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Envelopes full of history

Letters from my grandfather to his parents

Letters from my grandfather to his parents, originally uploaded by cynthiacloskey.

I have in front of me a letter in my grandfather’s handwriting, postmarked July 18, 1944. It begins like this:

Dear Folks,

There is not much time now. Just one week from to-morrow, Tuesday, I report. I entend (sic) to quit work on Wednesday so that I will have Thursday to fool around and clear up last minute details. Friday I will drive up to Scranton with Susan and come back Saturday nite. I guess Ruth will be very lonesome Friday nite.

When World War II began, my grandfather had avoided being drafted by taking work hadn’t been drafted because he was working in a military-supplier factory. By 1944 that work was drying up, and he had chosen to enlist so he could train as an officer. My grandmother was pregnant with their second child — she would be born just days after this letter was written — and their first child was a year and a half old.

UPDATE: My mom sent an email to correct what I’d written earlier.

Grandpop was working for Budd before the war started and didn’t take the job to avoid the draft. He took the job when he got out of college and stayed there because he was doing work for aircraft for the war effort. In fact he was anxious to do his part as were most of the men at that time. It was a very different attitude than it is today.

I’m really glad she corrected me. I didn’t mean to imply that Grandpop had intentionally tried to escape the draft; I wrote that late at night and it came out all wrong. I apologize for the mistake.

This letter is one of dozens of letters, handwritten and typed, that my grandfather sent to his parents while he was away at war. No one can find the letters he wrote to my grandmother or my mothers and her sister, although Mom remembers receiving them.

The letters we have are written in a voice and style that I never heard from Grandpop in life. It’s candid and loose, sincere, open. I mentioned in an earlier post that I remember him as quiet and reserved; this is a different guy.

As soon as I found out we had these letters, I said, "I want to scan them all and put them on Flickr."

My sister Laura’s reaction was just as immediate and must as strong. "No way. They’re private. Why does everything have to be on the Internet?"

I said I wanted to post them because they’re interesting and a website is the easiest way to share them with the family. We wouldn’t have to share them with the rest of the world. Laura seemed unimpressed with my reasoning.

To try to sway opinion, I read a couple of the first and last letters, from 1944 and 1946 respectively, aloud to my mom and some of her siblings. They kept interrupting to add to the story, explaining background details and reminiscing, recalling photographs that reinforced the details in the text.

"Why can’t you let them read them first, to see if there’s anything private before you put them online?" Laura asked.

"Because they’ll never find the time," I said.

There was a pause. "You’re right about that," my uncle said.

So we decided, over Laura’s concerns, that I’ll set up a protected site and post the letters, one by one, for the family to read and comment on. We have also a huge pile of tiny photographs, including shots from Grandpop’s arrival in Manila (including, I am told, one of General MacArthur), and the destruction there, the men, and more.

I am vibrating with the thrill of not only having access to these letters, but also of being able to collect the family members’ reactions to them. This is a chance to capture the kinds of stories that are on the verge of being lost, as our relatives all age and pass on. Using the web will allow us to share and extend these stories any time, not only at big events like funerals and weddings.

I hope eventually I’ll be able to share all this with folks outside my family, but I recognize Laura’s concern about throwing every little thing up on the Internet, to be used who knows how. We’ll see how this all rolls out, and how we each feel as we discover more.