Monday, July 1, 2013

Story: A Man of Letters

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A Man of Letters
 from the book: Life Will Get You in the End:
Short stories by David Satterlee
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Life Will Get You in the End:
Short Stories by David Satterlee

During World War II, a member of a railroad bridge crew must decide what to do with letters from a troop train. Based on a family story. 

A Man of Letters

Inspired by a story told to my sister, Joyce Mock, by my father, Bill Satterlee. (Just to keep family history clear, I "invented" the ending part.)

“Papaw, will you tell me a story?”

“Sure, sweetie. How about the one where I wrestled alligators, or how about the story of the troll and the princess?”

“No, Papaw; you know the one I like.”

“As you wish, dear. When I was a younger man, I worked on a railroad crew and my job was to repair railroad bridges. It was very hard work and we didn’t have all the large machines that they use these days. But, I was tall and strong, it was good honest work, and it paid pretty good so everything was just fine. Every time a train came by, we had to be sure that the bridge was strong enough to hold it. And, we all had to get out of the way, so we would stand beside the track as the train slowed down and went by.

“Back then, there was a big war going on and soldiers often traveled on passenger trains. There was a strict rule that soldiers weren’t allowed to get off the train until they reached their destination. This was all before there were cell phones or computers. So, if a soldier wanted to send a message to his family or his girlfriend, he would have to write a letter and mail it. Well, soldiers on long train trips had lots of time to write letters, but they could not get off to mail their letters. Whatever were they to do?”

“Oh dear, whatever DID they do?”

“Because the trains slowed way down for the bridge construction, soldiers would lean out the windows, throw letters to us, and ask us to please mail them. Sometimes the letters had stamps on them and sometimes they didn’t. But, that didn’t matter much to me. Whenever I got to the next town, I would just buy a few stamps and then put the letters in a mailbox. I always thought about how much his friends and loved ones would want to get a letter from that soldier while he was away from home.

“Sometimes, a soldier would throw me a letter that wasn’t finished. Sometimes the envelope wasn’t even sealed. Maybe he was still writing it when he realized that this might be his last chance in a long time to send his letter out. When a letter wasn’t complete, I would sometimes add a few lines to, you know, finish it off right.

“And then, one day, I was finishing off a letter to someone who sounded like she was very sweet and very pretty. I looked at the address and discovered, to my surprise, that she lived in a town that we were coming to pretty soon. Why buy a stamp when I could deliver it myself? I worked especially hard to do my best job of finishing it.

“The next day, I found her address and I knocked at her door. She was very sweet, and very pretty too. She took the letter from my hand and read it right while I stood there. I guess I must have finished it off okay, because that is how I met your Mamaw.”

[The title had several iterations. It started out as “The Troll and the Princess” as an allusion to the amount of time that the storyteller spent under bridges before finding his princess. In the end, I settled on “A Man of Letters” as a tribute to a wonderful father who never went past 8th grade, but spent the prime of his life at hard work to provide for the family he loved.]