Tom, an immigrant to the town of Onamia, recently published letters his grandfather wrote to his girlfriend while serving in the military during WW I. Granddad’s girlfriend at the time, whom eventually became his wife, kept those letters in a small box her entire life, and those treasures somehow found their way into Tom’s hand.
I was lucky enough to have been given one of those books Tom had published, and I’ve made it a ritual (we seniors have daily rituals) to read one of those letters each morning, just after eating my frosted flakes and prior to doing my crossword puzzle.
Besides being fascinated by what was being written back in the early 20th century, I bring to this reading experience something to which only a GI in a war zone (like myself) can relate: that being how important a daily or weekly letter from a loved one is to a soldier stationed half way around the continent. Often-times being conscripted into war is the first time spent away from home, as was mentioned by Tom’s grandpa, and fears of the unknown and just plane homesickness set in. That is where a letter from home is such a fine bromide.
In 1971, I spent the better part of 11 months in Vietnam, having left a girlfriend back in the states. That friend wrote me a letter almost every day, and, believe me, standing in line during mail call every morning in that God-forsaken country and hearing my name called meaning I got a letter, was the highlight of each day. It didn’t matter what was in the letter. What was important was the fact it was hand written and signed “love Sally.” Tom’s grandpa describes those same experiences, claiming to his girlfriend that it also didn’t matter what she wrote; it was just good to hear from her.
There were other thoughts and experiences Tom’s grandpa wrote about that kindled in me some of the same feelings I experienced during my tour. Grandpa mentioned how, in an odd way, it was comforting to not have to make any decisions for himself, because the Army managed every part of his day. I can recall the same feelings during my tour.
I was 24 years old at the time of my being drafted and had gone through college and two years of teaching. During those teaching years I had lots of daily pressure, mostly concerning keeping hundreds of students in line while preparing for public performances by my bands and choirs (I was a band and choir teacher in a small town at the time).
But, in a strange way, even though I was in a situation I hated (in war), one comfort I experienced was not having to make decisions. Every minute of every day in the Army was spelled out for me. Daily life for me had little pressure, at least the kind I was used to in civilian life. And in reading grandpa’s letters, he felt the same thing.
Tom’s grandpa also mentioned rumors that the Army would read a person’s mail, watching for any military breaches of classified material a grunt would write to a loved one. I heard those same rumors 50 years later in my war zone. I can’t imagine that the Army ever read my letters, and if they did, the fact that I drove a truck to a small town in Nam to pick up some propane or a detailed account of what was served for our platoon’s Thanksgiving meal, would hardly be seen as aiding and abetting the enemy.
The best thing for Sally was that she eventually found a great guy, other than me, for a life partner. The best thing for me, however, was having Sally as a pen-pal during my tour overseas. Recently, by chance, I met up with that old friend, and I made a point of thanking her for her letters 50 years ago.
And now I am reading Tom’s grandfather’s letters he wrote to his sweetheart back home during a world war. And, boy, do those words ring a fond bell for this old GI.
Bob Statz is a Messenger staff writer.