ANDERSON TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Dots and dashes were the way Ray Burlew communicated during the Korean War. The Anderson Township native spent time deployed in the Atlantic, sailing past Iceland and down into the Mediterranean during his time in the Navy.
“We had to type as we heard the Morse code,” Burlew said.
Learning to type was an added challenge as he went through training to become a radioman. Eventually, he would be able to easily translate or broadcast 20 words a minute. He said that was the standard to be able to pass school and be certified in the position.
During his time in the Navy, there were some challenges when it came to the content of what he was transmitting. While you would think it would be tied to war, the dots and dashes spelled out something more heartbreaking.
“This was about a fella whose dad had passed away and unexpectedly. This guy was looking over my shoulder and this guy was on the other side of the radio shack,” Burlew said. “He came over and was reading it as I was taking the message. That was hard.”
In another instance he recounts distress calls from pilots coming across the speakers in the bulkhead within the communications center. The weather was poor, and the lack of visibility meant planes in the air could not find the aircraft carrier to land and time was running out.
“These guys were getting ready to ditch planes, and a submarine -- the Pompon -- surfaced, and we got a message from them that it was clear where they were,” he said.
He was then able to redirect the aircraft carrier and the planes to the clearing so they could land safely.
He said the job was high stress at times, and ending your shift didn’t necessarily mean the dots and dashes were gone.
“The worst of it was going to sleep after being on watch for seven hours, because you could still hear the code going through your head,” Burlew said.
While serving in the Navy, Burlew maintained a long-distance relationship with his high school sweetheart, Janet Slay. The two met their junior year at Anderson High School. Their first date was to a banquet to honor the football team after winning a championship.
He had a painting commissioned during a stop in Italy while serving on the USS Macon. Using the photo of Janet he kept with him while deployed, the artist created a painted portrait.
Ray got out of the Navy in March 1954 and would marry Janet approximately four months later on July 17. They would have four daughters and move around quite a bit for Ray’s post-service work.
They would eventually resettle back home in Ohio.
Fast-forward to today and Ray now finds himself visiting the love of his life at Otterbein SeniorLife Neighborhood.
After she broke her ankle in February 2017, things for the two of them became a challenge. Ray didn’t have the strength to pick Janet up and care for her without injuring himself. In home care, teams were brought in to assist, but her recovery wasn’t working out the way it should.
By August 2018, the family found Otterbein and now Janet receives the dedicated care she needs not only for her recovery physically, but her dementia has progressed as well.
“Three months ago, four months ago, she just quit talking, and that’s the hard part,” Burlew said. “I believe she understands more than we think, but she can’t put it into words anymore, but it’s a disease. The dementia is really bad.”
He visits her every day but is only allowed two compassionate visits indoors per week right now due to the pandemic.
During a recent visit, standing outside in the snow and cold, he spoke on his phone to Janet. The nurse inside her room was holding another phone to her ear.
“How’s my Janet today? You look real pretty. I see those pretty blue eyes,” he said. "Your hair looks all nice and fluffy. The girls did a nice job with you today. They let you sleep in a bit today.”
Ray then grabs his keys out of his pocket and does what he did for the Navy.
Tapping the key against the glass, he spells out, using the little dots and dashes, a special message to his high school sweetheart and wife of nearly 67 years, and when he stops tapping, he lets her know what he said.
“That means I love you. How about that?”