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Salinan worries about daughter's Afghanistan grave

By JENA SAUBER

The Salina Journal

SALINA -- Almost six decades after she had to leave her daughter's grave more than 7,000 miles away, Ruby McBee, 89, of Salina, finally has confirmation that her young daughter Marilyn remains at peace in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

"With this war, I knew there was fighting in Kandahar. I just wondered if it was still there," McBee said.

McBee spent time in Afghanistan with her husband, Charles, and daughter Marilyn in the 1950s when Charles worked as a soil scientist. In the summer of 1954, a sudden illness took 10-year-old Marilyn's life, creating one family's bond between America and Afghanistan that has lasted decades, The Salina Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1b7A6Cn ).

Charles moved to Kandahar in the early 1950s with Morrison-Knudson. The company was contracted to work in southern Afghanistan and determined where to build canals and irrigation ditches based on soil test data.

Ruby and Marilyn followed less than a year later. Their journey to Afghanistan was long and difficult; it took them more than two weeks to get from the Kansas City airport to Kandahar, with stops in Chicago, Boston, Rome and Cairo.

In Kandahar, the McBees lived with other Morrison-Knudson employees in a compound called Menzel Bagh. The compound included bunkers, a recreation center, dining center, offices, swimming pool, and a small cemetery.

"It was just like ordinary life," McBee said.

Most of their food was imported from California. All Afghanistan-grown produce had to be washed in Tide laundry detergent because the soil was tainted; unwashed produce could easily make people sick, McBee said. They got their meat locally, and ate a lot of mutton and chicken.

Inside Menzel Bagh, the environment was similar to the Arizona desert; they were very culturally sheltered, McBee said. Outside the walls, life was different.

"They lived like they did in Bible times," McBee said. "There were nomads on camels. There were open sewers in the streets. People brushed their teeth in that water, and bathed and drank it. It wasn't safe."

On a June morning in the summer of 1954, Marilyn became sick, which wasn't necessarily unusual, McBee said.

"She got up and she was throwing up," McBee said. "We had no idea what she could have eaten. That was the first thing you think."

When Marilyn got worse that evening, they took her to the commissary. The doctor gave Marilyn a shot to stop the vomiting.

"She looked over at me and said, 'Why don't you go get some rest?' I said, 'I will when you do,' " McBee said. "Then she turned her head and died. It was that fast."

Marilyn died on June 17, 1954, a few days after her 10th birthday.

It took six months to get an official autopsy report. The cause of death was determined to be polio.

"They said it was polio that attacked the base of the brain," McBee said. "She didn't stand a chance. It was almost like instant death. She was sick for maybe 24 hours."

Bulbar polio, often considered the most rare and severe type of polio, attacks the brain stem and can cause difficulty breathing, vomiting and other symptoms. Polio vaccinations were not available until 1955.

The McBees buried Marilyn in the cemetery at Menzel Bagh.

"It was a beautiful place. There were trees there that would bloom," McBee said. "We had a minister come, and we had a service and buried her."

It wasn't an option for the couple to return to the United States with Marilyn's remains.

"They had tried to ship a body home as something other than a body. They said it was terrible to get it out of other countries," McBee said. "This was the '50s. To get a body out of another country, you wouldn't even try."

Following Marilyn's death, Charles was released from his contract with Morrison-Knudsen. But leaving Kandahar meant leaving their only child.

"They dismissed the contract and said you can go if you feel like you wanted to leave," she said. "We didn't. We weren't able to do that. We stayed a year."

The couple eventually left Kandahar in June 1955 and returned to Syracuse, where Charles worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They later adopted three children -- Jane, Steve and Sally. The family moved around Kansas before settling in Salina in 1962. Charles died in 1983 at the age of 59.

Recently, nearly 60 years after McBee left Kandahar, she reached out to see if Marilyn's grave could still be found at the cemetery at Menzel Bagh.

A son of one of McBee's friends works for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She sent him information in hopes that he could get it to someone who could help.

The information was sent to U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Addleton in Afghanistan. Addleton found an Afghan colleague who was willing to visit the cemetery. The colleague took photos of the cemetery, which were then sent to McBee.

Menzel Bagh is now closed and accessible only by climbing the compound walls. The walls are overgrown with plants and almost nothing remains of the original cemetery with its blooming trees. The covered grave is still there, but the headstone has disappeared.

What is still there is enough, McBee said.

"She's still there. I know she's still there because the place isn't torn down," McBee said. "I didn't even know if the place would still be there."

The McBees never returned to Afghanistan. Getting there was simply too difficult, she said.

Since her time in Afghanistan, McBee has remarried. She spent 20 years traveling the U.S. and Canada in a motor home. She visited all states and provinces except Newfoundland because it was accessible only by ferry.

Now, she lives at Presbyterian Manor and enjoys playing bridge and hand quilting and piecing quilts.

A black and white picture of her, Charles and Marilyn, taken not long before her daughter died, sits in her living room.

She appreciates knowing that her daughter's grave remains, over 60 years and thousands of miles away.

"Hearing that it is still there, that felt good," she said.

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Information from: The Salina (Kan.) Journal, http://www.salina.com