It seemed a little creepy at first. Reading someone else’s mail just doesn’t feel right.
After my mother passed away last November, one of my brothers came upon a stack of letters our father had sent to his parents during his training in the U.S. Army. I read them recently.
Dad was drafted into the Army shortly after his 18th birthday in January 1945. We know in hindsight that the war would end that year, but Dad didn’t know that when he was drafted.
The fourth of six children, Dad was living well on his parents’ farm a couple miles west of Titonka in northern Iowa’s Kossuth County. Three years earlier he had dropped out of high school to help his father on the farm. My grandfather provided a car for his use and my grandmother made sure her sons were well cared for.
From this scenario, young Elton entered Uncle Sam’s military at Fort Snelling, Minn.
In late May Dad was sent to Camp Fannin near Tyler, Texas. He wrote home multiple times each week and my grandmother saved all of those letters.
My first impression from the letters was that Dad seriously missed his parents and his girlfriend (who later became my mother.) My second impression was that he loved receiving mail. In every letter Dad encouraged his parents and siblings to write. He described the discomfort of going to mail call and receiving no mail.
It was obvious my father hated KP (Kitchen Police) duty. He was not accustomed to working in the kitchen at home and he wrote more derisively of KP than his other obligations.
Dad did enjoy chow time, however. A number of times he wrote about how much he had enjoyed a recent meal.
Dad was not bashful about asking his mother to send baked treats. In several of his letters he asked my grandmother to send him cookies or a cake or “anything else you’d like to send.”
My father was never self-conscious about bathroom matters. In one of his letters he told his parents he loved getting a stack of letters and reading them while he, uh, took care of business.
At this point my parents had been dating but were not yet engaged. My grandmother must have asked Dad about his intentions. He wrote that Mom had purchased a dress before he left for the service and that it would make a nice wedding dress.
Dad missed Mom… a bunch! He wrote in one letter that he hadn’t had a letter from her for a few days and was already wondering what was wrong.
My grandmother was a very devout and legalistic woman who expected others to live up to her level of piety. Dad assured his mother that he was behaving himself. In one letter he wrote that he enjoyed hanging out with some of the Kossuth County guys with whom he had been inducted. “They cuss a lot,” Dad wrote to his mother, but he assured her they didn’t “cuss as much as some of the other guys.” Dad pointed out that the Algona boys loved to play cards but he had not participated in that activity himself.
Early on Dad assured his mother that he attended chapel each Sunday. As the weeks went by I noticed that he began missing some chapel services because of other activities. He missed chapel one Sunday morning because he “had to clean my rifle.”
In his letters Dad always asked his father about the farm ̶ how the crops were doing, had the hay been put up, how his little brother was doing learning to drive a tractor and countless other questions.
Victory in Japan occurred about the time Dad completed his training at Camp Fannin. He spent the rest of his time in the service doing quartermaster duty in France.
For a farm boy from Titonka, Iowa, Dad’s military experience was a highpoint of his life. Over the years he often regaled me with Army stories. Dementia began clouding his mind in his later years and on a Sunday when he did not recognize me he remembered what he was doing on that specific day while serving in France.
My father never achieved riches or fame but I have always been proud of him for his service to our country. His letters helped me appreciate that even more.
(Arvid Huisman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)