Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Letters from Home

The site has been quiet for several days. My oldest daughter and her friend took a long weekend escape to San Diego; i helped my youngest daughter to move back home from an apartment near San Diego State; and there was this matter of a two-day golf tournament. i plan to pick up the frequency again. This is a column i wrote for "Notes from the Southwest Corner" for The Lebanon Democrat last week.

SAN DIEGO – In this age of instantaneous communication, letters from home are not quite as important as they used to be.

Ten years ago, my daughter Sarah and I toured my former ship, the “USS Anchorage (LSD 36)” for her fourth grade essay assignment. The Command Duty Officer graciously took us throughout the ship. Toward the end, he took us through officer’s quarters.
I asked to see my stateroom where I spent two of my best years at sea.

It looked unchanged except for the prominent computer and monitor, direct access to email from home.

Regardless of method or delivery time, letters from home remain critical for morale a long way from home for long periods of time. It has long been so.
Johnny Cash recognized this lonesome traveler need in “Letter from Home,” a 1966 recording. The lyrics tell of a cowboy shot in San Antonio who wants to get a letter from home before he dies. The singer gives the cowboy a Bible, which satisfies the dying man’s need for a letter from home.

Mail Call

On my deployments, mail from home usually arrived when we hit port. We impatiently waited for mail call. Reading our mail call came before liberty.

Often at sea, the mail was delivered by underway replenishment.
An oiler or a cargo ship steamed into the seas on a steady course around 12 knots. My ship approached from the stern until parallel about 80-120 feet apart. A hawser was passed and secured on both ships. Then cargo, mail, and sometimes people (yours truly about a half-dozen times) would be pulled across on a block (pulley) connected to the hawser with the sea roiling below.

An aside: it was the mark of a proven mariner to be able to hold the maneuvering ship in the same relative position to the cargo ship.

As a midshipman, I went on an eight-week cruise out of Newport, Rhode Island in 1963Although enjoying great liberty ports and new experiences, I suffered my first aches for a letter from home.

Somewhere between Sydney, Nova Scotia and Bermuda we came alongside an oiler for an underway replenishment. After we secured our oil transfer rig aft, I watched as the hi-line worked amidships. The final load was a large sack of mail. We watched anxiously.

Suddenly an errant wave created fear followed by despair. The ships rolled toward each other and then snapped quickly away. The hawser snapped, and the mail bag did several loops in the air before splashing into the ocean. We watched it as it passed down between the two ships before sinking, sinking sailors’ and midshipmen’s hopes for a letter from home.

It was a devastating moment.

Mid-Cruise Blues

After commissioning, I discovered the real meaning of “mid-cruise blues” and how much a letter from home could bring me out of a funk.
My first real deployment was a year’s tour taking Korean troops to and from Vietnam. After six months, I was deep in the mid-cruise blues, realizing I had as many days left as I had spent.

Letters from home provided much needed escape. We received our mail every three weeks when we moored in Sasebo for ship maintenance and replenishment.
Several girl friends sent me missives. Though short of commitment, they kept my spirits up.

Henry Harding sent me tapes of Tennessee football games.

My mother was prolific in keeping me up to speed on Lebanon happenings.

My father and sister recorded an entire cassette of my Uncle “Snooks” Hall snoring on a family Christmas trip.

Granny & Mrs. Thompson

Perhaps my favorite letters from home were from “Granny,” Katherine Webster Prichard. Having heard me comment about “The Democrat’s” weekly “Route 9 News”, Granny would send me the clippings every week.

Mrs. Thompson wrote wonderful, down-home narratives of the going-on’s around Route 9, many keeping me up with what “Wilson” was doing. I never knew if Wilson was her husband or her son, but he was a marvelous, caring man, at least once even taking care of someone else’s cow problems.

When I received a letter from home with Granny’s return address, my spirits were lifted just knowing I was getting a little slice of back home in Tennessee.

Recently, I realized my access to letters from home was marvelous compared to those who needed them, including my father, in World War II.

As the Saturday matinee serials used to proclaim, to be continued…

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