My memoir is on hold, waiting to begin whatever has to happen next to get it to a publishable state, and I have resumed my next project: creating something generations of my family to come can hold in their hands and know their ancestors who were part of the Greatest Generation.
I found the old army footlocker years ago on a visit home in the outside storage shed at the back of the carport of the home my parents built in 1960. It was nearly buried under boxes of sea shells and beach stones we had picked up through my childhood, moldy life preservers, and stacks of plastic nursery pots my mother couldn’t bear to discard. Curious, I had swept away the detritus and brushed off the mouse droppings.
Probably full of driftwood, I thought as I wrenched open the first rusty latch. The second one was hopelessly stuck. I walked up the steps to my father’s workshop over the carport and opened and closed drawers until I found a long screwdriver to pry it open. Back in the shed, I popped out the stuck latch and pushed up the lid. My eyes widened, a sudden intake of breath filling my lungs and lingering there for a long moment before I audibly blew it back out.
On the top tray were neatly stacked bundled envelopes tied with white cotton string or red, white, and blue ribbon tied in bows. I picked up a bundle and examined the top envelope. It was addressed to Stellajoe English, Knoxville, Tenn., return address Lt. George R. Staebler, NYU, New York City. The postmark was November 9, 1942. I picked up another bundle and another, then lifted the tray. Beneath were dozens of bundles from Capt. George R. Staebler, 21st Weather Sq., APO 696, New York, New York. I rocked back on my heels, stunned. How are these here? Why had no one ever mentioned them?
There were, I later counted, 600 letters from 1942 to 1946 written on thin blue airmail stationery, white paper embossed with Army Air Corps Meteorology insignia (designed, I learn by Walt Disney), and tiny V-mail. Five hundred of the letters were from my father to my mother, the remainder were what survived from her to him. I would never find out what happened to the rest of hers. By the time I asked, she didn’t remember or never knew. He was already gone, taking with him the answers to that and the many more questions I would have when I finally read them. I moved the letters into the house, and forgot about them, returning to my life on the other side of the country.
Now I am in possession of several hundred more letters that had been stored for more than 70 years high on a closet shelf in the Ann Arbor, Michigan farmhouse where my father grew up with his five siblings. They are to Mom and Pop from my father, my aunt, and the youngest uncle, and a few to each other, during their service in World War II.
When I finally read my father’s letters, after I moved back to my childhood home to care for my mother in her last years, I vowed I would do something with them. This month—National Novel Writing Month, though I’m not writing a novel—seemed like a good time to make some progress. As I dive into re-reading all the letters and transcribing excerpts, I have immersed myself in the lives of these people I loved so much. Their forever personalities shine through their words and return them to life: Helen, George, Melvyn, and my mother, Stellajoe. The recipients of the letters are there too, between the lines: My grandmother Ella (Mom, who wrote weekly to each of her three children in the service, and presumably to her daughter in Texas and to her son-in-law when he shipped out—and no copy machines!), Aunt Ruth and Uncle Walter, Donald’s wife Lena (from whom many letters and cookies were received). And the bit players: Pop, Donald (who will go to England for six months at the close of the war in Europe as a B-24 mechanic instructor—I’m waiting for copies of his letters from the historical library at U of M), Lloyd, Mary; and of course Lloyd and Mary’s children, Little Davey and Judy.
To have known these people and to have their words in front me now, is an unsurpassable gift. Their love of country (and indeed of the free world) and the sacrifices they made—like all who serve or have served in our military services—is what we honor today. Inexpressible gratitude to each one of you.
Following are excerpts from the first year of the letters.
George is in officer training in meteorology and has double the letters to write: to his parents in Michigan and to his sweetheart in Tennessee. (To say nothing of their commitment to regular letters to their siblings, aunts, and friends—mail sent is mail received). He begins with a farmer’s weather folklore.
February 5, 1943
New York University, the Bronx
Dear folks —
Elementary meteorology based on a study of the last 3 days of the month first preceding a full moon with a halo around it providing the bubbles stay on the mud puddles in which case it will rain for 3 days unless you get your dates mixed. (Don’t kill a pig at this time.)
You should have seen us drilling in 8 or 10 inches of snow yesterday. Heavy shoes and 4 buckle rubber overshoes made your feet plenty heavy. And to pull that out of a foot of snow every time you lift your foot really gives you a good work out. I suppose we’ll have a parade review this afternoon but the field is pretty well packed down now. And slippery.
Has Melvyn heard anything yet? I wonder if he’s gotten over the habit of leaving a dirty mess in the washbowl or leaving his clothes in the middle of the floor. If he hasn’t he soon will. By the way, when we take off our pajamas in the morning we have to hang them on a hanger! And if they’re the button type you button them up. Glad mine are not.
By July, Stellajoe has moved to Spokane, Washington for a job with the Civil Service, and George is about to graduate. He has no idea where he will be sent next.
July 16, 1943
New York University
It’s down to seven weeks left. That begins to look really and truly like the home stretch. We’re not sure, but it looks like graduation will be September 6 – on Monday. I don’t particularly look forward to “giving orders,” but I’m beginning to really relish the thought of at least a little more independence; and who knows, perhaps a much better place of residence. If it will only be in eastern Washington! Maybe I shouldn’t go there. The last time I saw you and talked to you, we were pretty much in agreement on war-time marriages. I know that I’ve had a hard time seeing things lately as I did then. And if I’m near you for a few weeks or months, the situation surely won’t improve. Maybe your mind is still made up as it was; if so it wouldn’t be so good. However, we’ve always gotten along very well, haven’t we, by talking things over. So surely any such prospect shouldn’t worry us. Gee, how I love you!
I had an enlightening experience with my G.I. belt. I wanted to bleach it a little so it would look nicer on the khakis. I tried a diluted solution of Clorox and nothing happened, so I put it in a 100% solution over night. It bleached out alright, and ate up all the threads; so when I rinsed it, it went all to pieces. I tried to salvage it, but the supply sergeant said I had destroyed it willfully and made me sign a statement of charges on it. So now it will cost me 17¢ for a new belt.
I promise not to put such a long gap between letters again. Even if I have to get a zero [on a quiz] every morning.
Melvyn, the baby of the family, was just 18 when he enlisted to avoid the draft. The army had more enlistees than they knew what to do with, so they are in colleges taking course work for credit while they wait. Melvyn is whining his way through the weeks.
August 5, 1943
Bowdoin College, Maine
Final exams are coming up in two weeks, therefore, everybody is studying plenty hard. It seems I need to learn Trig yet for I didn’t get it very well the first time. Just think in four weeks we start calculus and we have been on Analytic Geometry for some time. It would have taken a year at State to get this far.
Mom, there’s something I must tell or my consciouse [sic] will hurt. It seems I let myself fall in to depths of vice last night because I bought a pipe. There’s something about it that helps keep me awake about 9:30. I thought that was better than drinking so much coke. With a coke machine right outside the door and always nickels in my pocket, it is an awful temptation.
Guess that’s all the news for now.
So Long, Mel
Helen, a nurse with the 36th General Hospital, and the first to go overseas, has just moved from North Africa to Italy and has yet to do any work. She’s been living in a tent for six weeks, washing clothes in cold water in her helmet. With the surrender of Italy, they have moved, to where she can’t write.
November 1, 1943
Somewhere in Italy
Dear Mom and Pop —
We have been here four days. There was no housing ready for us so we just took over an empty building. The first night we had no blankets. I sat up on a chair all night. The next day our blankets were brought in from the docks. We slept on the floor with only blankets and shelter halves (pup tents) under us. Last night just before bed-time mattress pads were brought in and I spent a very comfortable night. I have learned one good lesson already — to appreciate the simple things in life — things we have always taken for granted.
We get excited over hot showers, warm food, hot coffee, ice cream, indoor toilets, beds, sheets, chairs and cars to ride in. We have ridden miles in heavy trucks bumping along, fairly jarring our teeth loose. For toilets we often use a slit trench surrounded by a wall of canvas. We’ve been sitting on the floor or a cot so much that I doubt if I will know how to sit down in a lady-like manner when I get home. But, strange to say, this isn’t hurting me one bit, nor does it make me angry or disgusted. It only helps me to appreciate the nice way of living we have at home.
We expect to move to our own hospital area within a few days. Our men are getting it ready now. Things aren’t too clear but the building has marvelous possibilities I understand, so soon we will be established and at work.
Time out now to go eat. We stand in line for an hour or so because so many eat here but we have little else to do and we get warm food.
Later— We had canned boneless chicken, canned diced beets, sweet pickles and canned cherries. That is a typical meal of field rations except that we usually have bread and apple butter. Rarely we have fresh meat or vegetables.
It gets dark at 5:30 and there is no place in this area where there are lights—there is a strict blackout—so we go to bed soon after dark. Last night I slept from 7:30 until reville [sic] at 6 a.m. Can you imagine such a thing? The bugler plays reville [sic] in swing time making everyone wake up with a smile.
I wasn’t going to tell you where I’m sitting but I guess I will because it looks so funny. There is another girl here too, writing to her folks. We are sitting on the edge of a fox hole with our feet down in it. It was dug and used when this area was being bombed some time ago. now the front is far from here. Don’t you dare worry because we are quite safe. I want to tell details because things are funny but I don’t want to say anything that will make you worry.
Hope everyone is well and as happy as I am.
Love to all, Helen
Ruth is in Texas in November of 1943, about to move home for the duration. Her husband Walt (or Joe, as the family called him at the time) is a doctor and a new captain who has just left to await embarkation to Europe. In the only letter I have from her so far, she writes to her parents on the subject of George and Stellajoe’s wedding—yes, they did have a wartime wedding after all:
December 1, 1943
Just a note to let you know that I am not coming home immediately but will wait here in Dallas until I can find out something more definite from Joe. I am quite content here with George and Stellajoe and they certainly are taking good care of me.
[George] said I might write you about the wedding. They were married Tuesday evening at 6:00 PM by the field chaplain at the large Methodist church in downtown Dallas in a small parlor. There were 7 of us in the party. The uniforms looked nice but the bride was truly lovely in a white satin gown that buttoned up the back, sweetheart neckline. George came through better than I thought he would. He had a beautiful arm bouquet made up of white carnations and gardenias with a huge white satin bow. The chaplain married them with a ceremony such as I have never heard before but got the knot tied anyway.
It certainly was hectic getting ready for the wedding though. It was the second day S.J. had been in town, had ridden coach all the way from Spokane and was really worn out. Well we got her pretty well outfitted and then Tuesday noon her sister arrives from Knoxville without a dress to wear to the wedding. Then do we fly around. Finally get one. Get home from downtown at 4:30 just one and a half hours before the wedding and everybody just worn to a frazzle. Doris took the night train back to Chicago. I’ll bet she was dead, too.
Anyway the knot is tied and they seem very happy. George made S.J. cook for him tonite and he acted just like he does at home when Mom is cooking something special. She’ll make him a good wife and he a devoted husband I’m sure. I got an awful kick out of watching him helping her shop for groceries.
I forgot to say that in spite of rationing we all had a handful rice to toss.
You can follow my NaNoWriMo progress this month, and read more letter excerpts, on my FaceBook author page.