The Main Characters
The picture above was taken in Paris two months after the end of WWII in Europe. The four uniformed Americans sitting in the outdoor cafe were on leave from the United States Army’s 221st General Hospital.
The smiling Lieutenant on the right is my mother, Evelyn. She was 23 years old, the war in Europe was over, and she was in Paris. For a girl who grew up on the coast of Maine in the tiny fishing village of Winter Harbor, life was pretty good.
At that time, the 221st was based a little over 100 miles east of Paris at Chalons-sur-Marne, France. They had been in Chalons since January of 1945 taking care of both American and German casualties, primarily from the Battle of the Bulge.
Now that Germany had been defeated, the scuttlebutt was, soon they would be shipped out for the war in the Pacific.
Evelyn had been in the Army long enough to know there was no sense in stressing over what plans the people in charge had in mind. The Army was going to do what the Army was going to do. For now, she was in Paris… France… And she was going to make the most of it.
Around the same time the picture at the cafe was taken, Evelyn’s future husband was returning to the United States to be repatriated after 18 months of captivity in a German POW camp.
A pilot in the United States Air Force, Tom was also 23 years old and forty pounds lighter than when his captors took his picture for the above ID card. Just to be clear… The picture on the ID card was taken before he lost 40 pounds.
He returned to the United States on the 4th of July, 1945 and was eagerly looking forward to two months leave, seeing his parents, and food.
Tom and Evelyn’s lives would not intersect for another year and a half. When it finally happened, the intersection would last only seconds. My entire existence would hinge on decisions they both would make during a breathtakingly tiny window of time. There will be more on that in another post.
In 2009, my parents were living in The Villages, a retirement community in central Florida just south of Ocala. That year, they reluctantly decided to give up their home for an independent living facility.
I flew in from Los Angeles to help them downsize and move. While cleaning out their attic, we came across a cardboard box containing a little over 1000 letters. They begin in the 1870s and end with my paternal grandmother’s death in the late 1980s.
My grandmother and her mother had a thing about letters. They didn’t just write them, they saved them, they shared them, they reread them. Sometimes, as you can see below, they scribbled explanatory notes to future readers on the envelopes.
Although the letters span a little over 100 years, the majority fall between 1941 and 1945. Apparently a world war creates a really urgent need for families to communicate and e-mail and texting were still a half a century in the future and long distance phone calls were difficult and expensive. So, they wrote what they had to say to one another on pieces of paper and then mailed them. I know, it’s weird. It might help if you think of the letters as e-mail and the cardboard box as a file folder on your hard drive only this file folder is made out of cardboard and instead of being on your hard drive, it was in the attic. Like I said… Weird.
My father’s mother saved all the mail she received, especially the letters from her only child while he was in the Army Air Corps. He, in turn, saved all the mail he got from his mother, and everyone else who wrote to him. A large percentage of those letters ended up in the cardboard box.
The letters are the genesis of this project. The more I read them, the more questions I had. The more questions I had, the more I turned to the Internet. Often, the more I turned to the Internet, the farther I strayed from my original questions. Insatiably curious, I am easily distracted.
This Blog contains two kinds of posts.
- Stories – These arise out of my research on the letters and our family history.
- Strange Tangents – These entries are irresistible shiny objects that, while I was researching a family story, caught my eye causing me to drop everything I was doing and go chasing after them.
My Internet explorations almost always start with Google and I am still amazed at the treasures that shows up on its results page. That being said, some of my biggest discoveries came from ancestry.com, fold3.com, newspapers.com, and the National Archives site, archives.gov. I highly recommend them to anyone on a similar journey.