the mail service, but they were only picked up once a week or so. Often they would go days without receiving a single letter and then get several at once. “Getting those letters kept me going,” Larry says.
Early in her junior year, Cynthia wrote to Larry, telling him that she was pregnant and had no idea how she was going to possibly juggle a baby, classes and her work on the yearbook.
By the time the baby was born in March 1969, the 19-year-old had become so independent, she drove herself to the hospital. “In a snowstorm,” she says. “And the windshield wipers didn’t work, so I had to stick my head out the window.”
The instant she was out of labor, Cynthia asked for pen and paper. She couldn’t wait to let Larry know he had a daughter.
March 20, 1969 Vietnam
She has my toes?! My God, I can’t think of anything worse. When she goes swimming, she will have to wear sox.
March 20, 1969 Vietnam
How many children do you want to have? I know this is a bad time to ask that question.
March 22, 1969 Emporia, Kan.
I’m growing up, Lar. I’m growing slowly, but I’m getting there. I have aged five years in the past two weeks. I have acquired such responsibility and now someone depends on me
Whenever Cynthia received more than one letter from Larry, she would put the letters in chronological order before reading them. Larry did the same thing.
Often, the intersecting letters provided a vivid picture of how widely their lives had diverged. In May 1969, Cynthia wrote to Larry about lying in the sun tanning. On the same day in May, Larry wrote to Cynthia about crouching on the roof of his bunker with his M16, shooting round after round into the dark. “We were a long ways away from each other,” he says.
Yet in their year apart, they became closer, brought together by their letters. Maybe it was because they felt less constrained to share their true feelings when writing them on paper. Or maybe it was because the letters themselves felt like a gift, creating a lasting bond between giver and recipient.
“It really did make us appreciate each other more, no doubt about it,” Cynthia says. “We were pretty codependent.”
“I think we came to trust each other as well,” Larry adds. “If we could get through that, we could get through anything.”
March 25, 1969 Emporia, Kan.
When I got up yesterday, I laid on the couch with my legs dangling over the end waiting for the mailman. It was pouring down rain, but I went out and looked to see if he was coming a hundred times. Finally, when he came, I made myself count to ten before I got the mail, just to build my self-discipline. When I saw your three letters, I went crazy. I tore them all open at once just to see the dates to see which I should read first. The dates were the same!
So, I just let myself read far enough into each so I would know what order you wrote them. Then FINALLY I read your letters, in order. If there was ever any day that I needed three letters, it was yesterday. If there hadn’t been any, I would have died right there on the porch.
May 8, 1969 Emporia, Kan.
Last night I went to Jeanie’s symphonic choir concert and I saw all these young married couples and couldn’t understand why they weren’t home in each other’s arms.
May 23, 1969 Plains, Kan.
Here I sit alone in the house you grew up in, and I feel much lonelier than if I was home. Your folks have only been gone an
hour and a half. There is too much here that reminds me of you.
July 22, 1969 Vietnam
… I was thinking today about how I used to come over and eat you out of house and home. You make the best ham sandwiches in the world. Today when I was lying in bed I had a vivid recall of the way you used to smell when I picked up you up at work at the bakery. You smelled just like a big donut.
July 24, 1969 Vietnam
It’s here, Cindy, and it’s so perfect. … In this picture I see a woman with just a trace of a smile on her lips, her dimples show every so slightly, but her eyes look very lonely. If only I could bring back that sparkle. You seem to be looking right through me.
When his tour was up, Larry brought Cynthia’s letters home from Vietnam in his duffle bag. Cynthia tossed Larry’s letters in the bag too, and as they moved from one city to the next, following their careers, the duffle bag went with them. Cynthia taught high school in Kansas for a few years while Larry worked as a graduate assistant at their alma mater, teaching ancient and medieval civilization. Then Larry was accepted to law school at Drake University, and the couple moved to Des Moines.
After earning his law degree in 1975, Larry taught criminal law at Des Moines Area Community College and as an adjunct professor at Drake while operating his own law practice. In 2001, after years of serving as a juvenile judge for Polk County and a judge for the 5th Judicial District of Iowa, he was appointed to the Iowa Court of Appeals. He has been chief judge since February 2012.
Cynthia built a successful career in state government, with jobs ranging from director of the Campaign Finance Commission, to director of Iowa Workforce Development, to chief of staff for Gov. Tom Vilsack. She retired in 2007 and now consults with state and municipal governments on budgeting and efficiency issues.
Eventually the duffle bag ended up in the attic of the Eisenhauers’ Ankeny home. And that’s where the letters stayed until Cynthia got them out a few years ago to make a coffee-table book as a Christmas gift for her husband, their two grown children—Susann, who lives in Atlanta, and Nathan, who lives in Kansas City—and Larry’s mother.
“My parents are both gone and Larry’s dad’s gone and our children are grown and with our granddaughter out of state, they don’t have much of a sense of our family history,” Cynthia says. “I wanted them to know our story.”
Cynthia unveiled the book, appropriately titled “Love Always,” on Christmas 2011. Their granddaughter took a copy, sat in a corner of the room and read it cover to cover. So did a niece.
Reading through the letters, Cynthia says, reminds her of all the experiences she and Larry have had as a couple, even though they represent only 18 months out of their lives.
But during those 18 months, they laid a solid foundation for their relationship, Larry says. “We were young and naïve and idealistic, and we were very much in love.”
May 18, 1969 Plains, Kan.
I miss you. I miss listening to your heavy breathing while you sleep. I miss your eyes that almost close when you laugh. I miss your wisecracks and your hand on my shoulder as I walk down the street.
May 4, 1969 Vietnam
(Written in a spiral format)
As you read this letter I want you to think of your husband who is lying in his cot dreaming of his beautiful wife. I think of when we used to go to a movie then go to Sonic for a coke then drive around. We would spend so much time together. I was thinking about how life would be as your husband. I would be a college graduate and could get a teaching job and we could start a family and live a normal life. But I had to leave you, and now I have all this to look forward to again.
“I’m glad I’m not a VC, although I wish I was as convinced of my cause as he is of his.” Larry Eisenhauer, 1969
In their letters, Larry and Cynthia Eisenhauer sometimes ruminated about the Vietnam War. The 20-year conflict, which ended in 1975, claimed the lives of 58,200 U.S. service members and more than 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
March 30, 1969 Vietnam
We just had a fire mission come down. To give you some idea of what we do, I’ll describe what happened. Everybody was asleep and I was sitting by the radio. Our call sign was called and the man said they had a radar sighting of 5 to 10 personnel and we were to fire a battery of three rounds on the grid and 100 meters over and 100 meters short. I yelled out the grid and yelled out the azimuth and range. By this time, I had typed the grid into the FADAC [Field Artillery Digital Automatic Computer]and had gotten the data to fire. The team chief called the data down to the guns and we shot 54 rounds. We then got End of Mission. We went outside and spooky helicopters could be seen firing their mini guns on the area. They have a 50 cal machine gun that fires so fast it looks like a long red line when it fires. Only every fifth round is a tracer so you can see how fast it fires. The VC [Viet Cong] are spotted as soon as they move and this is the kind of firepower we bring on them. I’m glad I’m not a VC, although I wish I was as convinced of my cause as he is of his.
March 31, 1969 Emporia, Kan.
Another Emporia guy was killed in Vietnam. He was stationed with the 1st Infantry Div., north of Saigon. He was a year younger than me. I knew him from school. His name was Tim Carley. Also, John McGuire’s dad died. He had eight kids from ages 3-21. That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.
April 3, 1969 Vietnam
… Your letter today echoed my feelings. You just seem as confused as I am about war. Why should I change my feelings just because it is now me exposed to this war? Should I put the happiness of one man (myself) over a whole nation? The trouble is I think these 33,000 men have died in vain. The course of this nation’s history has seen changes come only over hundreds of years. Americans think they can change the Vietnamese in ten years. These people can’t be changed by a crash course of American ideas. The American people are now so against the war that it will be ended soon.