The Loss of Letter Writing is the Loss of Our Humanity

By Michael M. Barrick

On July 12, 1950, my uncle George Milton Barrick Jr. was killed in action in Korea. Even though I was born six years after his death, I feel as if I knew – or more precisely, know – him. That is partly because his brother – my dad – has kept his memory alive. So did my grandmother when I was a child spending considerable time with her during summers at her home in Morgantown, W.Va. Between my grandmother and dad, I’ve heard hilarious stories of George’s and my dad’s escapades. I’ve also learned of those tragic days when they first learned he was declared Missing in Action and later confirmed as Killed in Action.

As important as these oral histories are in helping me to know about a man I was never privileged to meet, what has really brought him to life is a collection of hundreds of letters that he either received or wrote.

As I go through these letters, which I often do, I feel cheated. But I also feel blessed. In his own hand, I read about events from “somewhere in France” during World War II. I also learn of his heroism, such as in a letter dated 1 November 1945 from one of his companions in the 23rd Infantry as to why he believed Uncle George deserved the Silver Star. “When the company pushed from Remonval, Belgium on 17 Jan 45 Pvt Barrick was ordered to report to the rear by the Medical Officer for hospitalization due to a diagnosed case of pneumonia. Due to a shortage of replacements Pvt. Barrick did disregard the order and remained at the front as an ammunition barrier for a Light Machine Gun Squad, with utter disregard for his personal health. Further, on 18th Jan 45, the safety of the company was being challenged by the action of a German Tiger Tank. The Company was dug in on the slope of a hill, the tank was hidden in the defilade and its exact location was undetermined. To draw the fire of the tank Pvt. Barrick, again with complete disregard for his personal safety exposed himself on the hill and was fired upon by the tanks guns which revealed its location and was later destroyed.” The letter continues, “On 13 Feb 45, Pvt Barrick was sent to the rear and hospitalized for two months barely escaping with his life due to double pneumonia.”

Now, I’ve heard this story from my dad and grandmother. Yet, having it confirmed in a letter – a simple piece of paper that 70 years later I can hold – is precious beyond words. As the caretaker of these letters, I am saving them for our children, my sisters’ children and all of our descendants. I want them to know what sort of man he was. I want them to know what we’ve all missed by his death in battle. I want them to be inspired to live up to this family legacy of sacrifice and service.

There are other stories, though, that haven’t been told on the front porch or at the kitchen table. They’re only in letters, like mine to my grandmother just weeks before she died. Or the ones from my mom, who passed away six years ago.

I mourn not only the loss of my uncle, my grandmother and my mom. I mourn also the abandoned art of letter writing. So, I still write my children. In fact, when visiting them in North Carolina, I will often hand-deliver them a letter. I’m sure they sometimes wonder why, when I could stand there and tell them what is on my mind. The reason is simple. I will not always be there to share my thoughts, insights and memories. But my letters will. There are many things I want them to know. I want my granddaughter to remember me when she is my age. Her memories of me will fade, but I am hopeful that letters I pass along to her will not. There are some “old-fashioned” principles and philosophies that I know she will need to call upon. Perhaps one line in one letter might inspire her to keep walking through hell when she finds herself in the middle of it. Or maybe it will just give her a sweet memory, like those I have of my departed loved ones.

This habit of letter-writing is part of the rich tradition of Appalachian story-telling. If we do not recapture this lost art, we will eventually know nothing of our ancestors. We will lose the slender threads that bind our generations together. Such a thought brings tears to my eyes, just as do the many letters my grandmother wrote to her son after she learned he was Missing in Action. If we quit writing, we too will become missing. We won’t even be memories. At best, we will be faded, two-dimensional photographs.

When I look at a photo of Uncle George, he is so much more than an image. He is a living, breathing person brought to life by his own words and the words of those that loved and admired him. Perhaps it is considered egotistical to want the same for myself. Perhaps. But it is also very human. If for no other reason, that is why we must keep writing letters. It is a way to preserve our humanity.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2014

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