Home-front blog opens window on '50s

The Baltimore Sun

Each week, one of Charlie Conner's stories about life with his wife and four kids in Catonsville appears on the Internet.

Flush with their tax refund but unable to find a baby sitter, he and his wife forgo a fancy dinner for two and take the kids out for cheeseburgers. With a tinge of regret, his wife gives up "liquid refreshment" for Lent. Spring comes with erratic weather, but flowers manage to blossom in the yard.

"Actually, in a walk around the house Sunday between showers, I could count more than a dozen in various colors and some just coming up," he writes in an entry, adding, "Otherwise, the yard is a soggy mess."

The posts provide insights into Conner's tastes in movies and the antics of his young children. But this blog is unlike most.

Conner's entries were written 55 years ago.

Air raid drills, Martin and Lewis, Kodachrome - all come up in letters originally shared with men at war, half a world away.

After Conner died in 2001, his son, Stephen, found a folder of yellowed carbon copies of letters. His father had written them to his younger brothers, who were stationed in Korea. Stephen Conner, a self-described computer geek, created "Letters from Home - 1952" in January.

"I myself had nothing interesting to say, so I decided to make a blog of my dad's letters," Conner says. "He had always said that they should get published."

In "Letters from Home," the time-honored, hard-copy letter-from-home meets the 21st-century technology now used by families and soldiers to stay in touch. And its serial style mimics the real-time descriptions filed more and more often from overseas battlegrounds and the homefront alike.

The spouses of service members speak of scrutinizing blogs for news of loved ones stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, some wives blog stories and pictures of the children for a far-away husband.

"He can see pictures of Grandpa's house and the kids riding on the tractor," Rachelle Jones, 36, says of her husband, who is training at Fort Benning, Ga., while she's at home in Arkansas with their two young children.

She started her blog, "Army Wife Toddler Mom," after her husband returned from Iraq in March 2005 and met their 16-month-old daughter for the first time. The blog shows the girl and her older brother standing proudly by a muddy snowman and digging up worms in the spring.

Stephen Conner appears in the letters on his blog as a mischievous 1-year-old who, at one point, tries to wash his hands in the toilet. Now 56, he's a freelance computer consultant and lives with his wife in Towson.

He's also an amateur historian and genealogist, and he has put together a family tree and a map of the area near his family's Bloomsbury Avenue home circa 1952. He wanted to publish the letters as both a tribute to his father and a way to share history.

"At least here on the Internet, it has a little chance of immortality," he says.

Reading the letters has given Conner the chance to get inside the head of his father as a young man. An office manager, Charles Conner typed letters to his brothers, Andrew and John, on his lunch break.

Charles Conner walked with a limp, the result of a bout of polio in his late teens. Both of his parents died while he was hospitalized with the disease. When he came home, he took charge of his brothers, twins who were nine years younger.

The twins continued to live with him after he married the former Ann Lutz and started a family. They left their elder brother and Maryland for the first time when they were drafted at the age of 23.

Stephen Conner's brother Michael, 59, a retired teacher who lives in Florida, says, "Those letters from home were written almost as a father would write to a son."

Letters that the twins sent from Korea were lost long ago, but a few pictures of them in uniform, posing with children at the market or clowning with other soldiers, still exist. John died in 1980 and Andrew died 23 years later.

Throughout American history, mail from home has boosted soldiers' morale, military historians say.

Excerpts from letters written by soldiers and their families figured prominently in the Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War. World War I was the first international conflict in which a large number of conscripted soldiers were literate, says Jon Sumida, a military history professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

During the early 20th century, the mail system became more reliable and the military invested a lot of money in facilitating communication between soldiers and their families, says David R. Segal, a professor of military sociology at the University of Maryland.

"Mail call was the highlight of the life of a military unit," he says.

As technology advanced, soldiers took advantage of new ways of communicating. Some sent home audio tapes during the Vietnam years, and many racked up debts during long-distance calls during the 1980s, Segal says.

But the effect of the Internet is unprecedented. Now soldiers and their loved ones swap e-mails and instant messages, or smile through a Web cam. Blogs streamlined the process by allowing soldiers the chance to share their experiences with a larger audience.

They can post daily ruminations on the heat, their sore feet or the agony of losing a buddy. Some write of being awakened by a firefight or feeling abandoned by friends at home who don't keep in touch.

Some military bloggers, or "milbloggers," write in order to reassure faraway friends and relatives. Many blog because they don't believe that the media accurately portray the military. Others seek support or the catharsis of expressing their feelings.

"Even if these guys aren't writers, people are reading their stuff and seeing what their lives are like," says J.P. Borda, who moderates milblogging.com, a host site for nearly 1,700 military blogs.

The 32-year-old started blogging in 2003 when he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. Now, the Burke, Va., resident is about to be redeployed, and he plans to start another blog.

Army wife Andi Hurley joined the blogging community about two years ago when she started writing a blog called "Andi's World." Now the 39-year-old Virginia woman also moderates spousebuzz.com, a site on which several military spouses post.

Hurley is organizing the second annual conference for milbloggers, which will be held May 5 in Arlington, Va. A week later, Hurley is running a conference in San Diego for military spouses who blog. She expects as many as 1,000 people to attend.

Many blogs include prayer requests for other bloggers who have sick or injured loved ones.

Some of the content is achingly personal, such as the pictures and tributes one military man posted about his wife's battle with cancer. Or Christmas photos of two children standing in a giant box labeled "For Daddy," posted for a father stationed overseas.

In Conner's blog, the message that his brothers are dearly loved and missed comes through.

Conner, a devout Catholic, writes in one letter that the family has begun a novena, nine days of prayer, for his brothers. "You are one of our intentions so take things easy," he writes.

But Conner is more inclined to share the day-to-day experiences in mid-century Catonsville, a place where a family of six could go out for dinner and dessert "to the tune of $4.83, " according to a letter dated Feb. 28, 1952.

Stephen Conner says that his father corresponded with his uncles in Korea at least once each week in 1952. He posts the letters on the Internet on the same day that his father wrote them 55 years ago.

In the first three months of the year, the hedges catch fire while paper trash is being burned. Stephen comes down with measles and learns a new word - "burp." Mom and Dad watch Jimmy Durante, Gloria Swanson and Frank Sinatra on TV and contemplate the picture playing at the Hippodrome.

Later in the year, Charles Conner describes getting into a minor car accident with a streetcar. The family isn't able to get away on a summer vacation, but they do watch the Fourth of July parade march down Bloomsbury Avenue.

The oldest child starts high school and the neighbor elopes. At the end of the summer, the Conners sell their Catonsville home and move to a house in Long Green Valley.

Stephen Conner says he intends to post about 50 more letters his father wrote from April until November - when the boys came home.



Stephen Conner's blog of his father's letters:

http:--lettersfromhome1952.blogspot. com/

Site with links to nearly 1,700 military blogs:


Rachelle Jones' blog about her experiences as a military wife and mother:

http:--armywifetoddlermom.blogspot. com/

A blog created by military wife, Andi Hurley:


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