Today is Veterans Day – a day set aside to give inadequate thanks to the millions of men and women who put their own lives on the line to protect ours. As a small tribute to what they have sacrificed for us, I'd like to share the life of one of them, in his own words.
My Uncle Richard grew from boyhood to manhood during the twin crises of the 20th Century, the Great Depression and World War II. He lives on in the hundreds of letters he wrote during that time.
Richard lived with his parents and three sisters on B Street in New Bern, in a house that rented for $2.50 a week. Granddaddy got little work, but made ends meet by growing truck crops on nearby vacant lots.
I have got half of my clothes off and am about ready to go to bed . . . The salad is going fast. We sold enough to pay the house rent this week. I have made 100 on all my tests this month except one, and that was a 98. I think Daddy's leg is getting some better. He worked all evening in Mrs. William's garden. He wants to order some timing gears for the car if he ever gets enough money. He wants to get his license when they're half price, so he's trying to get the car so it will run.
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Disease and other terrors
In those days, there were terrors beyond economic chaos:
Daddy went to work today and I think he might work for a good while. Daddy saw Mr. Potter and he saw to it that we get a quart of milk a day. Naomi has the measles. The Riverside School has closed on account of measles and mumps. There were only 43 at Sunday School this morning. People under 12 don't go any more on account of infantile paralysis. Jessie had money Saturday to see “Ruggles of Red Gap” but Mama wouldn't let her go on account of the paralysis scare. There are between 190 and 200 cases now.
As a young man, Richard worked at the telegraph office, and so, could send telegrams to his girl:
Don't faint when you read this, please. Hows about our going to the Thanksgiving dance sponsored by high school Wednesday night. I dance as badly as ever but shucks there'll be other guys there. No Doubt. What say.
When the War came, Richard joined the Army Air Corps, flying creaky, retrofitted cargo planes. Richard's was the Chattanooga Choo Choo. His first view wasn't encouraging:
I was out to the landing field this morning, looking over some of our ships that have come in. There is considerable betting going on among the crew chiefs as to whether or not the ships will ever leave the ground. They each have 5000 pounds overload already and still aren't completely loaded.
‘The aluminum trail'
The job of these crews was to ferry cargo across the Himalayas – “The Hump.” It was hideously dangerous; the wrecks of these planes paved a path called “the aluminum trail.”
Well, about an hour ago I ate my Thanksgiving supper. Are y'all having turkey? We almost did. There wasn't enough to go around however, so our squadron had to do without. We had a good meal though, at both dinner and supper. This makes two Thanksgivings in a row I've been away from home. Well, I'll be home for the next one, and that's a promise. So you can start fattening your turkey right now.
I wonder if you folks are thankful today. I know I am. After seven months of life out of the U.S. in a world at war, I'm still in the best of spirits. Most of all I'm thankful that back home I've got three swell sisters and my Dad, and they are all well.
In one of your letters you said that you sometimes wonder if it will really be the same "When the boys come home again, all over the world.” I wonder about that, too. Of course, some won't come back to any home again, in other words they won't come back; others will return to different homes, having married girls in towns not their own; but will any of us return to the homes we left behind. Already most of the young people I knew have grown up - married and made their homes elsewhere. Even "B" street isn't the same. But I'm not worrying, not today.
His last Thanksgiving message
The Chattanooga Choo Choo never brought my uncle home. He, and it, are still out there somewhere in the Himalayan vastness. His Thanksgiving message, so full of life and hope, was one of his last.
On Thanksgiving, which falls so near Veterans Day, I will revisit the hope and optimism lost to war, and give thanks for his sacrifice, his life, and the lives of all those who are willing to give theirs, for ours.