A good year before I was born, my father wrote a letter while sitting in Korea, and sent it back home to friends in North Carolina.
A week ago, it came back to him — in Arizona.
“It’s so damn cold in here that I just about can make my fingers work,” the letter begins. “… Even so , it’s indoors, so I can imagine how really miserable the boys living in holes are tonight…”
Typewritten on flimsy stationary, the letter goes on to recount a weekend in Tokyo during which he enjoyed burgers and “Jap beer, which is very good.” He asks about what’s going on back home and wonders when he might return. “I’m supposed to come home in February. And now there is a rumor making the rounds that we’re supposed to be rotated to Japan after 10 months in Korea. So I don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
It was mailed to Lil and Roy Thompson, friends and co-workers at the Winston-Salem Journal, both now deceased.
Apparently Lil filed it away in a book, to be specific, an autobiography of William “Billy” Rose, the showman and lyricist who wrote, among other songs, “Me and My Shadow” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
I don’t know whether Lil parted with the book long ago, or whether it was part of her estate when she died a few years ago, but somehow it ended up among the stock of a second-hand book dealer in Carrboro, N.C.
Robert Garni, once he opened the book, found the letter and read it, took to the Internet to locate my father, Bill Woestendiek, then mailed him the original, along with this note:
” … Quite coincidentally, the other day while sorting out some used books for sale, I came across an old letter that had apparently been tucked away in a hardcover copy of Billy Rose’s autobiography …
“Upon examination of the letter, I realized it may be of some sentimental value to someone and therefore I did a quick search of the Internet where I was able to locate your full name and current address. I am enclosing the letter herewith. I am hoping my information is correct and current so that this letter may finally return to its rightful owner.”
In my father’s letter, he mentions what turned out to be his most cherished memory of the war. He was a lieutenant in the Army, but he was also writing a weekly column for his newspaper back home called “Battle Lines.” The columns weren’t so much about the war as they were Korea and its people. Most of the stories he wrote focused on the children, often orphans of war, and the poverty in which they lived.
His stories led to an outpouring of support from back home in North Carolina — hundreds of pounds of clothing and toys were donated by readers, shipped overseas and distributed to children at a Christmas party.
“I am overwhelmed, no kidding,” he writes in the letter of the readers’ response, at that time just beginning to build. “We’ll have clothes for our party and still some extra to give to the orphanages around here which are also hurting for clothing.”
Reading over those articles, which I found amid my stuff, in a green scrapbook whose binding was falling apart, I understand a little better why he got so misty when, 19 years ago at Los Angeles International Airport, he watched as my son arrived, a six-month-old, adopted from Korea.
In the letter he thanks his friend Lil for her support, and for keeping him up on the goings on at the newspaper. “You are one of the best morale builders I have,” he writes.
It took a little help from a thoughtful second-hand book dealer, but, judging from the joyful response my father, now 87, had to getting the letter back, it seems Lil — even though she’s no longer with us — did it again.