Finding love during war
TUPPER LAKE – Love can strike at the unlikeliest of times.
Tessie Curtin always knew she wanted to join the military, but she never thought love would find her there.
The story begins with Tessie’s father, Stephen Bujnovsky, who was born in Hungary in 1893. After serving in the U.S. Army in World War I, he and his wife, Theresa, focused on raising their young family in Hudson, NY.
Theresa was a housewife, and Stephen made tools as a blacksmith. Tessie described her father as a short, stout man with arms as solid as the hammers he wielded. She looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“He was so strong,” Tessie said. “He had to work with fire to make the tools. He was called on to make these tools more than anybody else.”
Stephen’s work was difficult, and that was etched into his appearance – his chest bore burn scars and his clothes were singed – but the man had a tender side.
“He would sometimes forget his lunch on purpose because he wanted to see me bring it to him,” Tessie said. “He was a foxy old man.”
Tessie, who is 93, loved life growing up with her younger brother and sister. She loved being close to the Hudson River, she loved the mom-and-pop shops along Main Street, and she loved the school she went to.
After graduating high school in 1938, Tessie pursued her other love – her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse. In 1943, that dream came true when she graduated from Hudson Columbia Memorial Hospital as a registered nurse.
Tessie wanted to join the Navy, but fate had a different plan. When Tessie was a teenager, her mother sent her to the dentist alone, and he pulled the wrong tooth. That missing tooth cost Tessie enlistment in the Navy.
“The Navy was very exclusive,” Tessie said. “I wasn’t perfect enough for them, I guess.”
Undeterred, Tessie joined the Army and was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey. That’s where she met her future husband, George, but it wasn’t until she saw him again at Hollerand General Hospital in New York City that sparks began to fly.
Tessie was a lieutenant working as a nurse at Hollerand when one of her patients posed a problem by refusing to submit to an enema. She called for help and George, a sergeant, arrived and lifted the mattress, ejecting the patient.
The decisive act impressed Tessie, and the pair was soon ice-skating together at Madison Square Garden.
“Boy, he was a handsome man,” Tessie said. “He sure could whistle like a songbird.”
George proposed marriage less than six months after their first date, and Tessie immediately started making plans. In a letter to George, she wrote: “I signed up for (time off) Monday the 7th and I should be in line for 8 p.m. Sunday at least. So if we could get married Sunday afternoon or night we would have at least until 6 a.m. Tuesday. If we could get all of our necessary things done before, we could get married on Sunday when I’m off.”
The Curtins were married Feb. 6, 1944, at Christ of the King Church in the Bronx. Since George was a sergeant and Tessie was an officer, the Army wasn’t thrilled by their union.
In July, Tessie’s supervisor put her on a list to station her in England to separate them. She would later write on the black pages of her photo album, “The Army does not take kindly to love.”
On July 22, 1944, Tessie boarded the Queen Mary, which took a zigzagging course across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid German U-boats. Tessie said she’d never been so motion sick in her life.
Six days later, Tessie set foot in Lufton Camp near Yeovil, England. Meanwhile, George went to Missouri, where he was trained to be an X-ray technician.
In Lufton Camp, Tessie and the other nurses slept in a Quonset hut, a corrugated metal structure shaped like an airplane hangar. The hut came complete with rats, and was often cold. It turned out, some of the people were cold, too.
Tessie explained that the French there didn’t like the American nurses because they thought they were taking their jobs. One time, she said the French poisoned the well water and made everyone sick.
There was also a war raging outside the camp, and it was never far away. Tessie said she could hear explosions most of the time, and wounded soldiers filled the cots. As a nurse, Tessie’s job ranged from comforting injured men to holding limbs while they were amputated.
To show their appreciation, some patients gave her patches, which she sewed into the inner lining of her jacket.
In her spare time, Tessie would send letters to George via Victory Mail. V-mail was a security measure undertaken by the U.S. military. Every letter first passed through censors, who would alter the content as they saw fit before photographing them. The image was then transported on microfilm, and the negative would be enlarged and printed upon reaching its destination.
George saved every letter Tessie sent him, and their daughter, Cyndee Curtin Sweet, still has them.
“They are my most prized possessions,” Sweet said.
Tessie said there was some relief from war while she was at Lufton Camp. She and three other nurses befriended the motor pool guys, so they were able to travel around a bit. They went to nearby beaches and visited other places, like Scotland, where Tessie was photographed dressed as a “Scottish lass.”
The war in Europe ended in May 1945, and Tessie returned home on the Mariposa on Oct. 17, 1945, “that happy day.”
She and George were discharged from active service, and they went on a honeymoon in Atlantic City, N.J. George had two immediate options for work. One was Orange, N.J., a bustling place that was too close to New York City for the Curtins’ comfort. The other was a small town in the Adirondacks called Tupper Lake.
While George was interviewed for the chief X-ray technician position at Sunmount VA Hospital, he mentioned Tessie was a registered nurse. The interviewer said Sunmount would take them both, so the couple moved north and started a family there. They would spend the rest of their lives in Tupper Lake.
George died on April 8, 2013. He was 93. Surrounded by countless letters, patches, photographs, bullets and newspaper clippings that represent the military that inadvertently brought them together, Tessie recalled their life together with nothing but fondness.
“You know, I wasn’t supposed to marry an enlisted man,” Tessie said. “But what are you supposed to do when you fall in love?”
Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.