From Dan –
Yes, I was aware that children, for a short time, were considered mail-able. It seems weird, but doctors used to prescribe cigarettes for pregnant women, so maybe it’s not too weird.
We recently celebrated my elder child’s 30th birthday, and of course I was reminded of the circumstances of how I was alerted to her arrival. For you see, I was cruising around South America at the time and communications between me and the States were irregular and crude.
I knew she would be along pretty soon, and it was after a very long midnight watch up in the gun director that I settled into my rack for a precious 3-hour nap before the endless cycle of events of a warship underway, the next go round of eat, work, and watch. With great surprise my then-Senior Chief (RIP) thrust his hand past the blue-curtain barrier that defined my sacrosanct rack with a just barely not growled “Here! Read this!”
I had been handed, of course, the long awaited for birth announcement. And now, here it was, a telegram for the love of God, sent to me by the Red Cross. Sleep was out of the question, and I walked fore and aft, bilge to bridge making the announcement to anyone who would listen. I finally ran out of people to tell, and I ended up on the port side main deck, smoking a celebratory cigar while watching the wilderness of the Andes Mountains slide aft. I’m sure there are things about that day that I have long since forgotten, but I still have that telegram up in my study where I keep a number of priceless mementos of my life to remind me of that amazing morning.
There’s a wide variety of trinkets and tchotchkes in that cache of memories, an unsurprisingly number amongst them are letters: Honest-to-God, sat-down-with-pen-and-paper letters written at various times and delivered to me (via paths that can only be guessed at) to whatever ship I was on and wherever I was. Those letters are occasionally pulled from storage, their decades-old creases unfolded so that I may again experience an echo of the thrill I enjoyed when I first received them so long ago. A few of them still are redolent of the fuel-oil, paint, and steel smell of a warship underway and it’s that odor that instantly transports me back to a very different time and place.
Today’s Sailors feel they are lucky. E-mails back and forth to the home-front are everyday events, phone calls common, and video chats with loved ones unremarkable. Keeping up with the day-to-day activities of the household and families has never been easier or more immediately possible for the Sailor.
And, I think it safe to say, that very, very few of the Active Duty folks would willingly return to my Morse code and semaphore way of doing things. Hard to blame them, really. If I could have been part of a video call back in 1985, well, let’s just say I might be missing parts of my anatomy. Running your life/marriage via mail that makes it way home via a wandering and unpredictable path (Say, over to an oiler, then to an amphib, and finally over to a series of Air Force Base storage areas) sometimes takes longer than the deployment. Indeed. Stories of mail arriving home after the Sailor used to be very common.
And it is also true that we could on occasion call home by radio, thanks to ham radio operators and long distance phone calls. It was called the MARS system, although it was probably easier to call the planet than it was to call home. MARS was wonderful to have, but weird. We had to use Navy radio techniques (“Over”) which were hard to teach to small children, and there was a very long list of things that were taboo to talk about on the radio. Imagine phoning home and then being prosecuted. Ah, the perils of military life.
But emails and phone calls can’t be kept, cherished, and handed down like the letters and other messages I have from those long-ago days. It might be fun to see a new e-mail in the inbox in the morning, but every morning? I wonder. And, I wonder if that experience can match the intense feelings of anticipation and joy (and sometimes desolation) when the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch passed “Mail Call!” Remember, that would sometimes happen only twice a month.
It was possible to tell by holding that the letter had power. You were holding something she had held just a while ago. That letter had been in your house! Your daughter can write! All of those things so very far away. A talisman of home, a status hard to convey onto an e-mail.
Mail and its service seems to be failing, albeit slowly, and the whole process is probably doomed. Sad I suppose, but such is the inexorable march of time. I try to remember that everything in the world today will someday be gone and considered either quaint or no longer understood, enigmas from the past like Stonehenge or the Antikythera Mechanism. One of my more ridiculous thoughts is of my great, great grandchildren attempting to decipher those letters found one day moldering away in dusty old box. “Jeez,” I can hear them say, “Who was this guy? Why didn’t he just flash over and see Grammy Lynn instead of doin’ this? And what’s a ‘ship’?” Sic transit Gloria mundi.
 My days in the Navy started before Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Mail services had been archaic/slow for years, but improved drastically after American service members started going to the Middle East in serious numbers. I’m not complaining, it’s just the way it was. And, we could always tell when Oprah or Sally Jesse Raphael had a story about the folks in the Persian Gulf as after those shows, we would receive a mountain of mail on the fantail addressed to Any Sailor/Soldier.
As always, a huge thank you to my friend, Dan, for his sole contribution to this RoF special piece. I know I have many other friends/family with stories for days of their time and I’d love to post them, too. Please contact me if you have a contribution or if you have a story but are unable to put it into words that make sense – I’m hear to listen and write on your behalf. Always! -Kel