CLICK ON THE SNOWFLAKE TO OPEN THE DOOR!
HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM E N HOLLAND
One of the fun—and often frustrating—things about writing historical fiction is the research that is required. I enjoy research and history; in fact, at one point in my life I considered majoring in history in college. But, while history and research fascinate me, they can also frustrate me, especially when I have discovered I have spent hours, or even days, researching a topic that becomes just a sentence in the finished work.
Case in point: in my story Our One and Only, a telegram is delivered to the Fiske family in the opening paragraphs. The deliveryman’s bicycle is mentioned briefly, vis, “…his bicycle stood waiting, a silent sentry.” Those six words are the distillation of several days of research. Since I couldn’t incorporate all I learned about delivering telegrams in the story, I thought I would share a few tidbits of information here.
Western Union was founded in 1851 in Rochester, NY. From the start it has been a diverse telecommunications company, although I
always think of it as the company that delivered telegrams. Imagine what it must have been like in the late 1800s, to be able to send a message across the country in a day! Telegrams peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, because sending one was cheaper than a long distance phone call. Singing telegrams were invented in the 1930s; candygrams debuted in 1964. With the rise of the Internet and email, telegrams because an anachronism and Western Union gradually phased them out of service. The last telegram, at a cost of $10, was sent in early 2006.
From the start, telegrams were hand-delivered to the recipient by a Western Union courier. In the early 1900s, when child labor laws were lax, boys as young as 10 or 11 would be hired as couriers
and would ride bikes to bring the telegrams to their intended destinations. Even as laws became stricter and young boys were no longer hired for the job, bikes remained popular as delivery vehicles. While some delivery men had cars, I opted for a bike in Our One and Only, since, from what I read, they were common in Baltimore, Maryland.
Outside of the city, in rural areas of the US, delivering telegrams was a different matter entirely. If the message was routine—well wishes, Happy Birthday greetings and so on—it might be handed off to the mailman for delivery. More urgent missives would be delivered by taxi or, absent that, anyone who owned a car or truck and was willing to drive into the countryside could be pressed into service.
At 8 am on Monday, July 17, 1944, Elizabeth Teass turned on the Western Union teletype machine in her tiny office at the back of Green’s Drug Store in Bedford, Virginia. Bedford was a small town of 3200 people; Company A of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division included 32 soldiers who called Bedford home. Residents of the town had been on tenterhooks since the D-Day invasion on June 6th, since it was known that Company A had been one of the first forces to land on Omaha Beach. A few people had received news of loved ones’ deaths in letters sent home but as of mid-July, no one had received any official word from the Army about the soldiers of Company A.
That changed on July 17th. When Teass turned on the teletype it clattered to life with the message, “Good morning. Go ahead. Roanoke. We have casualties.” Then, “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son …”
Teass does not remember the order of the names of the men who were killed, nor does she remember the exact number of telegrams that were received that day. (A present day newspaper report says nine.) In all, 19 soldiers from Bedford were killed on June 6th; an additional 3 died in the following days, making the town famous as the one that suffered the largest loss of life, per capita, of any American community during the invasion.
As the telegrams poured in, Teass’s anxiety mounted. She wanted to get the messages to families and loved ones before they heard the news “through the grapevine,” which in a small town like Bedford was likely to happen. She went into the drugstore and in addition to the owner, Mr. Green, found the local undertaker and doctor; she pressed all three of them into service. Elizabeth made a list of everyone she knew who had a truck or car and might be willing to drive out into the country (remember at the time, gas was strictly rationed). In the end, Roy Israel ended up being the hero of the day. A former cowboy from Texas, Israel had a Cadillac and used it as a one-car taxi business. He took the telegrams from Elizabeth and delivered them throughout the county, often sitting with the family until they had begun to be able to absorb the bad news.
The US military stopped sending telegrams to notify families of a loved one’s death after the Viet Nam conflict. Present day procedure is to have a death notification officer go to the home(s) of loved ones to deliver the news in person and will stay with the family for as long as necessary to work through their grief. A good perspective on the experience of being such as officer is presented in the book Final Salute by Jim Sheeler. To learn more about what the residents of the town of Bedford went through, I highly recommend The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice by Alex Kershaw. Both are available as ebooks as well as in print.
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
Our One and Only is included in the anthology, Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle. Leave a comment here on this post and I will randomly select one name from the entrants on the last day of Advent, December 24th, to win a copy of the ebook, in the winner’s choice of formats.