When he was 10, Chuck Lowell was determined to attend Boy Scouts summer camp. But the two-week sleepaway adventure in 1952 cost $12, money his family didn’t have. So he took up work at a dairy farm nearby in his hometown of Hardwick, where 350 Guernseys needed milking and their milk needed bottling.
He saved his earnings and went to camp, realizing his dream. But by then, he had set his sights on another dream that would define the course of his life.
One day that summer, he returned home and told his mom he was going to marry the dairy farmer’s daughter.
He would realize that dream, too, marrying Alice Goodfield on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1963. They have been together ever since, a shared life blessed by four children, boxes full of love letters, and countless hours high in the sky in a Cessna 152, with Chuck, an amateur pilot, at the controls.
But now, the coronavirus is robbing them of what might be their final moments together. As Chuck, 78, battles the contagion he contracted in the dementia unit at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, his childhood sweetheart has been kept from his side.
For two years, she has driven three hours, three times a week, from their sprawling country home in Hardwick to visit him in the elderly care facility. Then the virus came, and visitors were banned. Outside of a few brief, choppy FaceTime broadcasts, Alice has seen Chuck only once since early last month.
It’s a heartbreaking final chapter to a marriage that began under the stars and falling snow on sleepy Czesky Road in Hardwick, a small town on the eastern edge of the Quabbin Reservoir. And it is a reminder of the indiscriminate cruelty of a disease that cheats its victims of companionship in their dying days.
“Can you imagine knowing someone since the age of 8 and now you can’t even have contact with them?” said Susan Kenney, their oldest daughter.
At first, Alice Goodfield resisted Chuck Lowell’s charms. As kids, he’d chase her home from school. As teens, she leaned on him for help with algebra but politely declined whenever he asked her out. Instead, she set him up on dates with her friends.
“To be honest, he was exactly like my father so I refused to go out with him,” she admits. “Plus he was a little frisky.”
Then they got assigned the same shift as cooks at a 4-H camp in the nearby town of Spencer. By then, the affection was mutual.
“We got really close then,” said Alice, now 76, with a sheepish chuckle.
After the two graduated from high school, letter after letter bounced between Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where Chuck had been stationed after enlisting in the service, and a small nursing school, where Alice was struggling through microbiology. On March 9, 1963, Chuck snuck 800 miles away from the base, showed up at Alice’s front door and tried to give her a ring. She was happy, but demurred, demanding a better proposal.
“Nobody gets engaged at 9 o’clock in the morning,” she told him.
And so Chuck took his boyhood sweetheart out to a fancy dinner and then on a slow drive along Czesky Road, where, with one knee in the snow, he asked once more for Alice Goodfield to marry him. This time, she said yes. Chuck didn’t know this, but her parents had gotten engaged on the same stretch of country road decades earlier.
“What did I tell you? He is just like my father,” Alice said.
For the next few months, she planned the wedding from a hospital bed while battling appendicitis and a kidney infection. The ceremony was held in their childhood church, 11 years after they first met. The couple then stuffed a 4-by-6 foot UHaul and drove to Ohio, where Chuck finished up his fifth year as a technician with the 17th Airborne Missile Maintenance Squadron.
When Chuck had finished his hitch and secured a civilian job with IBM, the couple bought a modest ranch in Acton. In 1972, they added a four-bedroom addition the same summer remnants of Hurricane Agnes swept through New England. During the storm, a pregnant Alice huddled with their two children and Chuck ran about, catching water that poured in through exposed joists.
“If we were ever going to get divorced, it would have been there and then,” Alice joked. “But we can get through anything together.”
The couple moved to White Plains, N.Y., in the 1980s, where Chuck’s love for aviation drew him to a Connecticut airfield on the weekends. He secured his pilot license at the age of 45 and brought Alice to the sky shortly after, a choppy adventure to see friends in New Jersey. “Why did I ever let this happen?” Alice said to herself as her stomach churned.
But for the next decade, the couple kept flying, regularly attending airshows in Florida. With the help of some friends, Chuck restored the carcass of a 1947 Stinson plane, a three-seater that still flies today.
“I never wondered where he was,” Alice said.
After their children moved out, the couple went home to Hardwick. The Guernseys long gone and the Goodfield family farm sold off, the town had become a suburban enclave for those who work in Worcester. Retired but restless, Chuck volunteered as a fireman, helped out at the lumber yard, and served as a selectman.
His mind clouded by early dementia and his shoulder fractured in a fall, Chuck entered a nursing home in his early 70s. Alice visited every day. Her goal was to get him into the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, a facility known for granting dignity to ailing veterans. Two years ago, she succeeded.
On March 14, the home closed its doors to visitors. Two weeks later, Alice turned on the news and learned that the coronavirus had raced through the home that was supposed to keep her husband safe. Eleven people had died.
“This wasn’t just in Europe or China. It was right here. It really hit home. And the worst was just that I was not getting any word,” said Alice.
After days of poor communication and a rising death toll, the couple’s oldest daughter, Susan, drove to the facility with a desperate plea scrawled on the windows in blue grease crayon: “Is my dad alive? Shame on Soldiers’ Home. Over 30 hours with no callback.”
Chuck tested positive for coronavirus later that day. He lives in the dementia unit where dozens of veterans have succumbed to COVID-19 in recent days.
There was a time when Alice would wait days or weeks with giddy excitement for a letter from her sweetheart to arrive from Ohio. But now, any lull in communication fills her with dread.
On Sunday, Chuck’s fever subsided and his oxygen levels were up.
“Today was a good day,” his daughter said.
The family planned to FaceTime him, but he never showed for their mid-morning call. On Monday, he struggled to breathe and was rushed to Holyoke Medical Center.
Alice arrived that afternoon. She traded her street clothes for scrubs too big for her 5-foot-3-inch frame, strapped on two face masks, and secured a hood over her short white hair. She looked more like a pest exterminator than the dairy farmer’s daughter, but Chuck seized her hand immediately. For a half-hour, he didn’t let go.
“My heart aches. I wish I could be with him every day," she said from her living room in Hardwick, again limited to sporadic phone updates from the hospital. “But I wouldn’t have traded that for the world. There is nothing like the human touch.”
After seeing Alice one last time, Chuck died Wednesday morning. As a veteran who served his country, a proud father of four, and a devoted husband who lived out a boyhood dream.