A few times in this space, I have written about my father’s letters home during World War II. My sisters and I are lucky enough to have hundreds of letters beginning with the night before our father left college to report for duty and ending with the day, over two years later, that he surprised his family by walking into the house during Sunday dinner. In that time, the boy from a small town in Pennsylvania traveled to the American South, to Texas, to England, France, Belgium, and Germany. He met everyone from hicks to English country gentlemen, exotic and beautiful women of Brussels, bereft mothers of Austria. His mind broadened, his perspectives changed, he settled on a career. In short, he grew up. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s an extraordinary thing to be able to watch your father develop from boyhood to manhood. There’s a flavor of time travel in the experience.
What this story doesn’t have is suspense. After all, we knew he’d been to Germany and back. We had the souvenir collection of shrapnel chunks, German army helmet, bayonet and sundry other items to prove it. We knew he’d survived physically unscathed; he lived to go to medical school, marry our mother, father us girls, send us to school, take us on vacations, laugh, argue, and finally die much too young at the age of fifty-two. Knowing how the story ends in no way detracts from the pleasure of the journey that his letters describe.
This has all been keenly brought home to me in the last few weeks.
On August 1st, my step-son Jackson flew to Great Lakes, Illinois to report for basic training. He is a Sailor Recruit in the United States Navy. Every Sunday, he is allowed six hours of “holiday” time to write letters which will be sent via snail mail. He had to leave his computer, his iPod, even his cell phone behind as he gave his body and mind over to the military. During holiday time, he writes to us (this I know for sure), to his girlfriend (he remarks as much and she confirms it), to his mother (I imagine) and to his sister (I hope). His letters home are uncannily like the ones sent by another young man in 1943. “I’m still liking the Army,” writes one from Fort Eustis. “I’m having fun here,” writes the other from Great Lakes. There are the same chatty details about physical training, inspections, tests taken that show intellectual prowess, hopes for future possibilities. The chow is detailed and praised, though for both it falls short of home cooking. Each chafes under the leadership of nincompoops and incompetents. Both exclaim over the truth of the “hurry up and wait” cliché. The boy from Pennsylvania remarks on the hillbillies and the mountain talk that he is trying to get used to. The boy from California celebrates, “It’s wild how diverse the people are here,” but adds, “Our weapons PO is from Louisiana and I can’t understand a word he says.”
When I first read my father’s letters, there was a precious sense of getting to know the young man he had been, of being able to trace the arc of becoming as he developed into the man we knew. Now as I read Jackson’s letters, I can’t help thinking of my grandparents, waiting hungrily for the next installment, worrying and wondering about how their child was faring, aware that he would hate to be called a child, knowing that, in fact, he wasn’t a child any longer. When we read our father’s letters, we have the advantage of knowing how it all turned out. His parents didn’t have the eyes of history with which to read his words of frustration, sadness, willful optimism. I think of them when John and I worry about our boy, ache for his unspoken loneliness, revel in his new experiences, celebrate his successes, and ponder the possibilities of the unknown future. We share with them the balance of anxiety and indescribable pride in our son.
Needless to say we are saving Jackson’s letters. When he wrote to his parents, my father frequently reiterated his request that they keep his letters, asserting that he knew he would want to read them after he got back. He never did. His experiences were not ones he wanted to relive. Whether Jackson chooses to read his letters or not, we are saving them. His children will want them. And they deserve a chance to know the boy who became the grown man they loved.
My father, the animal lover, often made reference to missing the pets back home. My son, the animal lover, ends his most recent letter with the P.S., “Pat the animals for me!” The road with Jackson has not always been smooth, and god knows it hasn’t been easy. But a heart and a mind are being forged in this experience, and a heart and a mind that can give a shout out to two scrappy cats and a loving dog are some fine materials to be setting out with.