An Ancient Art
Deeper messages in the missives
A while back, my sister in Charlottesville called to say she had come across packets of letters that she, my brother and I had all written to our long-deceased parents over the years, and she wanted the three of us and our spouses to get together to read and share them. It sounded like fun. It turned out to be much more.
It was gratifying: Mom and Dad could have had no doubt that each of their children loved them dearly – there were lots of letters there. Some went as far back as our college years, others from early years of marriage, from decades of jobs and travel and through various stages of maturity. Each of us moved on from Charlottesville fairly quickly, but I was stunned with how much of our subsequent daily lives we shared in these notes, cards and letters home. How satisfying that we now have these unexpected letter-journals that hold so many memories of our lives.
It was surprising: We were all stunned with how much of our long-ago lives we had forgotten. Many events of great consequence at the time were reported and then faded from our consciousness. My sister, Linda Hamilton, wrote a letter home from Okinawa, where she lived for several years, describing in horrifying detail the dramatic explosion of a B-52 on the end of a military runway at Kadena Air Base, where her first husband was stationed with the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. We only vaguely remembered it. Heading out on a mission, the plane, loaded with 12 500-pound bombs under each wing and 24 750-pounds in the bomb bay, caught fire. The pilot managed to get the plane to the end of the runway and save five of his seven-man crew before the plane exploded into what was described at the time as a “black spot on the runway.”
This happened in the middle of the night three miles away, and my sister recounted in the letter that the blast threw her out of her bed across the room. “At first we thought it was an earthquake,” she said.
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One of my brother Terry’s letters in 1969 also brought back the Vietnam War. In it, he describes the basic training he is undergoing at Lackland Air Force Base, especially his 3:30 to 7 a.m. shifts of KP duty. He was struggling with making sense of how this work would help him learn how to be a security policeman. He joked that Dad, a restaurant owner, should get someone to draft workers for his establishment and pay them the 17 cents an hour he was making in the Air National Guard. Even our cousin Joey, also serving, that same year wrote Mom and Dad from Vietnam describing a quiet period of only two or three rocket attacks.
Not as horrific or as serious as my cousin’s and siblings’ letters was one from me from our college days about how my University of Richmond fraternity brothers congratulated me when Barb and I got pinned. I reported that they carried me in my underwear into a girls’ dorm at Westhampton College and barred the door so I couldn’t get out. I apparently was saved from total humiliation by a dorm mother who came by and led me to another door to make my escape.
Dad probably enjoyed that one – Mom not so much.
ON THE OTHER HAND
Reading these letters was distressing in a way. They recalled to mind that so few of us write letters anymore. My kids don’t write; neither do I. My snail mail is generally all bills and fliers.
So I was really impressed to get a two-page letter recently from a reader of the book Barb and I wrote a while back. The letter writer had made notes as he read about things that had special relevance to him and his life: His encounter in Peru with a blue morpho butterfly like the one on the book cover, experiences at the old Cock & Bull on MacArthur Avenue, the “porcine memorabilia” at the Smokey Pig, his own heart attack. I had shared with him, and he was sharing with me. Letters do that so much better than texting or emailing.
Finally, my family get-together was motivating. Being together, all together for no real reason and in the middle of the week, reminded me that the years are speeding by. For a long time, we six had Sibling Suppers each month, but those eventually died out the way things do. Nowadays, we seldom all get together at once except at Christmas. We plan to remedy that.
Each of us has agreed that for the next six months, we will write a real letter each month to a different sibling or spouse, one after another. The sixth letter will be addressed to oneself, which may be the hardest to write. Gee, maybe this letter-writing thing will catch on!