I found myself in an antique shop today. There, on one of the shelves, among the bottles and records and books and old postcards was a box marked WWII letters. I picked one up at random, read it, and knew I needed to buy it. I picked up another, read it, and it only made the first letter, the one that had hooked me, all the more intriguing, and all the more heartbreaking (from a certain perspective). I picked up a third letter at random without reading it, and brought them to the cash. Then I sat outside the shop on a bench in the sunlight, and read them again.
First of all, the box was mislabeled. The letters are dated from 1917, so from WWI, not WWII. They are from Ralph H. Arch of the 330th Infantry, stationed at Camp Sherman, sent to Anita Plymire at Grace Hospital in Virginia. Anita, who Ralph repeatedly refers to as his ‘little wife-to-be’ throughout two of of the letters, the two I read second and third, which seem to written earlier than the first one I read.
In those two earlier letters, Ralph addresses Anita as ‘Darling little Pinkey girl’. He also gives her the pet names of ‘kiddie’ and ‘girlie’. He talks about how much he misses her, how lonely he is, how he can’t wait to marry her. He references the children they will have one day, how much he wants to hold her, and how happy their life together will be when he finally comes home to her. His letters imply they have known each other all their lives, but their romantic relationship before he left for Camp Sherman was a relatively new thing.
And then there is the letter that hooked me. The one I read first. A full transcript of the letter is behind the cut (with original spelling, grammar, etc. in tact).
Dearest little Pinkey,
Your Sat-Sun. letter came this evening and was mighty good to have. I thot it was too good to last and was not much surprised to find you were hard at it seeking company. Well Pinkey I dont mean to be harsh and might look up some pretty good pals I’ve known for company and consolation, if I chose to even up a bit. I dont mean to do it and am not built that way – I’ve pledged myself to your happiness and mean to be fair in all events even tho the evenings are unbearably lonesome. If you will do those things now when there is a possibility of only a ten months wait what will you do if I have to go away. Fine stimulant for trust and confidence! No nurses, no harp, no sewing to spend your evenings with? Its the principle of the thing sweetheart for I’d gladly have you in any company but it is the thot that you would care for other company. If I had my wish I wouldn’t have you have a dull evening and would do everything in my power to please, but since circumstances are as they are I’m helpless. I’ll never neglect you but think for a moment of the evenings I’ll be away to law school and ask yourself if you are equal to the sacrifice? Honest I’m a wee bit afraid! Oh kiddie your thotlessnes tears my heart and yet I love you tenderly and so willingly forgive, even tho contrary to the dictates of sound judgement. I want you to be happy but why don’t you isn’t your happiness found as mine just alone with my thots and our plans for the future.
Truly, your lover
It’s a story begging to be told. It’s half a story, one-sided and incomplete. What was in Anita’s letter that prompted Ralph to respond this way? Was she really stepping out on him? Was he over-reacting? Did his talk of children and their future scare her away? Did he make it home eventually? Did he ever go to law school? Did they sort it out and get married? She kept his letters, so obviously they were important to her. But were they important as a fragment of her past, or as a starting point for her future?
I’ll never know. All I have, nearly 100 years later, is a tiny fragment of the lives of two complete strangers. Someone thought these letters were worth saving. Someone else thought they were worth selling to an antique store. I thought they were worth buying. Three small pieces of a larger tale, told by ghosts. And I’ll never know how the story ends…