Funny, isn’t it, how life inhales and exhales with the swells of seasons; how people are pushed with the tides to the backs and forefronts of our minds? Because you’ve been in the front of mine, lately, floating leisurely along the rivers of my mind’s eye. And I’ve been meaning to write to you; to tell you about the boxes that are filling our house as we prepare to move, to pass on my change of address, to ask you again just how you met your wife and if your Billy Bird has started singing.
I heard the news today. And with it, I packed up my stationary and crossed your name out of my address book. But it doesn’t seem right, to just take you out of my life like that; to end our earthly relationship on such an abrupt note. So I’m writing to you, one last time, to preserve the only way I know how your legacy, your influence, and your wisdom.
I’ve kept all your letters, Marty. Every single one sits in a special box, carefully and folded and dated. The first one is a Christmas card, from December 2005, after you first moved to Oregon. Now it is 2013, so I have almost eight years of letters stored away in this box.
Eight years. That’s a long time. Who would have thought a silver haired war veteran and a skinny awkward teenager would have so much to say to each other?
They started off in shallow waters, those letters. I can remember sitting at my sister’s desk, describing to you in detail every aspect of my tenth grade classes, details of the Revolutionary war and woes of trigonometry. You were taking classes, too, even in your late eighties, in Anthropology and World Religion, and I remember feeling fascinated that you would take the time to discuss them with me.
Letters though, are gracious, in that they prod us to deeper waters, because paper is forgiving when it comes to sharing hearts. Slowly, I began to tell you more, of high school crushes and future dreams, of things I was scared to tell even my family. I used to wait for your replies, checking the mail daily for word from Oregon. When the letters would come, I would take my time with them, savoring every phrase and wit. You were so funny, Marty. Your letters always made me laugh.
You sent me pictures of your dog, Ginger, saying she always looks wimpiest in photos. You talked about Bing Crosby, and your mother desperately wanting you to learn the piano, all to no avail. You talked about going to school and working full time, and how at one point you were tempted to quit both. I know the feeling.
And always, always, you asked about me.
It was you who encouraged me to become a writer. I think you put that in every letter, starting in 2007. And I told you I couldn’t, that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t have the creativity or style.
Well Marty, I finally started writing. And people are actually paying me to do it. I guess you were right all along.
But if I am the writer, your life was the story, and I relished putting together the pieces of your life. You were a man of such integrity, such compassion and understanding. You weren’t drafted to the war, I remember, because of your work with Johnson and Johnson. You cut your hand there while working in a lab, and you were bandaged up by a pretty nurse in a white uniform. Her name was Ruth.
Ruth ended up joining the Army as a nurse, and you had dinner together before she left for England. You wrote of feeling so embarrassed as you said your goodbyes, her in an army uniform and you in civilian dress. You said it was that, in part, which spurred your decision to enlist.
You joined the Marines, and were sent to Navy Electronics School for 13 months, where you got to study radar, sonar for submarine detection, and a whole bunch of other things I’ve never really understood. At the end of the course, they sent you to Okinawa for a four month campaign.
You never told me much about the fighting, other than it was bloody, and I was always afraid to ask. I know that it haunted you for a very long time, maybe even your whole life. You wrote of questioning whether God could forgive you for what you did; of whether the blood of the men who died was on your hands or the hands of those who sent you. And I don’t really know what to say to that other than I’m sorry it happened, and thank you for serving.
After fighting in Okinawa, you were sent to Guam and then to China for six months. In August 2010, you wrote that if someone told you then that the U.S. would be in debt to China for trillions of dollars, you would have seen to it that the individual was placed in a mental hospital! I guess you never know what’s around the next turn.
When you finally got back from China in May of 1946, you went right back to Johnson and Johnson full time. You and Ruth had been out of touch for a while because, like you said, romance is difficult when you are a half a world away and running out of things to write about. You still felt that tug, though, so one weekend you called her and met up in Albany. You were married before that Thanksgiving.
You had so many stories, Marty. From the war, to your marriage, to your work and your travels. You were a man of such richness and such perspective. And I cannot thank you enough for all you gave me.
Thank you for the questions, for the letters, for the stories. Thank you for the pictures and for the Whitman’s Sampler chocolates that came almost monthly. Thank you for the cross pen you gave me on my graduation and the letter you wrote me for my wedding. Thank you for the articles and the poetry books, for the books on faith and Christianity. You have become so dear to my heart.
I’ll keep everything- except maybe the chocolates. I will preserve every letter and book in the box with your name, and I will continue to share your story, so that my children and my grandchildren will know the kind of man you were and the way you loved your country.
Thank you for your letters, Marty. I’ll see you soon.
I’ll sign this last one the way you always did:
Be well, and have joy.