Thanking God for veterans, packrats

Thank God for packrats.

We’re said to be living in a throw-away, disposable society, but you can’t prove that by me, judging from some cleaning and sorting projects Better Half and I have undertaken lately.

About a month or so ago, for example, I was looking through old family photos from the family homestead when I came across some pictures from my dad’s Army days during World War II.

Jay Wendell “Pidge” Hout served in a railroad battalion, running a locomotive in North Africa and Italy in what wasn’t necessarily a soft desk job since keeping the Allies supplied with vital cargo could be a vulnerable position.

I’ve lamented before in this column space on this topic that I didn’t know much about the particulars of my dad’s military experience because I never thought or bothered to ask.

Give me an “F” for family reporting skills.

Anyway, among the photos is the one I am running with today’s column because it naturally got my attention.

For pity sake, here’s my dad, posing with a horse, and in the background are other horses.

I’ve made no secret in this column space that I’ve always loved horses and am a proud owner of a quarterhorse named Coffee.

So, I am thinking two things: (1.) What’s up with this picture? and (2.) What a shame that I’ll never know anything about it other than a marking that notes it was taken in Pisa, Italy.

Well, God works in very mysterious ways to be sure.

Sorting and cleaning projects continued at the family homestead, including through some shelves that obviously have had little human contact in many moons.

At the very back of one of the shelves, tucked far, far away, was a box in which I discover are several bundles of letters – all of them letters that my dad had written to his mother, Mildred “Mudd” Hout, during his time in the service.

I can’t believe my eyes. I have never been such a happy cleaner!

To say I’m the kid who finds the ultimate gift under the Christmas tree or a million bucks in the Easter egg hunt comes up short in describing how wowed I was by the treasure I realized I had found … and that was before I had even sat down to read a single one of them.

I spent the better part of a weekend reading through all 247 letters in pristine condition that had been written over the course of 1943 to 1945.

I imagined my dad sitting down more than 70 years ago as a young man in his early 20s, halfway around the world to send home to Richmond news to his mother, who had not one, but two sons serving in the military, including Ronald “Red” Hout, a medic in Australia.

Not too many letters into this reading adventure, I stumbled across one that actually connected the dots with the horse photo I had found in an entirely different location at a completely different time.

What are the odds of that?

The letter, written March 13, 1945, filled in the blanks.

Wrote Jay Wendell “Pidge” Hout to his mother:

“I had the day off so went to visit a remount station. That is where they get the mules ready to send to the front. They also have quite a few nice riding horses there so of course you know that interests me.

“I met the lieutenant there through the job that I’m working on now. We move them in there on the railroad. He is an awfully nice young fellow from Tenn. I ate dinner there and then was given a beautiful black riding horse and turned loose. Did I ever have fun. First time I’ve ridden in almost three years so consequently I’m a little sore this evening. Almost dread to think of tomorrow morning. I should have been more temperate but when I get on a horse, I hate to get off.”

I could barely finish reading that the first time through, my vision blurred by tears.

And even as I write this, I can’t help but feel such a powerful and emotional after-the-fact sense of connection.

While that particular letter gave me insight on a horse picture, other letters painted a portrait of a young man who was devoted to his mother, who held his family in high esteem, who was patriotic, who had a deep faith and who had a great sense of humor, too, mentioning on more than one occasion that he would likely remain a bachelor.

Not!

Finding these letters makes me happy but reflective, too, realizing we not only live in a throw-away society, we aren’t much for letter-writing and such these days. With our technology of texting and tweeting, it seems one very personal and tangible way of initially communicating and ultimately preserving family history is all but gone.

On this Memorial Day, I say thank you to all veterans and active duty military personnel for their service, and I urge you on this Memorial Day as well to begin a dialogue if you can with your military family members for a perspective on their experiences.

(Kiaski, a resident of Richmond, is a staff columnist and features writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times and community editor for the Herald-Star. She can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)