It all started with a blind date in 1970 arranged by Bill’s childhood friend who had just graduated from the USAF Academy – well, not exactly. It was really initiated by his new wife who was teaching next to me at Sperreng Middle School in Crestwood, Missouri. Previously having introduced Bill to lots of girls, they had once even fixed him up on a cadet trip to Colorado Springs with a young lady whose name they claimed to be Cherry Tart or was it really Sherry Tarte? (Never knew if they were pulling my leg or if it was true!) Bill and I had several dates that first Christmas, and then, Bill, by now a First Lieutenant, was on his way back to his assignment in Dachau, West Germany.
This would be my first experience with how it was possible to communicate with an American Army soldier stationed far away.
We wrote a lot of letters for 18 months.
At that time, if I sent an Air Mail letter on a Monday written on very thin airmail paper and placed in special airmail envelopes (it would be weighed to be certain that it was not too heavy), it would arrive in Germany on Wednesday and, if Bill had time to answer immediately, I would get a response by Saturday. Pretty quick turn-around. One week, I received a letter, a cassette, a card and some photos! Over the months, we began to expect quick responses. We even arranged a visit to Germany the next Christmas – all by Air Mail. Not sure how that could have possibly worked but it did. Weeks before my trip, Bill sent me a phone number for the staff duty office in case he didn’t meet me on time at Frankfurt Airport. How could he have possibly known that his car would break down on Christmas Eve, the day of my arrival, that he would have to find a rental car in Augsburg to pick me up from the airport (a trip of about three hours) and that he would be two hours late; I thought I had forgotten what he looked like since we hadn’t seen each other for a year. As I waited in the airport, it took me a while to figure out how to get German money without knowing a word of German and to make the telephone call. After more than an hour of waiting, I decided to call the staff-duty officer who immediately said, “I’m so glad you called. Captain Rice left a message for you.”
Because of this ease of communication, you can imagine the discomfort Bill felt when I didn’t answer the proposal of marriage letter he wrote the next February and sent from Grafenwohr where he was on a field problem.
The letter took more two weeks to arrive in St. Louis. If I had been he, I would have assumed that my answer to his proposal was “NO” and that would have been the end of that! Instead, when he returned from his field duty in Grafenwohr, he worked up his courage to make an international call. To do that, he had to go to an American bank on post, purchase a whole lot of Deutschmark and pfennig coins – about a bucketful – and drive to the middle of town to the Deutsche Bundespost (Post Office).
He then had to get the post office attendant to connect him to a telephone operator in the USA and then proceed to keep the coins continually going into the telephone to keep the connection to me active. Happily, his proposal letter arrived earlier on the same day that he was sitting in the Post Office with his pile of coins and I was able to give him an immediate answer when he asked, “Did my letter arrive?”
We always have had a soft spot in our hearts for the U.S. Postal Service, as you might surmise. There was more to come. I received my engagement ring from the postman on a Saturday in March 1972. Friends of Bills’ from his first unit in Dachau, who were PCS-ing (Permanent Change of Station) back to the U.S. offered to send the ring from Ohio upon their return to the U.S. so that it would be a shorter and safer mode of travel to me in St. Louis
For Bill’s birthday in 1972, I decided to make a phone call to him from my parents’ home in Southern Illinois. He had just been in a serious accident in Grafenwohr in which he had been thrown through the front glass window of his jeep and glass shards had been embedded into his face and eyes. At the time, an international phone call was very expensive, and his mother told me not to call – it would be more than I would spend on a different gift, she said. I did it, anyway, but the bill didn’t come until after our marriage and our return to Germany for the rest of his assignment. When the phone bill did arrive, I discovered his mother had been right – that one phone call cost $180!
Military families face many times of separation, so communication becomes very important to the soldier and his family. In 1973, when Bill went off to Korea for a year unaccompanied assignment soon after our marriage, we experienced a new way of communicating – the MARS station, that could relay phone conversations. The MARS system was begun in 1926 and has been very helpful for soldiers and families since then (and still today).
A network of volunteers, licensed amateur radio operators, connect the soldier with his family. This is a free service that uses no satellite connections but is a network of high frequency radios bouncing their signals off the ionosphere providing long-distance communications. It worked like this: a soldier went to a MARS station where he could initiate a call and a connection was established to a network of radio operators. As the conversation began, the soldier would say a sentence or two and then say “Over”. It was then that a response could start which also ended with “Over”. (It was hard to remember!) The “conversation” could only be a few minutes but was better than a letter because we could hear each other’s voices. When the time was up, the soldier ended it with “Out” and it was over. I didn’t realize it at the time that the radio operators were listening to the conversations. (They had to be listening so that they knew when to flip the switch from one side of the conversation to the other.) A friend told me about a conversation with her husband from Vietnam: there was some interference on the line, so she didn’t know how to answer. She was surprised to hear a new and unexpected additional voice – the radio operator – who told her, “Ma’am, he said he loves you!” These “phone patches” still remain an active project and a back-up to our more sophisticated communication should we ever need it.
In 1992, when Bill, now a Colonel, was in Kuwait setting up Kuwait Forward after Operation Desert Storm; he had a room of his own with a phone that could make calls to Army posts in the US. He could then have his calls patched through to our home in GA. What a treat it was to get a call as often as he could find the time. And no “Over” and “Out”. Progress in twenty years!
One of our favorite communications whenever Bill was traveling was for each family member to write some little sticky-notes (crayon drawings from our little son, and short messages from the rest of us) and tuck them into the toes of socks, into the pockets of BDU’s (Battle Dress Uniform), into the ”Dopp-kit” (toiletries case) with the toothpaste and shaving cream, in the toes of boots, etc., etc. Wherever we could hide them. How simple is that?!?
Bill liked these notes so much that when he was no longer the traveler, he would hide notes in our children’s luggage. Being able to relate to the pressures of a New Cadet, he put notes into our son’s bags whenever he would head back to West Point from leave at home.
By 2015, when our son was deployed to Afghanistan, we could email, text, and talk face-to-face and even use cell phones from his room on a forward operating base. Amazing. How will soldiers and their families communicate in the future? Who knows!
I suggest letters, anyway. As nice as all the new-fangled communications are, an old-fashioned letter has some still important features. It can be tucked into a pocket for reading whenever the soldier misses his family and as many times as he likes – no wires, no batteries, no power needed.
Read more from Suzanne Rice.