Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
Love Letters in the Can
Open it up; they want to come out
I’m a Yankee and cannot speak what I feel most strongly.
Scribner’s Sons editor Max Perkins
to Thomas Wolfe, 1934.
A decade after Max Perkins widely acknowledged as an editor of genius wrote those words to his favorite author at the time, Thomas Wolfe, concerning the latter’s decision to dedicate Of Time and the River to him, I came to learn what Perkins meant.
Like Perkins, I was a Yankee and could not speak (or write) what I felt most strongly. I was a young Navy boot, soon to be transferred to the Seabees and the object of what I felt most strongly was a young lady by the name of Dorothy hundreds of miles away.
Times were different in 1944; one didn’t profess things as personal as love and such easily. That came over a period of time and seeing I was a country Yankee, even a longer period of time, despite all the talk that in wartime relationships move swiftly, because one isn’t guaranteed many tomorrows.
Speechless Young Love
Dorothy was a junior at Arlington High School in southeastern Vermont; I was a senior in the five months I attended Arlington High before I left class in February to sign up and board the Rutland Railroad on a trip that would take me to the igloo barracks of Sampson Naval Training Station in upstate New York.
It wasn’t until a week or so before I departed that Dorothy and I got involved. She had another special friend, as did I. But at a party for me, we, let’s say, discovered, in typical teenage fashion, that together we were a thing.
I thought I could make my big play as the day of departure neared by sending her a Valentine. But in the three general stores in the small town of Arlington, the selection was scant. What cards were available were either too mushy and gushy for a Yankee boy, or too platonic to reveal anything of significance. A year or so later, when home on leave, I learned she had been in the same pickle. The curse of being Yankees.
There wasn’t even a smack on the cheek before I left the old train station, other than by Aunt MiMi. Dorothy was in class. No promises or even suggestions about the future had been made; we both were Yankees, and it was 1944.
I was an insecure pup once I tossed my seabag on an assigned bunk at the barracks at Sampson. On the long train ride, I came to realize that Dorothy, who I figured was the most beautiful gal in her class of perhaps 17 students, would be tempted by surely many offers of dates. Letters from afar couldn’t compete with dances, parties and, yes, even smooching.
From afar, what would I write about? Marching, drilling, parading? How could words on paper compete with the real thing back in Arlington especially when Yankee reticence dictated I not reveal the feelings that whirled in my troubled young mind?
I wrote several times a week, and each letter was answered. But back then it took three or more days for letters to reach their destination; the same for return.
A popular song at the time carried the sorrowful lines The postman went by me, no letter today … Each day my name wasn’t called at mail call, it stung.
Puppy love; At night I thought the words I wanted to write but never did to Dorothy or any other girl I knew. But words of the melodrama of love thought up on sleepless nights were to pay off for me a year later, written to girls I never knew.
Love Letters for Sale
No, it was no postal scam. One night while I was spending months in a Navy hospital in Hawaii, a shipmate named Dyson complained that he was trying to write a love letter to his wife and didn’t know how to start. I suggested Dearest Darling, something I’d thought of back in boot camp. He liked it, jotted it down, then asked me what comes next.
Readers, believe me, I’m somewhat embarrassed to put into print what came next, but what the hell. It’s Valentine’s. I suggested: As I sit here with the silvery moonlight drifting through the windows silhouetting all objects against the dark misty night, I think of you, you and only you. I want to call out I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Dyson loved it. He gave me a half-buck and told me to write down more of his letter, and he’d copy it in his own handwriting, add what he’d been doing, and his wife would be thrilled. Dyson spread the word, and I got many other requests. I charged a quarter and could use the same words time and again because they were going to different girls.
Soon I was passing out copies of four or five paragraphs of romantic dribble to sailors and Marines from my ward and the adjacent hospital wards at 35 cents each. I’d make $20 dollars or so a month, when cokes were a nickel and a dollar was all you needed for a stake in a penny-ante poker game.
I was always curious what wives and girlfriends thought about a romantic letter from their significant other, and sometimes I learned. Shipmates would show me the letters they got back with the request I start their next letter. Repeat business, and the business was good. One Marine used my same words to write three girlfriends at the same time.
Write a Vet a Valentine
So 62 years later I’m suggesting my readers can do something big on this Valentine’s Day for veterans of my war and later wars and no Dearest Darlings are necessary. Hospitals are lonely places. For vets in Veteran’s hospitals, a letter or a card can make a day.
It’s National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans’ Day. So address a valentine or note to Dear Veteran and send it to any of the following addresses:
• Perry Point VA Medical Center, Perry Point, MD 21902;
• Volunteer Service (135): Baltimore VA Center, 10 North Greene St., Baltimore MD, 21201;
• Baltimore VA Rehab & Extended Care Center, 3900 Loch Raven Blvd., Baltimore MD 21218.
You’ll feel better, and so will the vet and me, too. Enough said.