WWII history and mystery dug from Fishers Island
Fishers Island - On a crisp Wednesday morning, 12 years to the day of her father's death, Julia Kushigian stands at the Fishers Island Ferry terminal holding an empty garment bag.
The ferries that cross these waters are the same ones she would ride with her father for Memorial Day trips to Long Island - the ones reconditioned from their days as Navy vessels during World War II, ones just like the ship her father was on when it landed at Normandy in June of 1944.
Today, which also marks the anniversary of her father's discharge at the end of the war, Kushigian finds herself clambering aboard one once more, for a trip nearly seven decades in the making, to retrieve a long-lost possession she didn't know until this month was lost.
Eight miles across the waters, Justine Kibbe, a naturalist for the Fishers Island Conservancy, has her father's shirt.
"We thought, because of the synergy, we would do it today," she says.
Eight months ago, Kibbe was monitoring a stretch of beach called Hungry Point, counting birds and taking notes on a bright, cold January day. A couple of months after Superstorm Sandy tossed about the shoreline, Kibbe recalls the stillness of the day, so calm she couldn't make out the direction of the wind, so quiet she could hear the shrill whistle of a train across the water.
A couple of yards across the sand, Kibbe spotted a flicker of white no larger than her fist peeking out from a patch of dirt.
She pulled - gently - and the sand seemed to fall away, revealing a cuff, then a sleeve, and then the rest: a stiff, off-white sailor's tunic, with a flapped collar at the back, a deep V at the front, a blue-striped patch and a singular left breast pocket. It was dirt-encrusted and pockmarked with holes; the cuffs were in tatters; one arm patch - the red and gold of the Navy amphibious force - was dangling by a couple of loose white threads, and the seam in one armpit had been torn wide open.
Kibbe didn't identify the patches until later. But it was clearly old, and clearly belonging to someone - by the black, block-letter initials "JPK" printed on the inside back - and, feeling as though she'd experienced something sacred, she tucked the shirt into her backpack, hung it up at home, and didn't speak of it for days.
In May, Kibbe says, a bit of caked dirt and sand flaked away around the hem on the inside, revealing a full name: "KUSHIGIAN."
• • •
"You're not going to believe this" are the words Julia Kushigian recalls hearing through the phone a few weeks ago.
Kushigian, a Connecticut College Hispanic studies professor who lives in Waterford with her husband and daughter, carries her father with her on her right lapel and on her wrist: a pinned pair of tiny knit mittens from Norway and a bracelet of British copper farthings, both gifts from him to her mother from his war travels.
Jack Paul Kushigian was a New Haven Naval recruiter who said he'd recruited every eligible man in the area before 1943 when, as the war was progressing in Europe, he decided to go, too.
While overseas, the code phrase he used to signify his homecoming to his fiancée was, "Put your red nail polish on." On leave for a few weeks before he was to be sent to the Pacific, Jack stopped off in New York to marry Julia's mother, Rose, on Aug. 12, 1945. Three days into their honeymoon at the Hotel Astor in Times Square, they saw the wall of ticker tape through their hotel room window: Japan had surrendered, and the war was over.
They were married for 56 years until Jack's death in 2001. Ever in fantastic shape, Julia says, he was trimming a tree limb at age 83 from the roof of the one-story Florida home he shared with Rose when he fell to the ground. Six months later, after a surgery, he never recuperated.
Rose passed away last year.
After hanging up with Kibbe, Kushigian called her brother in Indianapolis, shaking, crying.
When the full name on the shirt was revealed, Kibbe started some amateur Internet research. She started by looking up "Naval combat Kushigian," which brought her to a Connecticut State Library listing for a veterans commemorative booklet - Volume 6, No. 1, "Connecticut men of the United States Navy, demobilization, Lido Beach Separation Center, September 17th to 30th 1945."
"You can Google anything nowadays," she says.
In the text of the booklet, under "The Final Muster Call," was Jack's name and a New Haven address.
A 411 call yielded no Kushigians in New Haven. But there was one in Waterford. The operator put her through.
"And this lovely voice comes through," Kibbe says. And after breathlessly describing her find to Julia: "There's silence and she says, 'That would be my father.'"
• • •
Julia disembarks the ferry just after noon to meet Kibbe for the first time - "She told me she has long, blonde hair" - and the two embrace like old friends.
Kibbe, who usually gets around by bike, wears a gold necklace with two dolphins leaping through a hoop. She spent childhood summers on Fishers Island, and returned nearly three years ago after stints doing research on an island in the Bering Sea and teaching English for the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan.
Today, she's enlisted a neighbor's generosity, and so they pile in his car and begin the long drive to Hungry Point, past the derelict, overgrown buildings from an old Navy post, pristine houses and beaches, golf courses, and an osprey nest Kibbe points out atop a utility pole.
They park outside a one-story summer home and wend their way down a snarled path of sand and tall shrubs to a narrow strip of beach, cluttered with rocks, driftwood, shrubs and seaweed, no more than 40 feet from shoreline to earth.
Walking her through that day in January, Kibbe guides Kushigian up to the spot where she'd paused to pull at that flicker of white and, finally, presents it to her.
This dirty old shirt, this relic of family and American history, makes Julia choke up, as she and Kibbe each clutch a sleeve. For a long time, while exchanging words of gratitude - to each other, to this country's armed forces - neither lets go.
"I can't help but think it's a hug from your dad," Kibbe says.
It's a story teeming with coincidences that Kibbe and Kushigian spend the rest of the day marveling at: That they both grew up in New York's Westchester County; that their birthdays fall within three days of each other's; that they share the same initials - Jack's, too; that Kushigian's name was unique enough to pin down with just a bit of Internet finagling; that she'd kept that maiden name when she married because she'd already published some academic articles with it; that Kushigian just happened to live within miles of Kibbe's discovery, and could be here today.
How her father's shirt wound up on Fishers Island, buried - mostly intact - deep in sand at its north end, is a complete mystery to both women. Jack was never stationed at the military base that was once there.
Julia thinks perhaps it was misplaced during one haphazard mass uniform washing in a Manhattan hotel bathtub when her father and his buddies were on leave.
Perhaps when he was decommissioned on Long Island's Lido Beach that September in 1945, he'd taken it off and flung it with celebratory abandon into the sea, where it took a meandering journey around the island and somehow washed ashore to its final resting place.
There is one theory Julia favors, which involves the time Jack rode the subway with his fresh-pressed uniform tucked into a twine-wrapped box on the floor. When he looked up from his newspaper, the box was gone.
With this theory, Julia explains, maybe the uniform had been stolen, only for its centerpiece to be returned to her at this moment.
"I like that story," she says, "so that now it's come full circle."
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