My father’s death was not expected; he was only thirty-nine years old, healthy and vigorous when he went to work one day and did not come back. He died from Coronary Thrombosis, the same silent killer that later killed newsman Tim Russert. In addition to my mother, he left behind three children, me at age 19 and my brothers ages 17 and 6. Since his death in 1979, I cannot count the number of times my family and I would’ve given anything to hear from him again. And then one day, we did.
In late June of 2004 my mother called me and said, “Uncle Albert just got a letter from Daddy.”
“Okaaaay…how did that happen?”
My mother explained that my father had written a letter to my uncle in 1961 that had fallen behind the sorting area in the post office and had only recently been discovered during a re-model of the building. After doing some searching, the post office located my uncle and delivered the letter, 43 years late.
My mother was crying as she told me that she never knew my father had written the letter; he never mentioned it to her. But she remembered well the time of the letter. It was June, 1961. My father was in the United States Marine Corps, stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina and his squadron had been placed on a four-hour stand-by, meaning they could be deployed somewhere in the world with no further warning. At the time, we lived in an apartment in Beaufort. Crying, my mother told me that the letter brought back so many memories, she could see the small apartment as if she were still there, she could smell Beaufort, she hated living there she said, it was hot and had a lot of bugs. She also remembered that her grandmother was there at the time to help her care for me and my brother, Billy, who was born at the end of May.
As I listened to my mother crying on the telephone as she recalled those days in Beaufort, she no longer sounded like my sixty-four year old mother, she sounded like my twenty-one year old mother, a mother to a sixteen month old and a newborn; a mother who was young and terrified.
“We were so scared,” she said, “The Marines were sending Daddy somewhere, we didn’t know where, we didn’t know what was going to happen.”
They had good reasons to be scared; among them what was happening in other parts of the world, specifically Cuba and Germany. After Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba, he received the support of the Soviet Union, who among other things, provided Cuba with military and financial support. The Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed American backed attempt to over-throw Castro, occurred in April, 1961, two months before my father penned his letter.
In addition to the Cuban crisis, the Vienna Summit occurred on June 3, 1961, nine days before my father wrote to my uncle. The Summit did not go well and ended with threats between Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union and President Kennedy of the United States. When Khrushchev said that it was up to the United States whether there would be war or peace, President Kennedy responded by saying, “Then Mr. Chairman, there will be war. It will be a cold winter.”
The Cold War and a culture of fear was brewing when my father reached out to Albert, who was married to his sister, Marilyn, in June, 1961. The letter in its entirety is re-written here just as my father wrote it:
Hi ya Alfie,
Don’t pass out from shock, just cause I’m writing you a letter. Actually, there is a method to my madness. What I have to say is not pleasent, and I don’t want to worry Marilyn or my Mom, cause Mom most likely isn’t feeling very good yet. I think I’m going to have a little trouble down here, and me, just being a Marine, thought that 2 big lumberjacks like you and my Dad might be able to get together and help us out. The reason I’m writing directly to you is that you are the one who will be most directly concerned.
And nobody at home will expect you to get a letter from me. Show this letter to my Dad after you read it and maybe the two of you can work something out, if need be. Remember last Oct. when I went to school in Cherry Point? and Joan drove home all alone with Lorrie. Well, I said that it would never happen again, & I hope it won’t. Well, here it is. Something is rotten in Denmark. We (our squadron) is on 4 hour standby right now, and has been since Friday morn.
I have a pack all made up and all my gear ready to go. In fact by the time you get this letter, I might be aboard ship, going to only God knows where. I’m really worried, Al, this, I know is not just a little maneuver for training purposes. This is something BIG. I’ll tell you, when the CO starts making his pack up, something is in the air. I can’t tell you where I’m going, cause I don’t know. It might be to Germany or Cuba or to the Caribbean, or someplace you and I never heard of. So here is what I want you do, if you can, and if you can’t answer this letter the same day you get it.
I want you to see if you can get a few days off from work, and have Dad give you $25.00, which I will pay back to him. The $25.00 is what it will cost to take a bus down here. I want you to come down and drive Joan and the kids home. We will have to rent a trailer, and Joan will have to help to pack it. So, when and if we get the word to move out, I will call you on the phone. And right now, things don’t look so good. It, (whatever it is) might pass over, and I hope it will, but if it doesn’t, I want to be prepared. Dad, the reason I didn’t write this to you, is that I thought since Albert is going to have to make the trip down here, and all, I thought I should write directly to him. Joan and her grand-mother no all about it, but I don’t think we should have to tell Mom or Marilyn anything until I have to make the phone call, or until it all blows over, if it does.
If you and Al think you should let both of them know, or let one of them know, or anyway you want to do it, it is perfectly all right with me. Don’t tell anyone else though, this isn’t news to be spred around, if you know what I mean. Well, guess I told you everything that I can, so I guess, I’ll close for now. Here’s hopeing I don’t have to call you.
$25.00 is all you will need Al, because I have enough money for the trip saved, including gas, motels, eats and everything.
A few days after my father sent off his letter, his squadron was told to stand down; they would not be going anywhere. My mother said that they were relieved, they felt safe again and life went on smoothly until my father was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and we moved back home to Pennsylvania.
My uncle kept the original letter – it was addressed to him after all – but he did give us copies of the letter and the envelope it came in. I prize my copy of the letter so much that I keep it in my jewelry box.
When I read the letter, I smile at the “Something is rotten in Denmark” sentence, because my father always said that when something was wrong…a fact I had forgotten over time. That phrase, and “a method to my madness” both taken from Hamlet, remind me of what an avid reader he was. I recall as well that despite the fact that he was always reading something, his spelling wasn’t the best. I smile at his signature, “Bummer” – that was his nickname, given to him by his father. A name we don’t hear in our family any more.
I notice that my father wrote like he spoke, honest and straight-forward, using phrases like “eats and everything”. The letter reminds me that he was a planner who thought far enough ahead that he ensured that there would not be a financial burden on my uncle to come and get us. But what stands out to me most of all is how much he loved us. Although my father always told us that he loved us, this letter shows his love in black and white. A love letter from a man who rarely wrote letters, a love letter that is not even addressed to my mother or to us kids – but a love letter nonetheless.
My father was never one to ask for help. The fact that he wrote this letter tells me how scared he was for the safety of his wife and kids; that even though he was facing being deployed to a possible hostile situation, he was worried about us, so much so that he reached out to family, to his brother-in-law and his father, for help. And have no doubt, if things had gone badly, if he had been deployed somewhere, my uncle and grandfather would have gotten us back home to Pennsylvania. Because family takes care of family. That’s how my father was raised; that’s how my father raised us. This letter, this unexpected gift, has reminded me of that and of my father’s love since it finally arrived in 2004; 43 years after it was mailed and 25 years after my father died.
Photos of my copy of the letter are below:
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Daily Prompt: culture