Once a year, Helen O’Conor read the same letter to herself on her birthday. But seven years ago, her 80-year-old eyes couldn’t do it anymore and she asked Raymond, her son, to read it to her privately. Unexpectedly, the New York banker had a revelation, and the beginning of a quest.
O’Conor knew Helen had been married to another man, who’d died, before marrying his own father. He’d known little else of the man. What he read to her, he discovered, was a love letter written to Helen for her birthday, on Sept. 5, 1944. The next day, both her birthday and their wedding anniversary, the young pilot’s B-17 crashed in Europe. All the crew but the tail gunner died.
The pilot’s name was Clarence R. Stephenson Jr.—the initial stood for “Raymond”—and O’Conor discovered he had been named, unbeknownst to the family, for his mother’s first husband. Helen Gregg Stephenson had always called her pilot by his middle name.
Thus did O’Conor’s history book, She Called Him Raymond, begin.
Helen grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and the couple met by chance in the city in the summer of 1942 when the Ironton, Ohio, native visited the city during his stateside flight training. It was love at first sight. When Helen turned 18, the couple married and she accompanied him around the country as training continued.
“In April 1944 Raymond and his crew left to combat the Nazis,” says O’Conor, “and Helen returned to Hell’s Kitchen and her Irish immigrant parents’ tenement apartment that she shared with seven siblings, four of whom would also fight.” In July Helen gave birth to Ann Marie, O’Conor’s sister. That September, after a series of harrowing missions, the crash killed Stephenson.
“Raymond would never get to see his daughter,” says O’Conor, “and Ann Marie would only see pictures of her dad.”
Helen remarried a decade later. When Ray O’Conor was named, family assumed it was after one of his dad’s relatives, not the dead first lieutenant and flight commander.
The banker had done some writing about personal finance and about mountaineering, but never anything like a full-length historical non-fiction book. But he was moved by the love story, the story of the two families surviving the Great Depression and then entering World War II, and Helen’s later life, in light of the new facts. He resolved to put it all on paper.
But first, a great deal of research had to be done. O’Conor, now 58, began that a bit over two years ago. And in early 2012, he determined to retire from full-time banking and became chairman of his bank, Saratoga National Bank & Trust Co., so he could concentrate on She Called Him Raymond. (He had been chairman, president, and CEO.)
The realities of the “Greatest Generation” drove part of O’Conor’s decision to start sooner rather than later. He knew that to understand service in the B-17s—the four-engine bombers you’ve seen in the movies “12 O’Clock High” and “Memphis Belle”—he would have to seek out people who had been there—folks who are dying off. So he began interviewing those he could find, including Keith Clinton, 90, the tail gunner who survived the crash. Interviews with other veterans, aircraft experts, and his own mother and sister Ann Marie would also be necessary. And O’Conor realized that he had a mountain of research to do in libraries and obtained elsewhere to get all the technical and historical details right. He delved into technical manuals about B-17s.
And he’s traveled too, including trips to Ironton, Ohio, to learn more about Raymond’s town and family, and to Savannah, Ga., where the historical society devoted to the Eighth Air Force—the unit that handled daylight strategic bombing over France and Germany—is based. For feel, he’s been up in a restored B-17 operated by the Collings Foundation, trying out the different positions aboard.
O’Conor had to handle his quest tactfully, as well. “No one ever wanted to hurt my father’s feelings,” he explains, and though he knew immediately there was a book to be written, he held off until his dad passed away two years ago. He says Helen loved her second husband very much, “but in some ways she never really got over Raymond’s death.”
“The more I have dug, the more interesting this story and this period became,” says O’Conor. For instance, the daughter of one of Raymond’s sisters found, and provided, a trove of about 100 family letters from the World War II period. “Some of the stories in the letters are fairly mundane,” says O’Conor, “yet such letters are invaluable to telling the story of the power and strength of faith, family, and patriotism.”
In tackling the project, O’Conor has come up with more and more material and found guidance in a book called Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life, by Marion Roach Smith. One of the most valuable lessons is the author’s advice to write what she calls the “vomit draft”—a put-it-all-down rough exercise to get the writing going.
O’Conor completed this draft, and submitted it to his son, Brian, an avid reader, who told him it needed more color and anecdotes.
“He said it lacked a certain emotion,” says O’Conor.
This sent O’Conor back to such people as Keith Clinton—who had also served as a ball turret gunner—and his mother to get more about life at that time, and about specific incidents such as the crash and about Raymond’s fellow crew members. He also read books about the period—Unbroken, Flags Of Our Fathers, Hard Times, and The Greatest Generation are some—to gain more historical context.
Getting the project done has required discipline. O’Conor rises most days at 5:30 or so to exercise and then begin a half-day in his home office to organize and write. Not every day goes according to plan. “When people hear that you are ‘retired,’ they think you don’t have anything to do,” says O’Conor. He still has advisory and board duties at the bank that occupy time, as well.
Along the way, he has also learned about “the cutting room floor” part of writing. He’s consulted with sister Ann Marie along the way to avoid anything that wouldn’t pass muster with the family. Already, he says ruefully, he’s cut an entire chapter that he worked especially hard on. Some details from the chapter survived, to be woven into other chapters.
Heeding his son’s advice, O’Conor says the next draft of She Called Him Raymond will be a much more personal story. He’s aiming to complete it by yearend. Down the road are the equally daunting chores of finding an agent, and then a publisher.
“It has been a heck of an adventure,” says O’Conor, “piecing this story together.”