8:50 PM EST, November 19, 2013
The love letter didn't come to Anne Ortman in a bottle.
And it wasn't found in an attic or bricked away behind a wall.
This love letter came by tornado on Sunday, via the winds of the killer storms that devastated Washington, Ill., more than 100 miles away.
Ortman, a legal secretary for a large downtown Chicago law firm, was cooking Hungarian goulash for her family on Sunday when her daughter rushed inside her southwest suburban home.
"Yes, it came by tornado," Ortman told me over the phone. "We live in Shorewood. The tornado hit Washington. That's more than 100 miles away. My daughter found it in the street. She ran into the kitchen, saying, 'Look what I found!'"
It was an envelope, rain-soaked, battered, almost destroyed after its high-speed journey through wind, rain and hail. It carried a Washington, Ill., address.
"I didn't know quite what to do with it," Ortman said. "I didn't want to open it at first. I didn't want it to be destroyed. So I put it on the crockpot to dry. My husband, Bob, said, 'It's just too weird.'
"Oh my goodness. When it was dry, I read it. And then I contacted you."
She sent me a copy, a letter written by a man to a girl he loved. There's the urgency of the young in it, and passion, and lines and words crossed out, others inserted, the kind of thing a man would write if he was in a hurry and all he could see was the girl he missed.
Women save such letters. Men too.
"It's just so romantic," Anne said. "I've received letters like that when I was young. I've saved mine. All of them. And in this one, you read that he's away in the service. She's at home. He loves her. You can tell. It's just sweet. But I don't know when it was written."
I thought about reaching out to Washington, but there's so much devastation there right now that the last thing the town needs is a reporter poking around about an old love letter.
"And then, what if she wanted to keep this private?" Anne said. "What if she's married to someone else? I don't want to cause anyone any heartache."
So we decided on a plan:
I'll reprint some of the letter and leave the names out of it. If it belongs to you, you'll know.
If this letter was written to you, you'll know the man's name, and what branch of the service he belonged to. You'll know certain details.
Here's an excerpt of the letter:
Groove me and (name) please write soon. ...
The trip was just awful. By the way, keep the letter confidential. Baby, I miss your kisses terribly. Next letter I'll write you a surprise.
The flight was only 11/2 hours to (the city) but ... the bus took 3 long hours to this stupid base. Time goes so slow the night is lonely because I'm afraid to think about you. It might be against regulation.
Weather changes rapidly here, sunshine one minute, hailstones, snow, sleet the next. I'm sorry I can't concentrate my thoughts on you but every minute I live is for you sweetheart. ...
The day is coming along faster with each forgotten kiss. ... You've never known me to talk or write this way but loneliness is making me almost cry. See you soon and please write the very first chance you get. I need you ...
In the next letter, kiss it a bit and send me all your love. … Still love me as much when I get home. My teasing days are over.
He signed his name and added this at the end:
I hate this place.
I've been thinking of that envelope riding in that funnel cloud, plucked up into the air after it smashed into Washington, the tornado carrying all sorts of things with it, dipping to kill, then up again, finally dropping the stuff as it moved to the northeast.
Bills and bikes, catalogs, sticks of wood that were once someone's home, family photographs, smashed picture frames, stuffed animals, human artifacts sucked up into the sky, each hard bit like a saw blade in those tremendous circular winds.
And, also of course, the love letter.
How it wasn't shredded to pulp in that tornado is something I can't explain.
But the reason people keep letters is explainable. They remind us of who we were before the world changed us.
A friend told me that at his parents' home in River Forest, his dad found a box of such letters walled off behind the plaster in a garage, along with photographs of a woman from the 1940s.
Another friend told me that when there was a death in the family, she went home to go through the stuff of a life, and found a long-forgotten box that belonged to her, holding love letters from when she was a young girl.
"I keep all my letters too, from the time I was about 16," said Anne Ortman. "He'd write almost every day. Sometimes he'd just fold the paper and slip it into our mailbox without posting it."
I asked: What were those letters like?
"What happened in school that day, how his classes went, that he missed me, and mostly, what was in his heart," she said.
Does your husband, Bob, know that after all these years, you still keep the letters?
"He knows about the letters," Anne said. "He's the one who wrote them."
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