Home-front blog opens window on '50s

April 02, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

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.

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