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.

7 replies on “Envelopes full of history”

  1. My sister and I taped a couple of interviews with my father’s parents — both of whom passed away years ago — about their childhood experiences, how they met, what Columbus was like when they were starting their family. Erin has the tapes, and I need to make sure they’re transcribed before they’re too old to be played.

    I’ve thought about doing a similar thing with my folks — drive them around Columbus and Troy (where Mom grew up) and record their recollections. I’m especially interested in hearing more of Dad’s memories of Columbus, which seems to change almost weekly. I’d love to have a record of not only the Columbus I knew as a kid, but the one my father knew as well.

    (I’d also like to have record of some of the “not-quite-true” stories that get kicked around between Mom and Dad all the time. As in: They met in a life drawing class at Ohio State — true — and Mom was the model — uhh…)

    It sounds like your family’s memories are in good hands. I’m so happy you have the chance to preserve them.

  2. That is a great idea. I hope your folks warm to it.

    I’ve been posting everybody’s pictures of my brother’s baby to a family-only set on Flickr, to keep from having our e-mail inboxes choked up with wads of uncompressed snapshots every few days, but so far the fambly doesn’t really seem to Get It.

    And I hadn’t thought about posting old letters, which are infinitely more interesting to me than baby pictures.

    I don’t think I understood the utility of Flickr, either, until I’d been using it for a while, but now it seems to me like one of the most important applications I use. It succeeds at what so many other so-called social networking sites (Facebook, I’m looking at you) utterly fail at, which is helping people to genuinely get to know each other better and feel closer.

  3. Uncle Crappy: In addition to transcribing the tapes, how cool it would be to save at least parts of the recordings — so their voices are preserved as well as their words and thoughts.

    Love the idea of the touring interview too, especially with a little video to show what things look like now. Wouldn’t have to be too time-intensive to produce. And the “not-quite-true” stores sound so funny!

    India: The ways you use your Flickr account — and in particular the images of the hamster care booklet you made at age 9 — are among the key examples I show when talking to people about what’s possible with Flickr. You rock!

  4. I have studied many topics from WWII: battles, generals, german persective, and others. I have spokento many WWI vets and for the most part they keep their experiences private. Most family members have very little understanding of the roles that their family members played in the war.

    Your situation is very similar to many others. Most have elected to keep communications private or at least only talk about them with other WWII vets. Your family will will make the right decision.

    I love you site and enjoy your stories.

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