AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Writing that Perfect Ending - and Why It’s OK that it’s Not Always a “Happily Ever After”
On August 15, 1945, my friend Russ—now deceased—was on a U.S. Navy minesweeper off the coast of Japan, preparing for the American invasion of the Japanese mainland. Since 1942, when he enlisted as soon as he turned eighteen, he had been through every major battle in the Pacific.
Suddenly it was announced over the ship’s loudspeakers that Japan had just surrendered. It was over and they would be going home—alive! They had been told to expect up to a million casualties in the coming invasion—including the loss of hundreds of naval vessels like theirs. But it was over!
The 110 sailors of the minesweeper immediately all poured out onto the open deck of their ship. Hidden bottles of booze miraculously appeared and everyone quickly got drunk. The ship’s engines were shut down. The gunners left their posts. The captain and the officers joined their men in wild celebration, as the ship came to a dead stop in the water.
The married men talked excitedly about going home to their wives and kids. The sailors with girlfriends took out their photos and kissed them over and over. Russ didn’t have a girlfriend, but he started bragging to his buddies about the kind of girl he was going to find and marry and have kids with, just as soon as he got back to Long Beach, California, where he had grown up and gone to high school.
“Kamikaze!” someone unexpectedly screamed.
You have to keep in mind that this World War II minesweeper was one of the smallest ocean-going vessels in the Navy—only half the length of a football field and a third the width. And a kamikaze, while it was a small propeller-driven aircraft, was actually a flying bomb on a one-way suicide mission. The explosive power of this pilot-guided missile was such that a direct hit anywhere on the tiny minesweeper would cause such damage so as to sink it almost immediately.
The sailors froze in silence, staring in disbelief at the lone Japanese suicide airplane that had just appeared on the horizon. If the plane kept coming, within two minutes it could strike the minesweeper, which would sink so quickly that most of the crew would go down with it. And there was nothing that they could do, but watch, as the plane came closer and closer.
The Catholics among the crew, one of whom was Russ, crossed themselves and prayed that the plane would not keep coming at them and hit their ship.
“I hope the bastard knows the war is over,” someone remarked loudly.
At the last possible second, the plane abruptly halted its lethal approach, and instead of crashing into the minesweeper, it pulled up, turned around and disappeared back over the horizon, heading for some airfield in the pilot’s homeland. The sailors watched in silence until it was gone.
The Catholics like Russ crossed themselves again, thanking God that they were still alive. Russ said he prayed that the kid—most of the kamikaze pilots were boys and teenagers—would make it home safely and not be summarily executed when he landed there, for failing to crash his plane into the minesweeper.
The crew that had assembled on the deck remained very quiet—whispering to each other, as they separated into small groups and went off to some corner of the ship where they could sit and talk. … No more celebration.
Why do I tell this story, which is a true story that Russ told me? At the end of each of my first three novels, I finished the romantic tale by saying, “And they lived happily ever after.” … Not so in real life! … In a Fairy Tale, yes. But not in Real Life.
For a brief few minutes, Russ and his fellow crew members were dreaming out loud about how they would go home “and live happily ever after,” having survived the war. But then the sudden appearance of the kamikaze reminded them that such was not always so. In battle after battle, all of them had seen how quickly life changes—how quickly celebration can turn into death and grief.
So from now on, at the end of my romance novels, I won’t finish the love story by saying, “And they lived happily ever after.”
I try to imagine what Russ and his fellow sailors were saying to each other after the kamikaze was gone and out of sight. And as to my novels’ characters, at the end of the love story in each of my coming books, I will have them reflecting on what may be coming next in their lives.
My two lover-protagonists will have gotten through all sorts of obstacles, and for a few brief moments, they can celebrate their love for each other. They have hope. But they know that in a heartbeat, everything can change: “Look! A kamikaze.”