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Cupid’s arrow overtook gunfire

Donna and Milt Stafford of Coeur d’Alene were married in 1948 at the Hitching Post.  (Kathy Plonka)
Donna and Milt Stafford of Coeur d’Alene were married in 1948 at the Hitching Post. (Kathy Plonka)

Donna Stafford first saw her future husband, Milt, in the summer of 1942. She’d come to Coeur d’Alene to visit relatives. As she and her two aunts walked down the sidewalk, they saw a tall, skinny young man coming toward them.

“I should have known what I was getting into, because he was walking with a .22 slung over his shoulders,” she recalled. Shaking her head, she sighed. “I used to hate the months of October and November because he was gone hunting.”

But hunting was the last thing on her mind that sunny afternoon. And once Milt spotted her, hunting wasn’t on his mind, either. “I told my friend, ‘I just got to find out who she is – she’s a nice looking chick,’” he said.

Nineteen-year-old Donna’s visit evolved into a permanent stay when she found a job. Family members arranged a meeting between Milt and Donna. Soon, the two were seeing movies or going on hikes on a regular basis.

Milt had dropped out of school to work at the Atlas Mill, and as World War II heated up, his boss asked for two 30-day deferments for the hard-working young man. But by January 1943, Milt had pledged his troth to Uncle Sam and joined the U.S. Army. He and 90 other men from Coeur d’Alene boarded a train. After basic training in Utah, he found he was the only fellow from that group to be sent to Fort Sill, Okla.

And on July 4, the kid who’d never set foot outside of Idaho landed in Africa. He missed Donna. He missed his mom, and he missed the pine-shrouded lakes of home. Tucked inside his barracks bag was a picture of the girl he’d left behind. Milt said, “My buddy, Willard, asked, ‘Who’s that?’ I said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’”

But marriage would have to wait as Milt and his unit traveled to Tunisia with the 3rd Army, 3rd Division, under the leadership of Gen. George S. Patton. There they prepared for the invasion of Sicily. “It was my first round of combat,” he said. “The first time I saw dead soldiers.” He paused, swallowed hard and looked out the window. “I saw a lot of stuff I didn’t want to see.”

He described that initial foray into battle as “hell on wheels.” The confusion of the nighttime invasion, the shrieking of the shells and the cries of the wounded made a lasting impression.

“It scared the hell out of us,” he said.

From Sicily they battled their way through Italy. Milt made a new friend along the way, a dog they christened Pinochle. “That dog could tell when the Germans were going to fire an artillery shell,” Milt recalled. “She’d run into a foxhole and sure enough, shells would land near us or explode over us.” The men quickly learned to follow Pinochle’s lead.

But Pinochle wasn’t around one afternoon in 1944. Milt had ended up on cooking duty when their cook went AWOL. “He stole an officer’s jeep,” Milt recalled. “We never did find him.”

While he was talking to a sergeant in the cook tent, the Germans fired a smoke shell over them. He told the sergeant they were going to be under fire, and minutes later the sergeant was dead. The blast picked Milt up and tossed him through the air. A friend ran over and pulled him into a foxhole.

Milt’s back was torn up by shrapnel and he spent two days in the field hospital before being sent back to duty. His duffel bag and its contents had been shredded, but one thing remained undamaged: his picture of Donna.

The 3rd Division was headed to the Italian Alps when the war ended. While Milt would have liked to visit Switzerland, he said, “I’d seen all of Italy I wanted.”

He sent his mother a postcard of a dead Mussolini and waited for his discharge papers. “I had enough points to get out, but my name didn’t come up for some reason,” he said with a shrug. “I wasn’t happy, but the Army doesn’t care if you’re happy.”

Finally, in November 1945, Milt made it home. You would think he had Donna on his mind, but this time all he could think about was hunting. “My uncle promised me if I got here before hunting season was over, he’d take me to Priest Lake,” Milt said. “I made it back two days before the season closed.”

After his hunting excursion he and Donna were reunited, but their courtship was tumultuous. They got engaged, but soon broke up. “It was my fault,” Milt admits.

They worked out their differences, and on March 10, 1948, they were married at the Hitching Post. Milt returned to his job at the Atlas Mill, earning 32 cents an hour. They bought a car, rented an apartment and settled into married life. Or tried to. “I was still hunting and fishing every weekend,” said Milt.

“It took a long time to cure him,” Donna said.

In addition to outdoor activities, Milt was an avid baseball player and for many years played catcher and first base for the Coeur d’Alene Lakesiders club. “We had a hell of a team,” he said.

Soon, their first daughter was born, followed seven years later by another. Donna worked at City Hall for a time, and eventually “I finally learned to like fishing,” she said. “In fact, I loved it.”

For 62 years, the Staffords have worked out their differences with grit and a healthy dose of humor. “I wanted to buy her a rifle,” Milt said. “She told me, ‘You’d be the first thing I shot with it!’” He paused and grinned. “So I didn’t buy it.”

His wife smiled, too. “I guess I could be ornery, every once in a while.”

And for other couples, Milt offered these words: “Pay attention. Marriage is a two-way street. It isn’t all your way or her way – it’s together.”