It was just a brown cardboard box. I know what is in it. Still, I hesitate to open it. Almost as though I had no right. Almost as though it was too intimate. Too theirs, not mine. But I do. I open it. My knife slides through the tape and the top opens. They are old. Yellowed with the years. The edges are tattered. Herein lies a story. A life. A love affair that lasted over sixty years. He never talked about the war. We never knew to ask. When we were young. He was just Dad. Later, I knew that was not altogether true. He was more than just Dad. But I was far away. I knew he was reluctant to talk about it. I wish I would have asked him. I wish he would have told me. I didn't know that he had. It was all here. In a brown cardboard box.
The first letter says November 5, 1943. It is from Dunn, North Carolina. He is with the 30th Engineer Topographic Battalion. He is a surveyor. At this point they are once a month letters. She is only seventeen, he is six years older than her. She is friends with his sisters, although she has met him. They write as casual aquaintances. The letters are all on Army stationary. They have a postal mark, but no stamp. It says "free" on the spot where a stamp would go. His hand writing is horrendous. He writes on both sides of the paper. They are long letters, three or four pages. Later on, the letters start coming many times a week and they are even longer. He writes that he has to do his letter writing at night, in his bunk, sometimes after "lights out". So I guess that is a good excuse for messy letters! Once he told me about North Carolina. On sundays, he missed going to church, so he walked until he found one that was having a service. It was colored peoples church, but being a northern boy, he didn't think any thing of it. He was the only white person there. They were very cordial to him and welcomed him. He would go there for church. Once they even asked him to speak. I know that he would have proclaimed the gospel in his humble way. But when the other guys in his battalion found out, they wouldn't speak to him, and skirted around him, because he fraternized with black folks. He was shocked. He had no clue that people thought like that.
January 1944 the letters begin coming from Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. He is happy about this, because it is closer to his home in Minnesota. When he gets a furlough, he can get home for a few days. He writes of having several times being able to go home to see his family. For a while the letters come closer together. Then there is a break. He writes to her that he hasn't written for so long that he hesitates to write back, for fear she has given up on him. He says he is struggling with some things.
I did hear this part of the missing link from him, though, not too long before he left us. My son in law was stationed at Camp McCoy at that time, getting ready to ship out to Iraq. I suppose that brought back old memories.. He said that he decided that he really liked this girl, and he wanted to get serious with her. But she was so young, and times were so uncertain, so he chickened out. Then he decided to persue her, so he apoligized and wrote to her again. Then he wrote her a letter proposing to her. He walked over to the post office and mailed the letter. As he was walking back to his room, one of the officers caught him and said he had a phone call. The phone call was the news that his parents had been in a horrific car accident. His mother and his youngest sister had been killed, and his father and his youngest brother badly injured. Of course, he was so shocked and grief stricken, and he felt his letter was totally inappropriate . So he went back to the post office, and begged the post master to let him find the letter. He was granted permission and he did find it and disposed of it.
Then there were no letters for awhile. Not from the end of July until September. Then a letter comes from the hospital in Stambaugh, Michigan, where his father and his brother, Don, are recuperating. Strangely, he does not mention any thing about that sad time. Any thing about the funeral, or the sadness, or anything about his feelings.
Then in October, the letters come from Camp Robinson, in Little Rock Arkansas. Now he tells her that he loves her and he wants her to consider carefully whether she will agree to this. He does not want an immediate answer. He tells her how he thought, when his first proposal letter had to be destroyed, that perhaps God was telling him that he shouldn't get married. Perhaps God wanted him to be celibate. But upon visiting with his father in the hospital, his mind was changed. He says his father recommends that he marry Martha, even before he tells him that she is the one he was interested in. He often mentions how close he is to his father, and how they agree on so many things.
October 10, 1944. A letter arrived from "On biviouac, Somewhere in the Ouachita National Forest". " I have slept in under the stars for a whole week already, and have the prospects of two more before I again sleep in the comforts of a bed. Tonight I am CQ (charge of Quarters) - otherwise I would be with out lights, and letters would have to be written in the day light. So the duty has some consolation, though it be small. This letter may be a little erratic , but with the phone ringing and some one coming in every few moments for a pass, and a hundred and one other things, I think it is excusable. 'a poor excuse is better than none'. Note that. It is one of my faults. " Then, "the generator just ran out of gas and out went the lights. I filled it up with gas and started the motor again."
November letters are now beginning, "my dearest Martha". Still on biviouac he writes " I have informed my family of my 'heart throb'. This brought forth from my brother, Donnie, ' Boy, I am not going to go to Michigan any more.' When asked why, he said, ' Well, I don't want to get married.' He's afraid a girl will grab him -shame on you, my "little girl", what have you done?" Then he adds, "Speak for yourself, Carl." He says "the biviouac is going well, except for a few rainy days. This will be the last week and then we will be back in Camp Robinson".
A letter has been recieved , he writes , on November 28th. He is joyful that she has said she will consider his proposal. His sisters have asked her to make it official, but she is not ready yet. He reminds her to "put the best construction" on the gossipers. He writes that they have been very discreet, and have given no one reason to talk about them. He doesn't want her to let any one influence her dicision. He appologizes for not being very romantic. "I am not telling you of the beauty of your eyes, your hair, or the sweetness of your lips, but with Solomon I say,'Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is above Rubies.' You are more beautiful than gold, silver or precious stones, for you are the very image of Christ, who is altogether lovely." "You are patient and understanding and you delight in comforting others. I know this is so. I am easily discouraged, my feelings easily hurt. I need words of comfort , encouragement and sympathy." He bares his soul. "What ever I do, I do it with my whole heart and soul. I do a thing well, or I do not do it at all. I become so absorbed that all else is lost for the time. That is why I earnestly pray that I might work for the Lord". Also he adds, " When I write, I write forgetting all else - though the hours of the morning come, page upon page. But "uncle Sam" says no, the lights must go out at 11:00. So I would close for now."
December 6th. "The rain patters on the roof, and my heart patters for you." Here he thinks maybe he should write more than one letter a week, but wonders if it will hinder Marthas studies. She goes to college and is studying German. "No, maybe that is not for the best, for then her German will suffer. So the question is, which do I love best, the German or Martha? That is a hard one to answer, Martha or the Deutsche lesson.The language is important you should aquire knowledge, is that not so? I am sure that I love Martha better than the Deutsche lesson, yet for now, I think it is best that the German does not suffer". He doesn't want her to suffer with a B instead of an A.
At Camp McCoy , he was able to go to Minneapolis for church on Sundays. He tells of enjoying it so, his sister Evelyn is attending the University of Minnesota, so he often sees her there. He thinks singing hymns with her is the most beautiful music. A gift from God. ( Let me just say, she does have a most beautiful voice!)
He writes that he likes to play basket ball, to skate, to ski, to hike, to camp, but not with the public. He is "dull and uninteresting. I am inclined to read. I like to write, with the lamp at my desk, the Bible and a pen in my hand." She has evidently asked for a picture of him. He writes that he has been reluctant to let people take his picture. He was even stubborn with his mother, though she wanted one of him.He says he has a picture of "dear Mom and our little angel, Joy" with him at all times, and she should ask Evelyn if she has 'a snap' she will send her. This is the first reference to the accident, that he refers to as "the judgement of God".
December 10th, he wants her to know that he is not critisizing her for wanting full approval of her family, He understands that she is very young, and he is older; she is their youngest child, she goes to school and plans to be a teacher. "I am willing to wait as long as you desire. It is expedient that we wait - years lay ahead that no man can comprehend. It may be that the war would last so liong that your love would grow cold, and to be tied to an old "grandpa" like me would be unpleasant.(Please accept this as kidding.)"
"Now to relieve you of the things that need clarification. Yes, it is true that a Post of Embarkation awaits. We have ceased all training and are now packing and proccesssing all our equipment for over seas. The exact date, only the war department knows, but it will be sometime around the first of January". He says that he didn't let her know before, because he did not want her to make any decisions because of "feelings of pity for a poor GI who is going over seas". "I know God will take care of me. Whatever comes to pass in the months ahead. His will shall be done, and always for the best." atfter several 'scratch outs" - excuse the errors - "the lack of sleep catches me." "I do wish to return, and shortly, and come to you. Really. I am not my own, I belong to you in the Lord."
December 21st. " All this week we have been processing and packing our equipment in preparation for the boat ride. Tomorrow we should have everything in complete readiness and then will come the humdrum of waiting for the war departments word that will send us to port. From every appearance we will be in the states until at least after the holidays, though tomorrow may find us going! So if there should be no letters for a time, know that it is not because I have forgotten you, but rather that Uncle Sam is holding the mail until it is safe to let the people know that another group of dough boys have landed. You can continue writing to this address until the Uncle sends you a change of address card." This letter is written on Army stationary with a fat jolly santa on it.
January 4th finds the letter still from Little Rock. "This has been a long day, and a disappointing one - long because that which I waited for did not materialize. Yet the hope lies that tomorrow is another day and surely, then, there will be a letter". "In the course of conversation, a group of soldiers were discussing eating habits of those present. One commented, 'Carl doesn't eat enough in a year to keep me alive for a week. and yet he doesn't show the effects - he's big and husky and not like a starving man'. Another jokingly said ' He must live on love'. If only they knew my thoughts, more need not be said. I thought this worth while to pass on to you. I don't profess to live on love, but I am willing to admit I am in love, and with you!"
January 7th. He explains to her (she must have asked him about this!) that he has never drank coffee, or smoked. He is quite passionate in his explanations about these things. "You can see that I have very definite opinions on a good many subjects. Some people would be inclined to call me an obstinate and caustic old man." "See what you are in for! But don't let it frighten you."
January 10th. He is still in Little Rock. this letter, as almost an after thought, says " The ring is on its way, my darling - it is simple and plain and I pray that it is pleasing to the one I love. ( I paid just a little over $60.00 for it - see what a spend thrift I am. I will be hard to obtain finery from. I know to you, my love - whether it cost 60 cents or $600.00 - the value is the same. I mention the price only because it is your affair as well as mine." " Forgive the jumbled state of this letter due to many disturbances." She told me once that her brothers always teased her about her "little rock from Little Rock", still blushing after sixty years!
The letter of January 14th says, " This will be a short letter and the last one you will receive for a number of days - for on the morrow we leave for New York. During the course of which time we will not be able to write or communicate in any way.Though this is the Lords Day, we have been working all day and the shortness of this note will be because of the limited time in which to scribble." "Dearest" he writes, "I would very much like you to write to my father. He is very understanding, and this I do say - you will find him much like me - or rather me much like him . Views I express almost invariably are to be found with Dad. In the last few years Father and I have been constant and staunch companions."
Martha is going to Soumi College, in her home town in Michigan. Carl has gone there a few years before, so they discuss things about the campus. Evidently some one has filled her in on his college escapdes. He says, " It is true that at the time I attended Soumi I had a slight trend toward Anemia. It is long since gone, however,so completely that I had quite forgotten it. Incidentaly, that nine o'clock class which found me almost always late was conducted by Mr. Johnson, (evidently an arch nemesis of his!). I didn't like to be late, but usually timed things so I would appear at the last moment and as a result, suffer as little of his liberal thinking as possible. Though frankly, on ocassion it was a result of staying up late and having the morning come too quickly. P.S. Mother bought me an alarm clock to redeem the situation." He also confesses that he was voted best drressed that year. "Probably because I wore alot of sweaters and shirts."! And yes, he was known as a "Lady -killer", but he had no girl interests while he was there.
( Standing at the halls of learning! She often told us about her days at college. she loved learning and instilled that in us girls. She never got to be a school teacher, but she was a wonderful teacher to us!)
No letters come from the end of January until the 20th of February. "At sea. Enroute". " Though this cannot be mailed until the destination is reached, I will write now - though on the surging and unsteady sea. The voyage is rather long and crowded ( the quarter decks have standing room only, and one must say "this is the longest I have ever gone with out sitting down - you either stand up or lay down, never sit.") We have had a number of rough days, driven of the wind and tossed. Surprisingly enough I have escaped sea sickness ( I feel just like an Old Salt ), which though considered a mental attitude really makes some people sick. Just being with the ocean - as big and angry as it can be - is an experience not soon to be forgotten. Words fail - it speaks, though silently , with David in the Psalms. " "I am come to the deep waters, where the floods overflow me." It speaks of God - His might and omnipotence, and of the smallness of you and I."
Once he told me how rough that trip was. So cold and stormy. When you got out of your bed, some one else immediately got in to it for their turn to sleep. They had to take cold sea water showers. This was in the North Sea, in January. The trip back, he said was very nice, in the warm summer weather.
February 26th letter comes from "somewhere in France". He is happy to have gotten a letter from "across the miles of water". " A welcome message, here in the muddy fields of France. France is true to the Old World, from what one imagines. It shows the signs of being the battle ground of the world. I have witnessed a bombed out town - the likes of which the mind cannot perceive with out having seen it.. Nothing but rubble and wreckage. We are situated fairly well, living in tents and having the extreme fortune to have stoves to keep out the cold and dampness which is heavy on the land."
"The more often you write Martha dearest, the more pleasing it is to me, though I may not be able to reward you in like manner - know this - I would desire to treat you likewise, but time and circumstances do not permit, especially now when with out lights of any kind my letters will have to be rendered in the daylight hours in moments that offer themselves. "
It is now March. Still "some where in France", he writes " To all the troops moving over seas the USO - through its cooperating organizations issues to each soldier a religious kit, containing literature to fit your individual religious prefrences. The Protestant kit contained one little book that I liked, written by General George Carpenter of the Salvation Army. It appealed to me because of what it required for a christain life, and especially well rendered was the part concerning you, my God chosen mate. It was like you wrote in your recent letter. " I do love you and pray for you, if that would be of any help, then keep it in your thoughts and in your heart. " ( It is of help, and I do keep it in my thoughts and heart.) As the little book stated, "the womans proper task is that of the protector and conserver of the good things of life and the inspirer of good conduct. " He feels she does this wonderfully.
"That Devils Food Cake of the last letter sounds very good ( the name - this to the cook book makers - could have been better chosen!). Chocolate cake is my favorite, especially with thick fudge frosting. I am dreaming - for Army food isn't home cooked food and further more the Army doesn't allow 'ice box raiding" which is a sport of mine that I miss. What price for a dinner of baked ham, mashed potaoes and peas and all the incidentals? "
"The past days have found me moving again, from one place to another in France. We are now situated with a roof over our heads and it would be well if the stay here would last until it is time to go home. " P.S. If you want practice in the art of cooking, I am a willing subject even now ( a hint). The War Department allows you to send a box about the size of a shoe box at my request, which is shown at the post office when the package is sent. THE REQUEST: I am hungry. Send something to eat."
March 18th he is in Paris. This is the first letter where he calls her "Muzzy". None of us had ever heard this endearment, so it must have been a nick name she had when she was young. Still in Paris on March 22nd, he mentions that he is glad she writes so much about her friend Berta, who keeps her occupied and having things to do. Yes, we have heard many a Bertha story from Mom!
April 1st , "Easter Sunday, at approximately 11:50 in the evening serving as Sgt. of the guard.""This morning, being Easter, I went to the sunrise service at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. A beautiful spectacle." "There has been a definite dearth of mail of late, which makes me just a little impatient." "It is now Monday morning, and a rather late hour - but a pleasant time has passed, writing to you."
April 5th. Paris. "I've been working nights for several days, whicn has disrupted my letter writing and is that which I use as the reason for four days of silence. I should not treat you so badly! Yet I can only promise another time of silence, again for a few days, the reason for which will be evident in my next letter. I am sorry Martha, that I haven't a background in French - and I haven't picked any up ( I have a big enough struggle with English). I won't need French much longer - but no German, either. You definitely have it all over me there!" ( She loved languages!) " By the way, those mid term marks are very good - considering it is spring and you are in love. ( I rate you an A+ on my score card.)""Martha, sweetheart, if you wish to call me 'Karlof'' - please do. I does remind me of our little angel Joy - but that is a sweet memory, and I know that when you use it, it will be with the same trust and love that Joy expressed. I am very lonesome for you this evening."
April 9th. " Some where in Germany." " Much has happened fast - so fast that I am all but stunned. I have met and seen so many things in rapid sucession that it seems dream like. We left Paris and our organization , traveling mile after mile for several days - the west wall, across the Rhine, through cities and places in the daily war news. We went up a river valley between beautiful wooded mountains, so beautiful that I enjoyed it in spite of war conditions in under which we veiwed it. Germany is in every way more appealing than France. The roads, the cities, the people remind me of the States. To me, especially, the little blonde girls with long braids remind me of my sisters back home. One night was spent in a castle, elaborately furnished, and containing many valuable paintings, jewlery and the like - the Reich stamp and religious card (I sent you) were picked up there. The American Army is moving so fast everything is taken intact. There are very few marks of war once you leave Rhine-land. Tonight we are beside a cold mountain stream in a pleasant valley. In the stream I took my first bath in several days. Brrr. It was cold. The front is moving so fast and we are going right with it. The dangers of battle are ever present with the morrow uncertain.In such we need not fear. The Lord is always with us so that in life or death there is victory and sure hope. Letters will be few and far because of the times and conditions."
April 15th." Almost a week has gone with out a letter written. Mail call is only once a week now. Everything continues to move fast, the days too short to preform all that I should do. So know that my neglect is not intentional, but another result of the war. Germany continues to be an interesting place, though visiting as a conquering army. Being in enemy country has advantages- everything we need we take, such as the place we now live in - a modern ' Hitler built' apartment house, with hot water and a nice soft bed. All American units have German vehicles, painted olive drab and a star imposed. The sttitude of the people as that of fear. Whenever they see us they display a nervous reaction. Of course you know that we are not to fraternize - but it would be interesting to know what they think. They just stand stunned at the American power, as day after day, mile after mile of equipment and men , always moving forward. We are ever moving deeper into Geremany. I have seen Wurzburg and a thoroughly devastated place it is - flattened to the ground."
April 23rd. " "The war is going so well. The army is moving so swiftly- it seems that surely it will soon end. (If only the Germans would think so also!)
May 6th. "Germany is 'kaput' and a time of rest waiting for the future asignment of the Pacific or the Army of Occupation awaits us. For the time our activities consist mostly of eating and sleeping. I am afraid we will become spoiled. The return to civilian life is much on every ones mind, and I am no exception, dreaming just a little."
May 9th. " V Day passed as just another day. It does make the thoughts turn even more to the 'post war' and makes one just a little impatient."
May 12th. " I recently had the fortune to make a trip to the Alps (aamong the snowcaps) - it is truly beautiful, every thing peaceful and quiet. Green pastoral valleys interposed between snowcaps. Especially attractive is the architecture and the dress - tyrolean and alpine, chocolate and embroidery, all blended in to the rugged gray rock and pure white snow. It was in the Austrian Tyrol - through such places as Gamisch Portenkircken (scene of the 1936 Winter Olympics ) through Innsbruck, a short way up the Inns River valley and as a climax up the Bremmen Pass to Bremmen itself and then on to Italy. I also finally , though near for a long time, saw Munich (the birthplace of the Nazi Party). Now that the war is over these things seem more pleasant and easier to look at. Germany is extremely beautiful and rich and to look at the country side now war seems strange and alien to it. Rolling green hills with little clusters of villages and dark patches of woods and with an industrious, methodical and religious people."
" In spite of all the propaganda to the contrary, it is surprising the part the church plays in the life of these people. ( I am speaking of Bavaria, that part which I am in.) Every day it surprises me more. The entire village is centered around the church ( an interesting note: the doors in all the house of the village face not to the front of the house, but towards the church ). Every day, both in the morning and in the evening the village goes to mass and on special days all work ceases and an atmosphere of festivity reigns. With each mass the church bell rings - almost incessantly it seems (and very annoying). The priest preforms most of the village duties. All religious and political activities are in the hands of the church. In the homes every room has a large (2 to 3 foot ) crucifix and display framed blessings form Popes and Cardinals. The people live very stolid and simple lives."
" The thing of big importance with us the last several days has been the discharge point system. I did not fare as well as I expected - I have only 38 points, 85 being the minimum for discharge. ( I have been in the army 30 months, which is 30 points, 3 months overseas and 5 points for a battle participation. Once more the mail call has failed and the days are beginning to get longer than usual. One knows the 'Uncle' is doing his best to get the letters to us, but we are far from patient."
May 14th. "In Germany, near Augsburg"."Have I mentioned that my CO (Survey Platoon Cammander) Lt. Wade is from the Upper Penninsula? His home is Ishpeming and he attended Michigan Tech in Houghton. Which gives us something in common. I claim the Copper Country as my second home, mostly because of you. And of course, I found it impossible to keep you under the 'blackout'. So he frequently kids me about 'Martha, Queen of the North. Quite a distingushed title for such a little girl!
May 16th. "the days are beautiful with warmth and sunshine and quiet and peace rules in Germany. All that speaks of the war that is past is the steady stream of civilians (French, Poles, Italians, Russians, Slavs - all slave labor ) going home ward. All their possessions on their backs, or pulled upon a little wagon or cart, with the group as straining beasts of burden dragging them upon the way.. A very dusty way which is constantly stirred anew by speeding American trucks and even half tracks. The nation lays as stunned - too overcome to object. And through out it all the mighty fighting forces lay dormant, waiting for the morrow, whether that morrow be days or months away. and mean time all that is repulsive and hard for the soldier to bear has returned - inspections, drills, calisthsetics, and the old routine of training. Old lessons over and over again and again, always being subject to authority so that no part of the day is ones own. Always a proper uniform and cap upon the head, pockets buttoned and on and on until the spirit is subdued. The war in Europe is over, but the Army is the Army and a soldier depises it all. As yet I am spared of these things and my days are pleasnt days (pleasant for the Army) of being my own boss, with only an occasional responsibility. My lads are so well trained - ( or maybe I am too easy going?) that difficulties scarcely arise."
May 22nd. "Back in Paris and rejoined to the unit after 13 days and nights of continuous travel. We only arrived two hours ago and with a lot of work to be done (setting in to a new home - and I wish we were!!) this will have to be short, but it will explain the silence of the last days. Now that we are back in Paris - I don't know what will happen next. May it be that this would bring me closer to the states and you." " There was mail waiting for us when we arrived and that is good. Finally the package has arrived and it is none the worse of wear and tear en transit. I haven't had time to sample it yet, but will give you a full report tomorrow. "
May 25th. "most of today was spent in downtown Paris riding the 'Metro" (Paris subway ) to points of interest which consisted of the Cathedrals of Notre Dame, Sacre Couer ( where from the dome is a birds eye veiw of Paris ) and Madeleine, of course I have seen the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumph ( de L Etoile ) and so consider my sightseeing of Paris complete. The cathederals were very old and massive." "Today the colonel inspected and reviewed the survey Platoon, as his way of welcoming us back - such a tedious and boring procedure. So I was able to avoid it because of a pass. It did mean however that I must get out of the area, so I took a long walk down the canal."
All these letters from "back in Paris" are written on lovely pastel stationary, with scalloped edges, of which he writes, " This stationary is from Germany. It is what the troops jokingly call 'liberated material'." They are full of musings on wedding plans. "I am in hopes that if I am granted a furlough, Martha will consent to leave off wall papering and spend a furlough ( vacation to you civilians ) in Minnesota for a couple weeks and then by consent go to Michigan ( accompanied by this monster ) so that you can display me to the family who as yet wonder what manner of person Muzzy has acquired."
"Martha, sweetheart, I have thought much about our wedding - even as to the details. Restraint and simplicity. Simple ( plain and sober ) to the extent that it may hurt some. All I want is the solemnity of Gods word and its promises, nothing more, nothing less. Our loved ones will want many things - to some it may be neccessary tro concede." She thinks they should not plan to get married then, but wait and see where and what he will have to do afterward.
Of course, they do end up getting married while he is on Furlough, and it is simple and restrained. Then he goes off to Texas and she stays home in Michigan for a while. He finds them a room off base, just a room in someones home where they share kitchen and bathroom privileges. She told me how little privacy they had, and how different and lonely it was for her. How many faux pas' she made, being a northern country girl thrown into city/army base life in the south! Each time he got sent somewhere else, she would take the train home until he got settled and found another room for them.
Oh, this brown box of letters! Opening up to me a young love, a long ago life, a part of my history. A love of the writtenword, passed down to me and my children and grandchildren. Blessed am I to share this!