My father was a many-faceted man. An aeronautical engineer by trade, he was an artist and a poet at heart. He was well-read in the classics, including many of the Russian writers and could quote Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. His favorite poet was the French vagabond poet Francois Villon, and one of his favorite novels was the Polish writer Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis. Not the usual pleasures for an engineer.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about my father and missing him. How strange it was, then, when I talked to my youngest child this weekend and he told me he has been thinking about Papa and missing their talks with each other. There is so much more my son wished he knew about his grandfather, some things I can give him a few answers to, but many things I don’t know enough about and there is no one left alive to ask.
My son and daughter-in-law had just watched the film From Here to Eternity, and I suspect that was what triggered my son’s questions about his grandfather’s experiences in the South Pacific during the war. He wanted to know if Papa had seen combat. I told him I didn’t think he had actually seen any combat, but he saw the results of it on the aircraft because he was stationed on bases in the Philippines and New Guinea and worked on the airplanes that flew missions. I’m sure he got to know many pilots who left in those planes and never returned. I looked for pictures of Dad in the war, but though I found many of him in uniform, I could only find a couple of him in the South Pacific, and they were tiny and grainy.
Although I only have those two pictures of him overseas, I have a stack of the love letters he sent to my mother during that time. He had already received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from NYU before the war, was a first lieutenant and had been in the South Pacific for a year already when he sent my mother a letter the day before his birthday. It is poignant because I realized all that was going on in his young life, and yet he felt pretty old at the time.
It is in these letters that I can see the poet in my father. In a letter to my mother from the South Pacific in May of 1944, he wrote, “Love is a strange thing. For love, a man might want to conquer a world, or write a sonnet, or compose a ballad. But those are the few, and the rest of us who can’t do those things have to do something else. All I want is a peaceful and pleasant life with you—a whole lifetime filled with our intermingled happiness. There are so many factors to happiness that it almost becomes a problem in probability. But, in truth, happiness is not to be sought for. It comes with unselfishness, loyalty, and devotedness. I believe we shall be happy because we are not greedy people—we want very little.”
My sister-in-law was lamenting recently that people don’t write letters anymore because of technology. Quick notes sent as emails or texts are the way of the world now. When I read Dad’s old letters, I have to agree with her how sad it is because we will never have the depth of thought saved for generations to come.
This post today is really for my children, especially for Ben who was missing his grandfather this weekend. One last thing I will add for that son as it was a movie that sparked this post to begin with. In one of my father’s letters to my mother, he mentioned a movie he had just seen. Maybe it will be one my son and daughter-in-law will want to rent next, and when they watch it, they will think of Ben’s grandfather watching it in 1944 in some lonely outpost in the South Pacific, sitting with other men who were missing their loved ones.
Beautiful and poignant post. Thank you. The legacy of our fathers, and the curiosity of our children. I have a picture of my Dad and my uncles at my grandfather’s funeral. He died while they were all serving on different fronts of the war… the picture has each of my uncles and my Dad in uniform, their arms around my Grandmother. these are the things that connect our children with our parents. How wonderful. DAF
What a picture, DAF! It’s good when children want to know the family history and pass it on.
Lovely story. Your father must have been quite a wonderful person. Love letters are quite a treasure. 🙂
I’m so lucky my mother saved them. Sad that we don’t really have that anymore because of email. Who saves email for years?
mmmmm hmmm, uh, hummm, Let’s see now…… pause….. You have a major point. Who has even had email for 50 years???
Maybe we should think about saving some? They are never very personal, though, because email is so public.
They do have that potential. However so are the letters you have. Once someone is gone there’s no telling what might happen up their letters including becoming a book. ☺
I haven’t read many if the love letters yet because I feel like I am invading their privacy. But maybe I will sit down next week and start look at them more closely.
I can imagine with someone so close. How precious, though.
The letter your father wrote in May of 1944 was moving, and he was only twenty three… Thank you for the beautiful post, Susan!
I think the war made you grow up in a hurry back then. I don’t know 23-year-olds who think that way now. I love seeing my father as a young man.
This is just a beautiful post. What a dear, dear man who loved science and letters literally. It is a shame that handwritten letters are not as often written. Not only the messages they convey but the handwriting is as recognizable as a photograph of the person. My father-in-law was at Clark towards the end of the war after seeing service in Europe.
Life is so different now with all our technology, that’s for sure. So much is better, like being able to Skype with my daughter and granddaughters so I can see their precious faces. But we’ve also lost a lot, too, and writing letters like my dad wrote is one of those things.
Wonderful post, Susan! Those letters are precious.
Thanks, Jiawei. I have yet to sit down and read all of them. I wonder what other gems I’ll find.
One thing I remembered about your father was that, while I was a teenager, he treated me as an adult. Shortly after getting my driver’s license, he and I were driving somewhere (details foggy) As we came around a curve, he told me that if I accelerated, I would not have to turn the steering wheel as much. However, if I drove slowly, then I would have to turn the wheel more. He explained that this was the principle of centrifugal force. I also remember him showing me pictures of birds, stating the creators of airplanes learned principles of flying from these animals. I loved to learn at that age, but he is the only person I remember who would take the time to teach me. And I still remember it all.
Thank you, Pammy, for your sweet comment about my father. I think you were his favorite niece, though he loved you all.
Sweet post. I love that you have these letters in your possession.
I know, Patti. What a treasure!
This post is a wonderful gift to Ben and to your other children! It is a beautiful story that brings your Dad to life as he was in his own era, at such a very young age. Even the photos, grainy or not, are poignant reminders of a vibrant man your children want to know. And kudos – you are sharing him with them in this very sweet way.
I’m so glad they got to know him into their adult lives. They had all graduated from college and then some before he died. He was very dear to all of them.
Aw…such a sweet post. How special that you have those letters! I have a few postcards that my Uncle sent to family members when he was in WWII. One he addressed only to my dad’s nickname “Bow”. The name of the little town my parents lived in was Bacon’s Castle, and it had a post office . Uncle spelled the name of the town wrong, and had “Baker’s Castle, VA”. That postcard made it from his base in Texas to my dad — with only four words in the address… Amazing. (That just may be a blog post one day!)
Our country was a lot smaller in those days, wasn’t it, Dianna? Everyone in small communities knew each other, and it didn’t take as much information to find someone. I think it would make a great post!
Nice. I saved all the letters my future, and current, wife mailed to me in Vietnam. Also saved are all the cassette tapes. She numbered them so I would know in what order to listen to them when several arrived at once. We’ve saved a cassette player so we will always be able listen to them even when the technology changes. Just like the Super 8 movies of our wedding.
You should research where you can send those cassettes to have them digitized before they deteriorate.
You know I LOVE posts like this. This one is very poignant and tender. Absolutely a beautiful read! You have done Ben a great service just by writing it.
Thanks, Al. Sometimes I don’t have any idea what to write about, and then inspiration comes out of the blue…or from one of my children. I know he will love it.