Letters in the AtticWe found treasure in our attic. There, tucked away between the inside and outside walls, was a neatly tied packet of letters, all in the same hand and postmarked the summer of 1944.
By: S.E. Livingston, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
We found treasure in our attic. There, tucked away between the inside and outside walls, was a neatly tied packet of letters, all in the same hand and postmarked the summer of 1944. The evening of the discovery we sat down and I began reading aloud. Every one of us was curious to meet this person who had been hiding secrets in our walls for sixty years.
The letters were written by a sixteen-year-old girl from Vernon Street in the West End of Duluth. The letters were addressed to one sixteen-year-old boy who was working in the Merchant Marine during the summer of 1944. Her references indicate he too was from the West End.
“Marilyn” writes about babysitting her kid sister, going uptown to get a photo and planning a wienie roast on Park Point. She writes daily, sometimes twice a day, so she writes to “Manny” of the mundane points of her life. She tells him about John the mailman bringing her mail twice a day and teasing her about her love letters. In an effort to keep up the conversation she tells him about washing the kitchen floor, walking to Grandma’s, the weather, what they ate for dinner. Whenever she complains about a task she adds parenthetically, “More fun.”
The letters are a sugared testimony to young love, but beyond that, remind me a little too much of the tweets and texts of our current generation of sixteen-year-olds. Many ha-has and some drama fixed on girlfriends and boys who are friends fill up space. Marilyn’s greatest concerns focus on her heart and social life.
What amazed my family was that in none of the 40 letters was there any mention of the war. In the summer of 1944 a monster named Hitler was trying to overthrow Allied governments for a new world order. That summer his German troops invaded Europe. That was the summer thousands of our countrymen landed on the beaches of Normandy, ready to attack Axis armies while sacrificing their own lives. Tens of thousands of Jews were being deported to concentration camps where they were murdered.
But our young correspondent had only thoughts and words for her sailor. She made him fudge and sea foam candy and sent him some every week. She did a lot of dishes and made dinner and washed her hair frequently. Always she tells Manny how “darn lonesome” she is for him.
I read the letters out loud. By the third letter my fifteen-year-old wandered away. By the sixth letter I was reading to just Annie, our eight-year-old. The letters were a disappointment. We were looking for the American Anne Frank. Instead we met a typical, West Duluth sixteen-year-old woman trying to make the best of every day and nurture a new love in the summer of 1944.
But there is something to learn from these letters. In Duluth during World War II children felt safe. Horrible things were happening in the world, but our military was standing in the way of something terrifically fearsome, allowing kids like Marilyn to live a normal, secure American life.
These letters also have made us aware of the critical nature of the Merchant Marine during World War II. According to the American Merchant Marine website, the availability of merchant shipping determined what the Allies could do militarily. Some historians even attribute the Allies winning World War II to the logistical support of the Merchant Marine. The sailors on these boats weren’t just delivery men. This was dangerous work in which one out of 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships in World War II died in the line of duty, suffering a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services.
I’m not sure what sixteen-year-old Manny was doing in the Merchant Marine, but it was important enough to him that Marilyn repeatedly writes to persuade him to come home and finish high school.
I still don’t know who Manny is. But I am ever so thankful for him, the other local mariners and the thousands of servicemen and women who in 1944 kept our country secure. And I’m thankful for women like Marilyn who kept life sweet by making fudge and sea foam with the little they had.
(As an aside: if anyone has any information about local mariners in the Merchant Marine during World War II, or if the people in my story sound like someone you might know, please contact me.)
Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota. She lives in Duluth. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.