Like many young women, Melba Jeanne Yates fantasized about the man she’d one day marry. He’d be handsome of course, and a Christian, but one thing he would not be was a farmer. Her ideas about being a farmer’s wife made her shudder. “Feeding chickens and milking cows – none of that stuff appealed to me,” she said.
But a blind date with Don Barton in December 1945 changed everything. Barton had just gotten out of the service and returned to the family farm on Half Moon Prairie. His brother played the saxophone in a band and was dating Melba Jeanne’s cousin. She wanted Melba Jeanne to come to a dance with them at the Valley Prairie Grange, but her mother insisted she had to be home by midnight. The Grange dances didn’t end until 1 a.m.
His brother called Don and said, “We’ll bring her if you take her home.” So Don agreed.
When he got to the Grange, Melba Jeanne was on the dance floor. “Somebody pointed her out to me,” he recalled. “She looked like a little bobby socks girl!”
The fact that she was dancing at all was something of a miracle. “I grew up in a family where dancing wasn’t allowed,” said Melba Jeanne. “My younger brother and I finally talked our parents into letting us learn how. They didn’t know we were already practicing in the study hall at school during the noon hour!”
However, it wasn’t her skills on the dance floor that won Don’s heart. “She wasn’t a very good dancer at that time,” he said with a smile. But during the long drive from the Grange to her home in Dishman, the two got better acquainted.
In 1942, Don, 21, had enlisted in the Army Air Corps. His eyes lit up when he recalled the 60 hours he’d spent training in a Stearman biplane. “It was a fun airplane!”
He was less enthusiastic about another training aircraft, the BT-13. “It was a two-seater with a canopy,” he recalled. “I didn’t care for it. About eight percent of our class was killed in the stupid plane during training.”
After earning his wings in 1943, he flew B-24s and was sent to instructor pilot school. “It was a good job,” he said. But, he added, as the war went on and the need for pilots intensified, “They were scraping the bottom of the barrel. I got some real jugheads.”
While he enjoyed flying and teaching, what he wanted more than anything was to experience combat. “I felt like I was being cheated,” he said. “I didn’t know the good Lord had his hand on my shoulder.”
When the military launched the B-29 program, Don volunteered. He spent five months learning to fly the aircraft. Since it was a new plane, it didn’t have all the kinks worked out. Don experienced 13 engine failures during his 80 hours of training.
Finally, he was assigned a crew and in March 1945 flew to Guam. He had some close calls during his 25 missions over the Pacific. One in particular he will never forget. “We got shot up pretty bad,” he said. “I lost my navigator. He sat right behind me. He was the youngest one on the crew.”
And 65 years later, his eyes fill and his voice breaks at the memory. “He was a nice kid.”
While his crew grappled with the death of the young navigator, Don grappled with a plane that was falling apart.
They couldn’t land on Iwo Jima because it was socked in with fog. The crew jettisoned everything they could as the plane sputtered and shook.
Don said, “I suggested we bail out over Iwo Jima, but the boys put up a fuss.” They didn’t want to abandon the body of their friend.
He decided to try to land on Tinian. They landed with only two engines functioning and virtually no fuel. Don shook his head. “We shouldn’t have made it,” he said.
He’d had his taste of combat, and all he could think about was getting home to the farm. His final mission was flying over the USS Missouri while the Japanese formally tendered their surrender.
Two months after receiving his separation papers, he met Melba Jeanne, who was immediately smitten with her dance partner. After that initial date Don put a lot of miles on his truck driving between Half Moon Prairie and Dishman.
When they couldn’t see each other, they spoke on the phone. “At night I’d sit in the stairway and talk for hours to Don until someone on the party line would break in and want to make a call,” Melba Jeanne said.
Soon they announced their engagement. “It didn’t bother me that she said she’d never marry a farmer,” said Don. Then he chuckled and looked across the room at his bride. “Love is blind.”
Their wedding on Dec. 27, 1946, was tinged with sadness. Don’s brother had been killed in a logging accident five days earlier. “My folks insisted we go ahead with the wedding. They said Jack would have wanted it.” Don sighed. “He would have been my best man.”
After a honeymoon in Victoria, B.C., the coupled settled into married life. Don had promised his bride she’d never have to do those farm chores she’d worried about, and he was true to his word. “No feeding chickens. No milking cows,” she said, smiling.
In 1948, they welcomed their first daughter. Two years later, a second daughter joined them following a difficult birth; her identical twin was stillborn.
Within a few months they knew something was wrong with the baby. “We couldn’t get the doctor to tell us.”
Finally he told them little Beverly had cerebral palsy and advised them to place her in an institution. Don said, “They told us she can’t hear, she’ll never talk and she won’t be able to see. We knew they were wrong.”
Beverly lived with them until she was 43 and is now happily living in a group home. “She has fantastic hearing,” Melba Jeanne added.
A third daughter completed their family in 1952, and they raised their girls on the family farm. While Melba Jeanne didn’t do farm chores, she certainly did her share of work, especially during harvest. “Her biggest job was cooking for the crews,” Don said. “One year she cooked for 22 men!”
The Bartons had hoped to live on the farm until they died, but several years ago, Don said his wife started mentioning that the fellow she’d married was pretty old and she didn’t want to get stuck out there. Don is 88 and Melba Jeanne 84. So, they sold the farm and settled in the Mead area.
The challenges of caring for a disabled daughter and the constant struggle of farm life served to draw the couple closer. Melba Jeanne said, “He has the most patience of anybody I’ve ever known.”
And she discovered a wonderful benefit to being a farmer’s wife. “On the farm your husband is never far away. We’ve always done everything together.”