Mail Call: A Veteran's Gift to His Daughter
- Tuesday, November 09, 2004
I once teased my dad about being a pack rat. Now I thank God he was.
Years ago, as the rain drizzled outside, I stood in my parents' empty garage, thinking how crammed it had been a few days before. Had I overlooked anything? About to lock the door, I spotted a bit of cardboard jutting out from high in the rafters—more evidence of Dad's lifelong habit of hoarding.
Before tossing out the small battered box of papers, I glanced inside and saw an address: PFC Newt Hansen, APO New York. Inside the box were dozens of letters, all dated during World War II. Before long I was swept into a trip down memory lane that changed my life.
My parents met in 1943 at a USO in Massachusetts. Dad was on his way overseas. When he came back, they married. That much I knew, but little more. I was vaguely aware he saw combat, but I never heard a war story in our house. I was born in 1948, and what occurred before then had little meaning to me. My parents reared me in a safe and comfortable environment. I never knew hardship or fear of my future. Veteran's Day was just another day out of school.
In the mad haste to chase my own destiny, curiosity about my parents' pasts never piqued. Then suddenly I lost them both. My heart burned with regret. Why hadn't they tried to tell me? Why didn't I ask? There was no one left to fill in the blanks.
Then I happened on the old box perched in the rafters and brimming with mail from the home front during a war familiar to me only in classic movies of the 1940s. As I sat with the notes and letters strewed all over the carpet, I felt my parents close, smiling at my find—a little box, stashed and forgotten, now a daughter's prize.
Nothing can describe the way I felt reading about America during a time of uncertainty, one that united the country in a common cause. My grandma wrote my dad frequently, "I know mail call is the highlight of your day. Have you gotten the last goodie box yet?" Grandpa reported on the Victory Garden and my aunt that she’d married her Navy flier, ending her letter with a quote from a popular new song, "When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World."
The letters from Alice tickled me the most. She was a young woman working at a defense plant by day and serving as a USO junior hostess at night. She called my dad "Boots."
I was surprised that Dad was with the 121st Engineers, attached to the 29th Infantry that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. This 5-foot-4-inch jovial little guy from California survived the assault and fought his way through France and into Germany. How did that slip by me?
I turned sleuth, determined to connect with Dad's wartime experience. What did he do as an engineer? Where did the unit go after D-Day? What was it like to defend your country on foreign soil? I had no idea where to start. I thought surely the Army would have records, but I discovered Dad's records burned in a federal building fire decades ago.
I bumbled through the Internet, somehow hitting on the 29th Infantry Division Association National Headquarters. They furnished me with a printout of the 121st Battalion survivors. Elated, I furiously wrote to all of them and included a picture of Dad. Could they recall him and tell me about the years they shared?
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