I’m listening to my father again today. I can hear his voice so clearly in the letters he wrote to my mother and his family over 65 years ago that it’s almost like he is whispering in my ear. He wrote to his future wife, my mother, nearly every day and apologized constantly for such long stretches in-between letters. He would walk her through his day, telling her the mundane things and the exciting ones. As time went on he became more philosophical, more thoughtful and expressed his political opinions, more freely. But mostly he wrote about his life in the U.S. Marines Drum and Bugle Corps. and onboard the Aircraft Carrier, U.S.S. Coral Sea, between 1948-1951.
In letter 137 “At Sea”, May 31, 1949: “Dearest Bobbie, Tomorrow is the day we make the big landing on Malta. We thought for awhile we would land on Corsica. We just got the word today it was Malta. This afternoon they are transferring us by breeches buoy to a Destroyer and it takes us to Malta.”
I’m learning so much history from these letters. Who ever heard of a breeches buoy? Wikipedia says it’s a “crude rope-based rescue device used to extract people from one location to another in situations of danger… similar to a zip line.”
In another letter he says: “P.S. Please forgive the writing. I’m balancing this on my knee.” I wondered if he posed for the attached picture just to show my mother what writing on a balanced knee looked like. That would be just like him to do that.
In letters to his younger siblings he gave advice. He was the oldest of three children and in letter number 106, dated February 7, 1949, he was writing his sister, Marcia, (the middle child) about their younger brother. My Dad had apparently offered him money for good grades:
“Did Butch get his ten dollars? I was really glad to see his grades go up. I hope you maintain the same standards you have in the past. I know you are doing a lot better than I was at that age – keep up the good work.”
His tone is slightly different in letters to his parents, more wistful, maybe? He also occasionally asked for help:
In letter 202, April 6, 1950 he writes to them, “Please put the $20.00 with my account wherever you have it. Have you put it in the bank yet? …I would just about give my right arm to help you with that back yard, just to have my feet on solid ground. This life is [allright] sometimes but it gets tiresome after a while. It’ll be the happiest day in three years when I carry my seabag out that main gate for the last time."
I have 289 letters written by my father, plus several post cards, and a few miscellaneous special occasion cards, sent on birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Easter and Christmas. I’ve been slowly and sporadically transcribing them since he passed away 14 years ago.
14 years, you say? I know….I should be done by now, but I couldn’t force myself to read them for about 5 years and once I did, the process was both beautiful and painful.
Beautiful, because his letters are so descriptive and informative for a young man between 18-22 years old, and painful, because I miss him and want to ask questions. Why didn’t I read these while he was alive? I read a few, but I always thought I’d have more time. We always think we will have more time.
My ultimate goal is to publish them and share them with my brothers, my kids, and the local library that he and my mother used to visit after school. First, I have to get through them all, one by one methodically.
I met Teresa K. Irish, author of A Thousand Letters Home at a genealogy conference and she recommended that I read each one, make short notes and then decide which ones to transcribe and publish. It’s a good suggestion but it hasn’t worked for me. One letter will remind me of something he said in an earlier one and if I transcribe as I read them then I can search a topic in my document. I admit to having jumped ahead but if I transcribe as I read then I can put it in my Word document and search.
Lately, I’ve renewed my efforts to get through them. The originals have all been numbered, scanned, and placed in archival sleeves and boxes. I do my transcriptions purely from the scans which I recently moved to Dropbox.com for safe storage.
When I read them, I love to do it in a quiet house, when the dogs and cats are napping and it’s just me, with a younger version of my father whispering in my ear.