From the archives: Comfort in the letters

The Baltimore Sun

The first funny piece of news my husband shared in a letter from boot camp this summer was that he had been chosen to be his platoon's scribe.

He'd have to write schedules, record scores and fill out paperwork, among other duties.

My first thought was: Have they seen his handwriting?

I have.

During 13 weeks of communicating exclusively by letter -- BlackBerrys and cell phones and laptops are as forbidden as long hair and first names at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot at Parris Island, S.C. -- what I'd long thought of as chicken scratch soon became the most comforting sight in my universe.

Letter-writing wasn't totally new to us -- but his previous rounds of military training, which had ended in injury or illness, had allowed the luxury of the occasional phone call and, the previous summer, visit.

But boot camp was a different story. Total separation, total immersion, total insanity.

It was pretty tough on him, too.

I knew he had gotten there -- a 3:10 a.m. phone call with him yelling a scripted statement about arriving at Parris Island safely, not sending care packages and to look for his address in the next couple of days had made sure of that -- but how was he doing?

I raced home every evening, desperate to check the mail and find some news from him. What was it like? Was he adjusting? Were the sand fleas really as bad as we'd heard?

The first missive was slow to arrive, but a form letter with "I'll write a real letter soon. I love you!" scratched at the bottom in his angular print offered more reassurance than I had anticipated. Soon after that, the trickle began, and every few days I learned a little more about his training (tough, especially in the heat), his fellow recruits (on average, about a decade younger than him and so naive), weird nicknames (Gargamel? Revlon?), surreal punishments (making beds repeatedly was only the beginning) and his steely drill instructors.

But it was an adjustment for us two technology junkies. We were used to being able to reach each other within moments, whether by instant message, cell phone, e-mail or, of course, the landline. Suddenly, an offhand mention of an eye infection could leave me worried for two weeks. My letters asking about it wound their way down Interstate 95, through the base gates, into the mail room and finally to his squad bay, where he was so busy that he usually wrote during short bouts of free time on Sundays, sometimes without my letters in front of him. And if I'd asked a question in a letter that had arrived on a Monday or Tuesday, it often had slipped his mind by then.

Even so, every letter meant he was another step closer to graduation and becoming a Marine, and every letter meant another few days without injury or ailment enough to get him "recycled" into a recovery platoon, which would have delayed his graduation.   

If he only had time to scribble a handful of pages in a tiny 3-inch-by-4-inch spiral notebook, those pages' arrival meant that he'd gotten through another day. The Parris Island humidity sometimes sealed the envelopes so tightly that I'd have to rip them open -- or maybe I just couldn't wait an extra two seconds to do it right because I just had to see what had happened next.

I wrote to him of our families, work, the cats, half-marathon training, a trip to Alaska, my best friend's visit for my birthday, and -- just when I was hoping to keep things light and provide only the happiest or most mundane of distractions -- my brother and sister-in-law's car accident.

As I spent a month trying to balance helping take care of them and myself and my household, I often spent my scant few free moments rereading his letters, especially the funny parts that left me wondering whether there was a comedy course at drill instructor school.

When he'd shipped in May, I had thought I would be the one providing comfort, being the rock, but somewhere along the way, it had all switched around. In the weeks just after the accident, most of my encouragement was going elsewhere, with good results (my brother and sister-in-law are almost fully recovered), while the growing pile of letters on our desk eased my stress.

Now, three months since my husband graduated and returned home a private first class in the Marine Corps Reserves, the occasional ripped envelope sometimes reappears, having slipped behind the computer or off the entry table, and seeing my name in that familiar scrawl still feels like assurance that everything's going to be OK.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad