by Kim Marvel
My parents kept two old metal suitcases during their 68-year marriage, hauling them from house to house and storing them in a back closet or basement. During visits with Mom and Dad over the decades we never found the right time to investigate the contents of those suitcases - there were too many other topics for discussion. Mom passed away in 2013 and Dad in 2016. After Dad died, many items, including their suitcases, were boxed and stored for review at a later date.
Fast forward seven years. Now, at age 70 and retired, I had the time to sort and review the stored items. I carried the two rusty metal suitcases out of our basement storage. The latches opened easily. As I lifted the lids, I was struck by the musty smell. Both cases were filled with hundreds of envelopes. Small bundles were tied with pieces of green yarn. Mom, with her natural tendency to organize, had bundled the letters by month. Despite some insect and water damage, the vast majority of letters were in good condition, placed chronologically, beginning in May, 1943 and ending in August, 1945.
My parents came from small rural towns in northwestern Oklahoma. They met in college when Mom (Frances) was an 18-year-old freshman and Dad (J.A.) was a junior at age 20. They dated several months before Dad joined the Army and was stationed in Texas. They married August 15, 1945, the day after Japan surrendered. The letters in these musty suitcases would soon reveal much more about these two special people and how their relationship blossomed and strengthened over 28 months of war-time correspondence.
The suitcases contained 1,123 letters. Most were handwritten, a few were typed. Frances paid three cents for a postage stamp; J.A.’s postage was free, a benefit for military personnel. During their years of correspondence, J.A. was stationed at four locations in Texas: Camp Maxey near Paris, Camp Howze north of Dallas, Texas A&M in Kingsville, and Camp Swift east of Austin. Frances attended college in Alva, Oklahoma and spent her summers living with her parents in her small hometown. The first letter was written May 9, 1943 when J.A. was in transit to Army basic training. The final letter was written by Frances August 12, 1945, three days before their wedding.
As I read the first few letters, I chuckled at the quaint vocabulary from 80 years ago. J.A. starts one letter, Hello honey, Got your swell letter just a while ago… Gosh, honey, just one kiss from you would be worth two weeks of K.P. Frances pens, Your pictures came this morning – gee golly, you couldn’t have sent anything more elegant. Endearing terms such as swell, gosh, golly, jeepers, gee whiz, and darling were sprinkled throughout their writing.
As I read on, more depth and meaning emerged. At age 70, I was reading for the first time the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of my parents when they were young adults. Without question, they were facing multiple hardships and challenges. J.A. had plenty of reasons to feel uneasy. In May, 1943 the Army was deploying troops to Europe and the Pacific. Today was our first real experience of the Army. This afternoon we had bayonet practice. That really makes a guy think twice about what is going on. A month later he writes, Next Thursday we have to go through the infiltration course, i.e. we have to crawl with our face against the ground for 75 yards under machine gun fire and they are no blanks. The shells are to be 30 inches above us, but to encourage us they said the shells sometimes drop down ten or fifteen inches. There have been six men killed on this course, but there is nothing to worry a guy if he will just stay down and doesn’t get excited… Don’t worry about me jumping up, honey. I’ll bet a snake never got as close to Old Mother Earth as I am going to.
As J.A. was navigating the uncertainties of the military during a time of war, Frances was deeply involved in college life. She was acutely aware that her difficulties paled in comparison with those faced by J.A. Nonetheless, she encountered her own stress and frustration. When her parents disapproved of her plan to travel to meet J.A. for his weekend furlough, she wrote: Dad thought it best that I don’t because of some 17th century idea of chivalry… that boys didn’t respect girls who did the calling, or something to that effect. Personally, I thought it was about the most narrow-minded thing I’d ever heard, considering these aren’t ordinary times. Mom just said I’d better not plan on going down... Goodnight, darling. I promise a letter tomorrow whose chin doesn’t drag… Your most spoiled and poutiest gal. Frances.
To their immense credit, J.A. and Frances found ways to bolster their feelings and, for the vast majority of their correspondence, maintain a positive outlook. By far, the major way of coping was by candidly and creatively expressing affection for each other. Additionally, they supported one another by recalling favorite moments of the past, using humor and wit, reassuring one another of their commitment to a bright future together, and eagerly anticipating J.A.’s next furlough.
J.A. was remarkably earnest and original in his expressions of love for Frances. I was pleasantly surprised by his ability and willingness to express his affection so dramatically and directly.
Got two (letters) from you last night. It can easily be said darling that you are doing your part for victory. You’re the whole backbone and heart of this soldier.
I think the rain we had washed the moon off. It’s really shining now. Suppose you have the same one in Oklahoma – the most wonderful state I know as long as you’re there.
Frances was equally open and expressive of her affection for J.A.:
I get so lonesome for you about this time in the evening. I just know I’ll be the happiest person in the world the next time I see you. That won’t be too long will it? Cause gosh honey, I haven’t seen you for almost a week.
I got that enormous letter this morning. Gee it was swell – I just wanted to be with you so bad I couldn’t keep from crying just a little bit. Honest, I know we’ll be the happiest people living someday.
I was deeply moved by such wonderful and varied expressions of caring and affection. Even now, after reading and re-reading their lines, I get a lump in my throat and want to cheer them on.
Their writing was peppered with humor and wit. The light-hearted tone tempered their longing and anxiety. In Frances’ words:
Dear Pudding – And I don’t mean rice or cottage or custard. Something really sweet like butterscotch or chocolate with pineapple goo. Anyway, some real good kind.
If Charles Boyer can win a reputation for those kisses of his, baby, you oughta’ get a patent on yours…. He kissed Ingrid Bergman tonight in the preview – I just thought, Bergman, you don’t have a thing on me – J.A.’s just as good.
J.A. also contributed humor in his letters.
Made it to breakfast this morning. Had hot cakes. Rubber shortage doesn’t seem near as acute as it may be after eating a few of the Army style of hot cakes.
Honey, to get a letter in a package is really something to crow about. It was exquisite. Thought I’d use a different word. Bet you thought I didn’t know anything but swell.
As I neared the end of the trove of letters, my viewpoint as a psychologist further evolved. I dropped my analytical approach and began reading simply from the perspective of an admiring son. My overall feeling toward them both became one of warmth and tenderness. They were decent, trusting, earnest young adults who loved each other deeply. I was able to enjoy the reading because I knew the story had a positive ending. They did get married and had a long, loving life together, just as they wished. The war ended as hoped. Their parents accepted and loved their chosen mate. They had children. They celebrated 68 years of marriage. My sister, brother and I often acknowledge how fortunate we are to have had these special people as our parents. And fortunate, indeed, that they saved their letters in those two old suitcases.