August 5, 2010 in Washington Voices

Life on the move but rarely apart

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Nathalie and Fred Mitchell at their home in Coeur d’Alene. The couple married on Nov. 30, 1945.
(Full-size photo)

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If Fred Mitchell hadn’t been at the Greyhound bus station in Sioux Falls, S.D., in the summer of 1944, he might never have met the love of his life.

A beautiful girl, wearing a sassy white hat had just stepped off the bus and looked around for her boyfriend who was supposed to meet her. “A whole bunch of soldiers were waiting to see who got off the bus,” Nathalie Mitchell recalled.

“And I was one of them,” said Fred.

Nathalie’s boyfriend was not.

Fred struck up a conversation with her and kept her company while she waited. When her boyfriend didn’t show, he offered to call a cab and see her home. She accepted and before she got out of the taxi, he had her phone number. “So much for that boyfriend,” he said, chuckling.

Fred had recently returned to the States after serving with the 452nd Air Bomb Group stationed in England. He’d been attending Purdue University, when the Army Air Corps called his name. “I’d never been up in a plane – I’d never flown,” he said. So, he thought it best to apply for navigation training.

He flew 30 missions, mostly over Germany. “We got shot up all the time,” he said, shaking his head.

During one memorable incident, while seated in his spot in the nose of a B-17, a big piece of shrapnel struck the window in front of him. “It hit the Plexiglass and shattered it. I thought it was snowing!” he said.

After Germany surrendered, Fred and his crew had a new mission. They picked up POWs in Czechoslovakia and flew them home. “They were mainly French,” he recalled. “And when we flew past the Eiffel Tower, boy did they get excited!”

He hadn’t yet decided his future career plans when he met Nathalie at the bus station, but he knew immediately that whatever his future held, he wanted her by his side. “We dated a whole month before I asked her to marry me,” he said. “And once she agreed, I decided to stay in the service.”

Fred applied for pilot training and was sent to Walla Walla. Nathalie soon followed, and on Nov. 30, 1945 they married in a local pastor’s home.

They didn’t stay long in Washington. By October of 1946, Fred and his bride were in San Angelo, Texas, where he attended flight school. While there, they welcomed the birth of David, the first of three sons.

From Texas they went to Louisiana so Fred could complete his advanced training in B-25s. The frequent moves suited Nathalie perfectly. She’s always enjoyed being on the go. “When I was a baby my mother would take me out in the buggy every afternoon,” she said, laughing. “I loved it and wanted to go right back out!”

In 1949, Fred attended weather forecasting school and soon received orders to move his family to the Philippines. Once again Nathalie proved to be an intrepid traveler. She and their two sons boarded the last boat going to the Philippines prior to the onset of the Korean War. “We went through a typhoon,” she said. “But I never got seasick.”

The Mitchells moved 15 times during Fred’s 21-year military career, but despite all those transfers they were rarely separated. “I think the longest we spent apart was probably three months,” Nathalie said.

After retiring from the Air Force as a major, Fred attended Great Falls College in Montana and earned a degree in education. In 1964, they moved to Coeur d’Alene, where Fred taught middle school and high school math. Nathalie said, “We found a beautiful house on Fernan Lake. It was run down but nothing we couldn’t fix up.”

So, the Mitchells at last put down roots. For 21 years, Fred taught a variety of math classes before retiring in 1985. But Fred’s definition of retirement might be different than some. For the past 23 years he’s volunteered with the AARP as a tax preparer. “I helped prepare 106 income tax returns this year,” he said.

Every January, he’s required to take an extensive course and pass a grueling test in order to keep current with tax changes. This year the couple received a Community Service award from the AARP’s Retired Educators Association. A letter from the organization said, “Your efforts have enriched the lives of friends and neighbors and made your community a better place in which to live.”

The couple are also active in their church. Fred plays the keyboard and Nathalie makes baptismal banners. “Church has always been part of the fabric of our family,” she said.

And they are still on the go. Every other summer they take a long road trip. “No planning, we just go,” said Fred. At 87 and 86, they’ve modified their style of travel a bit. They take turns driving and make lots of stops along the way.

In addition, they both exercise every day. Nathalie said, “That’s what keeps us going!”

When asked what keeps a marriage going, they looked at each other and smiled. “He gives me what I want and lets me go where I want,” Nathalie said.

Fred added, “And of course, I don’t argue!”

His wife reached across the table and gently patted his hand. “I get the last word and that’s that!” she said, and the sound of their laughter filled the room.

And because that long-ago boyfriend missed the bus, Fred and Nathalie Mitchell have enjoyed 64 years of happy trails.


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