After 47 years apart, we found each other again
True love never dies, even after a lifetime apart, writes Books Editor John Spain
The best thing about being a journalist is that you never know what is going to land on your desk'', says Claire Allan. Claire, a Derry Journal reporter and author, is explaining how she came to write her latest book, The First Time I Said Goodbye, which is about to be published by Poolbeg.
The book, her seventh novel, is about GI brides and in particular about the local girls who fell for the US Marines stationed in Derry in the 1950s and 1960s.
Although fiction, the book is inspired by a remarkable love story, a true story full of emotion and heartbreak that had to wait nearly 50 years to find a happy ending.
"In July 2011 an email popped into my inbox from a local woman, who had moved to the States years ago, to say she was back in Derry on a visit and had a great love story to tell me," Claire says.
"I was intrigued and I agreed to meet her in a local hotel. It was a beautiful sunny day. She said hello with a smile as radiant as the day and then introduced me to her companion – an American man who was the object of her affection!
"The pair had dated in Derry in the early 1960s, when she was a local factory girl and he was a marine stationed in the American naval base near the city. They had fallen in love and were due to be married but a bad case of cold feet had got in the way."
The story that intrigued Allan started on July 11, 1960 when US marine Bob Faunce, stationed with the US navy at Campsie, just outside of Derry, was celebrating his 20th birthday.
That was the day Bob first set eyes on local girl Avril Lappin – and fell completely in love.
The couple became inseparable and spent the following year together every moment they could.
'We would do a lot of walking, or going to the movies. Or maybe going out to the base. Bob would come back home to have tea with my family," Avril said.
The pair had decided to get married, but were separated when Bob's stint in Derry finished and he had to return to the States.
"I was to follow him," Avril said. "I had the money for my passport.
"He had sent me money for a wedding dress. I was all set and it was then I got the letter."
With tears in both their eyes, Bob recalls how he simply got a bad dose of 'cold feet'.
"I was young, and a sailor, travelling around. I didn't really know what I wanted and I made the biggest mistake of my life."
Avril said that receiving the letter sent her into a "tailspin" but she remained determined not to give up hope on Bob and their love.
She left Derry and travelled to Chicago intent on finding him again, even though she didn't have an address for him.
"I figured once he saw me again he would realise how he loved me and everything would be okay," Avril said.
Working as a nanny for a family with five children she settled into American life and eventually contacted Bob's mother to tell her she was looking for him.
"His mom said she would pass on a message. What she didn't tell me at the time was that he was already married.
"He had married within a year of leaving Derry."
Devastated and alone on the other side of the world to her family, Avril decided to forge a new life for herself, meeting and marrying a man she describes as a "wonderful father" to their children. But she remained in love with Bob.
"We did meet up in those early years. We knew then that we still wanted to be together but we were both married and we could not have hurt our partners. And we just drifted apart."
Bob said he could never get his "lovely Avril" out of his mind.
"I spent 21 years with the US navy and moved around a lot. I never in all that time stopped thinking of Avril or of what might have been."
Still entranced by Derry and his time there, Bob returned to the city in 2007 for a reunion at the Campsie naval base.
He said at that stage, more than 30 years after he had last heard from Avril, he did not even know if she was still living.
"It was strange really," he said.
"I was back in Derry when I heard she was still alive. My heart just leapt. She was alive and I knew I had to seek her out."
In fact, it was a letter Avril had written to the Derry Journal after her own trip back to Derry in 2007 that alerted him to the fact that she was still very much alive and living in America.
Armed with this information, Bob returned home and began searching for her on the internet.
"I knew her married name and that she was living in Rochester so I went online and tried to track her down."
And it was yet another of Avril's letters that led him to her, a letter she had written to a local newspaper about her grandchildren.
"I knew it was her and I managed to get an email address."
He sent her a quick email asking simply: "Are you who I think you are."
She replied simply: "I'm still the same. I'm me."
They had found each other again, 47 years after their first meeting.
Vowing to stay in touch, the couple met face to face for the first time in 2010 in Palm Coast, Florida. "It was very emotional," Avril said. "Very, very emotional. And we've not been apart since."
"It was as if we had never been apart," Bob said. "We just fell into conversation again. Everything was comfortable. Everything was perfect.
"Being madly in love isn't just for the young ones!"
Avril laughed, saying they had both now found "the peace that everyone deserves in their later years".
Just over a year later, the couple finally got engaged. But Avril made Bob work for it – after his broken promise all those years ago. "I told him he has to do it right."
"Doing it right" involved a beautiful beach on Christmas day, surrounded by Avril's sons, and a plane flying by with a marriage proposal attached.
Now married, still living in Florida and enjoying their retirement together, the pair have vowed never to say goodbye again.
"We have made that promise," Avril said. "To never say goodbye."
The 2011 visit was their first back together to the city where they had fallen in love.
What struck author Claire Allan most about the couple when she met them was not just their story but the obvious love they had for each other – and for romance itself.
"I was so drawn to their story and to the stories of numerous GI brides who left Derry over the decades, I had to start writing."
The First Time I Said Goodbye, by Claire Allan, published by Poolbeg, is in shops this week