Once I identified all the images I wanted digitized and sent them over to my university’s Newell Canter for Arts Technology, I turned my focus to the memorabilia and letters themselves. I set myself up in an upstairs guest room in my home and started to go through and organize everything I had brought home with me from my mother’s house. At the time, I was a working academic and had a perfectly functional office on campus, but I wanted to keep this new project separate from my teaching and other research endeavors, because for the first time in my life I was working outside my longtime professional discipline in the theatre and on something that felt very personal and private to me.
The first thing I needed to do was to sort the letters, most of which Mom had shoved into plastic bags in no particular order. I suspect she used to grab a letter now and then to revisit their contents, perhaps when she was particularly missing my dad, but she definitely had no sense of these materials as any kind of collection. They were just mementos she kept for memory’s sake. In fact, for someone whose temperament suggested she probably should have been a librarian and who regularly volunteered at the local library, my mom was actually quite cavalier about how she treated those letters.
I started by putting them in chronological order based on the postmarks on each envelope. But some of the postmarks were illegible, so then I started looking at the dates on the letters themselves and discovered that some of them had dates that didn’t always seem to match the postmarks on the envelopes. Then I realized I needed to go back and double check that every letter was in the right envelope (or as close as was reasonably possible once it all got sorted out). In this process, I discovered that some letters didn’t have envelopes, some envelopes didn’t have letters, and some letters didn’t have all their pages. I never did find the missing pieces for every orphan letter or envelope. All this took quite a bit of time and happened before I ever started reading and transcribing the letters themselves. In the midst of all this sorting, I found a huge bonus. Someone, probably my aunt, had saved Mom’s letters home from when Dad was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, so I was able to add another voice to the story of what happened from the time Dad was first called to active duty in early 1942.
The next step was to start transcribing the letters onto my computer. This was relatively easy when it came to the letters that were typed, but the handwritten letters were another issue altogether. There are plenty of jokes out there about the terrible handwriting of doctors, but I’m here to report that engineers are just as bad! I remember once when I was first away at college needing several hours to decode my dad’s chicken scratches in his letters to me. I did learn to recognize certain patterns in his handwriting and the unique way he wrote individual letters, but it took a while for me to get back in that groove. And just as I was starting to hit my stride with deciphering his handwriting, I started experiencing terrible headaches. I figured out fairly quickly that some letters had mold and/or mildew on them, and mold was one of the many things I was allergic to, so then I had to invest in protective face masks to wear whenever I was dealing directly with the letters. This also meant that I also had to take more frequent and longer breaks from working with these materials, but I kept plugging away.
As I worked my way through the letters, two things were becoming readily apparent to me. First and foremost, I didn’t yet have a strong grasp of the progress of war in Europe, especially what was happening in North Africa and Italy while Dad was in each of those places. So, I knew that to make sense of any of the contents, I had to do some serious research about the progress of the war. I was already reading about the war in a general sense and had recently found a book series about WWII written by journalist, Rick Atkinson, that focused on North Africa and Italy and was written for a general reader, not for professional historians. Two volumes of this trilogy were among my most influential research sources because they detailed what was happening for the Allies in each of those locations with lots of anecdotes about what life was like for the soldiers involved as well as some information about what was also happening at the same time on the home front. They started me on a path of understanding, but I needed more day to day details in order to see what my dad might be referring to in his letters. Due to strict censorship, his references to things going on had to be couched in language that wouldn’t allow the specifics to be understood easily, except in hindsight. I discovered that there were many highly detailed WWII online chronologies, so I decided to intercut several of these with the letter transcripts, so I could see clearly what was going on around my dad when he was writing his missives home. The second thing that was obvious the more I read was that these letters were intimate love letters from a very private man who rarely showed affection publicly.
I was still teaching while I was working on the letter transcripts, so progress was slow, and stints of working on the letters filled my evening and weekend free time as often as the rest of my life would allow. Further, in the middle of the process, my mother died unexpectedly in her sleep, just a few weeks shy of her 91st birthday. My dad had died when I was just 23; he had turned 57 in the hospital three weeks before he died. I never had much of a chance to grieve him back then because I was too busy worrying about my mom who went to pieces and had to be sedated for weeks after his death. It was months before she could live on her own again in some semblance of what they call “the new normal” in widow-speak, so I had to be strong to help her find her feet again. When she died while I was in the middle of reading his remarkable love letters to her, I found I was also grieving my dad all over again. I couldn’t work with the letters at all for several months after her death, so the project went on hiatus while I mourned for both of them.
By the time I wove the letter transcripts and the chronological information together into a single document, I had 250+ single spaced pages of material to work with! Next time I’ll share what happened when I was able to return to the transcripts and more about how I turned those letters into what became Keeping the Lights on for Ike.