Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Sailor Writes Home

My aunt recently sent two packages of photos and keepsakes that had belonged to my grandma. In those packages was a treasure beyond price: letters written by my father!

They are the letters he sent home to his mother when he was in the Navy. The glimpse into 1946 alone is wonderful, but the tiny window into my father is the true value.

I have a wealth of memories of my father but I was nine when he died in a tragic accident. I have only ever known him as my daddy and never had the chance to know the man. I have gleaned all the information I could from those who knew him best and knew him the longest but nothing can take the place of getting to know your parent as an adult. A dozen letters written at the tender age of eighteen is apparently as close as I will ever get in this lifetime.

The first thing that struck me was the lack of complaining in any of the letters. I know my father quit high school to join the Navy. I never got an inkling of trouble associated with that decision, so maybe my father had a head strong idea that he was through with school and wanted to see the world. (Strong personalities tend to run in our family!) I assume Grandma and Grandpa tried to talk him out of leaving school. After going against his parents' best advice, a head strong young man is NOT going to write home complaining about the Navy.

On the other hand, people had just been through a depression and a world war. No one was inclined toward petty complaining. None of my grandparents complained. They held opinions but they simply did not waste their time or energy over things they could not control. In my grandmother's home in particular there would never have been much whining or self pity. You just got on with the good things and the rest simply slipped into the past.

Grandma instilled in all of her children a strong sense of self, and that comes through in my father's letters. His comments on some of the events and behaviors he witnessed shows that he was no one's fool, even at the tender age of eighteen.

I might not have all the facts straight in this story but my grandparents did not know that my father, and his younger brother Dee, could swim. As very young boys they went missing. Grandpa found them swimming like little tadpoles in very deep water. In the letters, my father mentions the swimming tests he had to pass as a sailor. No brag, just fact. "Some could not make it but it was no trouble for me." The ocean presented no challenge to a young man who grew up swimming in Kansas rivers.

My father continually asked for news about his brother and his best friend. Homesickness was never mentioned, but there was a one-time request for Grandma, Grandpa and Dee to have a photo taken together and sent to him. That tugged at my heart strings a little.

There was the good news of Grandma's pregnancy - which turned out to be none other than Superman, my future Uncle Jerry. There were many references to Patty, my father's little sister. There were questions about the corn and wheat crops and for news from home. There were discussions about cars, of course. Any young American man is going to want a good car!

There was a mention of a young lady my father had met about the time he left for the Navy. She and my father wrote to one another for some time, until he met my mother. I could have been born to a different set of parents, apparently. Good ol' Mom won out and I have to say, she wrote much better letters than the young lady from Wichita. I know this because before Mom died she sent a box of things home with me. In those boxes were all the letters sent to my father when he was in the Navy. I read the young lady's letters and my mother's letters. Mom was a far better writer. The other lady was very nice but BORING - at least in her letters. As I mentioned earlier, Pop was no one's fool even at that tender age.

People were decent to one another in 1946. Young men and women were self-reliant and polite and always on the up and up. There was not one molecule of impropriety in any of those letters. (How did this apple fall so darned far from the tree, I wonder? My guess is that it was The Sixties.)

Grandma must have insisted that Dee and Grandpa write to my father. In one of his letters my father asked Grandma to thank Grandpa for the letter - and to ask if Grandpa hurt himself writing it. I laughed about that. My grandfather was a quiet man and never had a lot to say. Grandma took up the slack for him. I have the letter Grandpa wrote and I can attest that he did NOT hurt himself writing it - maybe one hundred words in all.

My father was stationed on the USS Furse DD-882, a new Navy destroyer. Several times he mentions the upcoming A bomb tests to be conducted at Bikini Atoll. Turns out it was a big, fat, anticlimactic event for at least one sailor from Kansas. "We were twenty miles away from the Bomb, and all we could see was the smoke, and we heard the report of it, too. It sounded like a shot gun a long way off. You will see more than we did in the newspapers, I imagine."

My father mentioned a second test which was supposed to be much worse than the first, but the letters stop. So, I do not know if he was more impressed after the second test. We know now that all those men on those ships were the government's guinea pigs - all hands ordered on deck with no protection whatsoever from the light, blast, or the fall out. Perhaps my father's early death saved him from some horrible cancer or disease caused by that exposure had he lived a much longer life. No way to know.

I was delighted to hear from my father after all these years. I have my memories of course, but there were so few things left after his death to hang on to, to physically hold. My heart has long since healed from losing him so early in life but there has always been an open space where he belonged, an emptiness that will only be filled when I see him again. I have been missing him for many decades now. My brother Randy has fewer memories than I have. Our youngest brother Mark has no conscious memories of our father whatsoever, only second hand memories and second hand stories. These letters are just one more chance.


Li'l Ned said...

This was very sweet reading. I've just been talking with a friend whose mother, at 84 or so, is doing a slow fade-out this year. After such a long life together, my friend said her biggest regret now is never having been able to know her mother during the 27 years before she (my friend) came along. Isn't that one of the great paradoxes of human existence? That no matter how hard we try, no matter what we know or learn about our parents from letters, shared memories from older family members or friends, we can't ever really KNOW them? But we try. And I really loved reading your thoughts and observations on your father's letters home. KG

Jackie said...

Ahhh, Ms Kathy.... so good to hear from you. Not only do we never really know our parents, we never really know anyone. Sometimes that might be a good thing! I would just as soon my kids not know EVERYTHING about me! ; )

How grows your garden?? Did you see MSW's new "gut" garden? That's the one for me! I'll keep you posted.