Friday, February 19, 2010

The Marine Letters

Public radio is fond of those stories involving people tracking down family secrets and trying to get everyone to "the truth."  This American Life excels at these -- 2 of the best examples being The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar and The House on Loon Lake (aka The Nasons), which was recently replayed. If you're still wondering what's all the fuss about NPR, these 2 episodes should tell you what we mean by "driveway moments."
What we learn from these programs is that nothing good ever comes from confronting people with the truths behind the family legends they have held onto, especially when you are an outsider in possession of those truths.

I bring this story to The Readership because I am in such an ethical dilemma after becoming the owner of over 50 family letters and knowing that the "rightful owners" would not be so very difficult to find.  But should I?  By what chain of events did they come to be for sale in an antiques barn in New Hampshire, and what wounds will they open if brought to light?

So I am going to bring them to you instead, to clear my conscience, and open discussion.  I can already predict what some of you will say.  Dxr...I can hear you the loudest.  Karen will say what she often says about my finds, that I should write that story.  Dodie wants one of them sent to a certain ailing movie star's personal collection.  S@L has a similar find she has taken no action on either.  Perhaps we should open a museum.  Dr A will be sad that the pack I read to her on our drive was not the pick of the bunch. 

  Enough prologue.  Here is the story.

We were just fishing -- sort of looking for a nice dinette for Dr A's office, but mostly extending our weekend vacation by driving down "antiques alley" to see what was open in the winter.  I am very interested in "primary sources" in places like this -- diaries, travel journals, letters, scrapbooks -- and if the find has enough merit, money really is no object.  Postcards also have a draw, but they are such a drag to look through in stores like these, though they are always well-organized.  Just too many of them.  Letters are usually prized by stamp collectors, and tend to get snapped up during the estate settlement, so I was pleased to find a bag full -- 51 letters for $15.

They were bound into 3 stacks - 3 different senders, to the same couple in NH.  (Not the Nasons).  One stack, from 1960 was from a son in training on Parris Island.  The 2nd stack, from 1968 from a younger brother, also in training, and the 3rd stack from the older brother's wife, throughout the years in between.

We read the 1968 letters on the way home (until I got woozy and had to stop).   Younger Son did a lot of explaining of the order of the day, terms in use, his many restrictions.  Lots of names and relationships, and we had trouble keeping up with the difference between "Dad" and "my father," if there even was one.  The best in this pack is a note from 69 or 70, where he bursts forth in slang and sudden worry about the war.  Until this last letter, no one has mentioned it.

Days later I broke into the rest of the pack and read them through in order.  Older Brother absolutely loved being a Marine.  He developed a mentor relationship with his DI and excelled in all his tests.  During the course of these letters, sometimes 2 or 3 a week, we watch his relationship with the girl back home crumble, though she remains close with his family and even writes a long letter of her own asking Brother to enlist his mother in helping her with a personal problem (and he does, which is how we have the letter).  He also manages a date with Annette Funicello (which is underlined several times) and falls head over heels with her, quite certain that they can have a meaningful relationship, as they are clearly soulmates.  Sadly, Older Brother is injured in training and is discharged.  We will discover that he never quite gets over this.

Four years later come the last pack of letters, from his wife (not the original girlfriend) who is separated from him and their baby, because he has run off and the child has been left in the care of his parents while she goes to Oklahoma to earn some money.  It is clear in every letter that she does not care for this situation, and that she is very concerned that her daughter is forgetting her.  As the letters progress, Brother comes back to her, and they try to make a go of it in Rhode Island, but the baby remains with the grandparents until "the time is right."

The dilemma is that these letters are not from 1915.  They are from 1964.  One can assume that this baby is alive, and possibly her parents, though the grandparents are likely gone (evidenced by the letters being for sale, if for not by the calendar).  What is a person to do?

What if the Baby doesn't know this story?  What if she doesn't know her mother?  What if she, like the Nason descendants, has always longed for personal artifacts?  What if she does know this story and it is very painful?  And where is "the rightful place" for a collection like this if they were discarded by their original owners?  Or the original owners never knew of them because the house was just cleared out, as houses like this often are?

What would you do in my shoes?  Keep in mind this isn't the only such personal-item-of-a-stranger's that I own.  But it is the one most likely to belong to or be about a living person, probably within 200 miles of me.  I try to apply the Golden Rule here, but I can't imagine any of you selling my letters.  You won't, will you?  Dr A is in charge of getting mine back to you, so you can publish your own book?


  1. wow - i'm not sure. if you can locate the person, maybe he/she will be old enough to be at peace with it all. or maybe it will explain a lot?

  2. As a person who basically is the baby of this story, my suggestion is try first to return the letters to the authors of the letter (baby's parents) They are probably in their late 60's and thus should be old enough (but still young enough) to handle this glimpse into their past. Hopefully everything worked out well and they can discuss it with this now 40 something baby with ease. (I have the impression it was pretty common to be left with the grandparents for periods of time during that generation.) If things did not work out well, it does seem like it would be sort of awful to be the middle aged man or woman encountering this information for the first time without any edits.

  3. Well, dear, you know my response, but I may as well share with all; find older brother! Having heard/read many of these stories, I think most people want to know their history, good or bad, and as adults can usually handle the truth. I think it's worth the risk.

  4. Fascinating! I LOVE this story.

    These letters belong to the Baby. The parents' time is over: it's about the Baby now. Its her story. If the parents cannot deal with the story, they may never show the Baby and this glimpse into the circumstances of his/her formative years will be lost forever.

    As a side note, last month I finally (5 years later) sent my find to my uncle, a Marine Corps volunteer something-or-other, who has promised to find its rightful owner.

    Alternately, you could send them to Ira and see if he wants to figure it out. He'll probably find *all* parties. :-)

  5. I would absolutely, definitely, certainly, without question try to find the person. With the help of the local TV station. Make that Oprah. Or Ellen.

  6. It seems to me that there was a time when adults shielded children from "the truth" and usually to the detriment of everyone. Family secrets always get out, but not always correctly so the mis-information continues. I say "do it". Baby will surely want to know more about her family.

  7. I understand the predicament of having such treasures. We are a big fans of NPR as you know and this show in particular. In my minuscule opinion, which is often rough and gruff when dealing with uncovering truths and consequences of the past, I would uncharacteristically lean toward appreciating the intended audience the letters were written to originally and keep them to yourself (with license to the confines of this fantastic blog and friends, keeping the virtue of anonymity of course.) Personally I would want to know if I were Baby. But it makes me think how much our parents and grandparents might have struggled with life and what I don't know. And in my own mind and my present age I think I am better off not knowing everything. :-)

  8. Wow!! That's a tough one! Coming from a family about which I know very little, and that only by hearsay, and now having adult children and grandchildren, it makes me wonder how I would receive information from someone that encompassed 4-5 generations behind me. Suppose that information were to contradict what I had been told all my life and then passed on to the generations after me? What real purpose would that serve? It has been a long time and lives have been made and moved on -- what purpose would it really serve? M

  9. I am certain that all of your readers would like to know what your final decision was and anything that came after. Another post down the road? M


Comments Build Community! We thank you for yours. Spam comments are not welcome and will not be posted.