It had been a long year. These were the first words Audrey read as she slowly fingered through the tattered and discolored pages of the small red notebook. The color and texture of the book had caught her eye as it discreetly lay with other personal belongings neatly packed, slumbering in the old steamer trunk. The trunk was worn and water-stained; the lining flaked away as her inquisitive fingers brushed the edges. Its meager possessions were shadows of a long, lost, life from another time, treasures carefully tucked away, meticulously wrapped, as if ancient riches. But the enemy of time had encroached upon it all, smiting history with a speckling of mold and mildew upon the cherished prizes within.
It was just the type of “storage locker buy” she loved, enough for a profitable yard sell she thought, as a broad smile grew across the landscape of her round, chubby, face. Included amongst the small household items were several large old furniture pieces, two very attractive floor lamps, one or two other interesting odd bits and then one great piece, the steamer trunk. Audrey, herself now a quarter of a century old, had seen enough trunks to know this one would bring a good price. She knew the minute she spied the edge of it at the back of the locker that it would sell as a great “reno” piece, probably for as much or more then she paid for the entire storage unit. With an additional small investment of plate glass across the top, it would make a stunning coffee table or opened up, exposing the individual compartments, could be sold as a whimsical display to an upscale retail store. What a great find, and that it was filled with treasures had Audrey smiling dimple to dimple, as she quickly calculated potential profits.
When Audrey initially had uncovered the little book she noticed the glow of gold embossing on the front cover, but time was unsympathetic and had erased the lettering, decreasing its worth on the antique market she noted to herself. Then from the corner of her eye, the curved edge of an advertising sign caught her attention. Audrey set the worthless book aside and snatched the sign, clucking her tongue, as was her habit when considering an item’s value. It was a metal sign, about 10 inches long and 3 inches high, with two rivets at the top, one on each side. Audrey’s eyes glowed dollar signs as she inspected the bright enamel paint outlining the block lettering, knowing it would be “graded” in mint condition and make for a considerable donation to her checking account. She had seen similar signs in old photos hanging from bicycles announcing that “Western Union” was on the way. She took it by both hands and swung it in the air, as if it was caught in the wind of a bicycle whizzing by on the way to deliver a telegram. Maybe a singing telegram she thought, as she excitedly dug a little deeper into the treasure trove.
Her heart skipped as she pulled out a Western Union hat with the original hand-stitched emblem still intact. Plopping it on her thick mop of auburn hair, she headed back into the house to see her reflection as a Western Union boy. With her hair tucked up, it was a fit perfect. How interesting to have been a “Western Union Telegram Boy,” she mused as she gazed at her less then boyish figure in the mirror. Her eyes were dark like her father’s, her best feature she thought to herself, but with a hint of sadness. Back to the garage she ambled, wondering what other treasures might lie beneath.
To her delight she found what looked to be Western Union uniforms; black ties, white shirts and trousers that buttoned below the knee with an old pair of oxford type shoes quite worn through. There amongst the clothes were a few old photos, one of a handsome woman with the name Christina written on the back, a shaving mug and various other personal items. These were good saleables and all “so money” she thought as her mind raced with ideas of finally breaking even or maybe getting ahead a little. She considered this the best “blind buy” she had ever made, hoping that redemption was just around the corner for “Audrey’s Antiques.”
As she sat back down she moved the small book aside, then stopped to take another look. It had fallen open to the inside cover where the name Peter Brandton was written in beautiful cursive. The date inscribed next to the name was June 6, 1944. Her mind trickled backwards to the “Second World War.” Interested, she flipped the page.
June 18, 1944
Today, I received my first assignment from Christina Rice, the teletype operator at the Western Union office, at the Union Square Hotel on Sutter St. She is a delightful woman with warm, deep, brown eyes. I met her when I first signed up for employment. I think she thought me rather daft, a man my age riding a bicycle, but it is good for my constitution. It is Christina that suggested I keep a journal of my deliveries. I am satisfied to write down the events as they come to me. I am a good speller and think a record of my work is worthy of my effort. Today Christina logged my first telegram to deliver. The address is on 42nd Avenue, which is about 7 miles and mostly uphill, so I take my leave.
Audrey turned to the next worn and yellowed page.
June 18, 1944
Robert Winfrey Youst, Electrician, USN. Wife, Mrs. Joyce Marie Youst, 1602 42nd Ave.
The name was in the same beautiful script as before, not dulled like the following notation that had quietly faded into the depths of the yellowing paper, but still willing to share his story.
The avenue twisted about, but at last I found the address. The apartment had a small front garden full of brightly colored blooms. I am sure that I smelled lavender as I stepped up to pull the bell. A young girl answered. She seemed surprised. I wasn’t sure if it was my age, the Western Union uniform, or something else. She tipped her head and greeted me with a smile, her lips poised like rosebuds.
It had been explained to me by the Wire Chief, Bob Yahl, I was to hand the telegram only to the addressee and I was to wait for the message to be read, or leave upon request, or… he added hesitantly, at the close of the door. I do not think he needed to instruct me on leaving when the door closed, but he did.
“I have a telegram for Joyce Marie Youst.”
“I’m Marie,” she cheerfully replied.
I thought she was too young to be the wife of a soldier. Then I thought myself quite dull and an old bachelor that did not know about such things. I had her sign for the telegram. She looked puzzled. I stood my post. Her delicate fingers slowly opened the message; her eyes moved to and fro, her rosebud smile faded. She looked up at me. The morning sun fell directly on her face. With the glow of light woven into her emerald eyes, she looked as an angel, but her somber voice broke the spell and with lips turned down, she slowly asked, “Do you know about my father, Marcus Manning? They served together in the same unit.”
I stood stupid not knowing what to say, then stammered, “No Miss. I do not know about your father.”
She closed the door. Although it took me several minutes, I finally turned and left. I was glad to hear Bob Yahl’s instructions in my head.
On the edge of the page was a drawing, a delicate rose, not quite in full bloom, but just before it bursts open wholly with life. He must have drawn it, perhaps reminding him of Marie. His journal captured Audrey’s heart. She felt a quiet sadness and thought about the young wife and her rosebud lips. For a moment she missed her father, he’d been gone a year now, but pushed the thought aside, not wanting to face the pain, now or ever.
Her mind pulsed thinking about each of the items in the trunk, this was an entire collection she thought to herself. She knew collectors would love this. Suddenly this worthless, little book had value to contribute, to a collection and to her pocketbook of course. Excitedly she turned the page to the second entry, again on frayed and tattered paper, but this time she thought to herself, valuable paper.
June 21, 1944
Jerry Dale McDonald, Pfc., USMCR. Mother, Mrs. Mabel G. McDonald, 2408 Clay.
I know this address on Clay. It is a beautiful avenue where shop keepers and neighbors alike sweep their front sidewalk every morning. It is a personable neighborhood. As I approached the apartment, several women sat chattering on the front stoop of the building, cooling themselves, for this was an unseasonably hot day. As I peddled toward the stoop, one of the three stood up and chirped, “Is that a telegram for me? I’m Mabel McDonald and am expecting to hear from my son, J.D.”
Her voice rang out in pride. The two other women clambered to her side excited in the delivery of a telegram I am most sure. I leaned my bicycle against the stoop and solemnly walked toward her. “Yes, this telegram is for Mabel McDonald. It is from the War Department,” I cautiously added in a low voice.
Not understanding, but giddy with excitement, she took a step toward me snatching the telegram and rushed to open it.
Suddenly she understood.
She shrieked as dread pierced her heart. The other two reached for her as she collapsed into their arms. They cloaked her in sympathy and then ghost-like disappeared into the apartment. For a moment, I cowed at the stoop and thought about the merciless pain of War.
July 11, 1944
It has been weeks since the news of D-day and the “Battle of Normandy.” Such broadcasts have crushed the world with news about the devastating loss of men. Each day, like tin soldiers on a shelf, we sit plainly and wait for news of the injured and the dead. Three weeks have passed since my first two telegrams. We are in hopes this is a good omen. I am satisfied not to have telegrams to deliver. Bob Yahl is good to keep me occupied at the office and to assist Christina. I have grown fond of Christina.
July 14, 1944
The war is pushing on. As an old soldier I am conflicted, but as I am unable to fight along side the young men, I am satisfied to be of service with Western Union. Each day I rise early and struggle against the morning fog for concern of what deliveries there may be. I am ready; I know the day will come.
July 17, 1944
Today, Christina hesitantly handed me a bundle of telegrams, her eyes were downcast. She moved with much deliberation to avoid my gaze. Finally she raised her head, her soft brown eyes filled with pools of tears as they came to rest on her cheeks before streaming down her soft face. She pursed her lips she whispered, “I’m sorry Peter,” then turned away. I was anxious of what lay in my hands. As I prepared to leave, Christina approached me and quietly said that the Wire Chief offered to have Edwin, a young telegram boy in the office, help with today’s deliveries. I looked into Christina’s deep, thoughtful eyes and told her, I would map my route and be on my way. Outside of the office, I counted thirteen telegrams. D-day had arrived to our corner of the world, for thirteen families, life will never be the same.
I have had thoughtful conversations with myself about the delivery to Mable McDonald. I will no longer write about these events. I have only the fortitude to list the names of the young men as I serve them and their families.
The names of the thirteen brave soldiers whose mother or father or young bride would need to be notified of their loved ones death, sat like grave markers on the following pages.
Robert Herman Aronson Jr., Motor Machinist’s Mate 2c, USNR. Father, Mr. Robert H. Aronson, Dr., 264 21st Ave.
Oliver Warden, Machinist, USN. Mother, Mrs. Thelma E. Warden, 351 Douglas St.
Edward B. Peck Jr., Pvt, USMC. Mother, Dorothy C. Peck, 2216 Chaucer Rd.
As Audrey read the names listed in the journal, her eyes stumbled from the battlefield of the dead after reading only a few. The names blurred as she stared blankly at the page. With each watery blink, she heard Peter’s voice whispering a soldier’s name. A swell of tears stung her face as she thought about the endless day ahead of him.
She let her red, swollen eyes rest from the pages; her calloused finger saved the place in history as she wept. Like pounding rain seeping through a cracked window, grief found Audrey’s broken shattered heart and let the hurt return. Her beautiful, dark eyes felt each family’s pain and then her own.
Her fingers folded back another page. On it, another soldier’s name, then his loved one. The next page, another soldier, another loved one. Each page the same, names of the dead, names of the loved one who would receive “his” telegram. The pages were creased and torn; the beautiful penmanship had deteriorated and was difficult to read. Each page blurred one unto the other as she read the names of dead soldiers buried upon dead soldiers.
Lost in her own sadness, she thumbed to the very back, hoping it would bring an end to her pain. She stared at blankness. She thumbed forward, desperate to find the last entry. Finally, her eyes fell upon the last name.
September 02, 1945
Marcus Manning, Quartermaster 2c, USN. Daughter, Joyce Marie Youst, 1602 42nd Ave.
Oh my God! The young wife with rosebud lips; her father was Marcus Manning. In the corner of the page was his beautiful rose, this time opened in full bloom with the inscription below, “Be you and bloom.” Is there no end, she asked herself as she turned the final page, finding relief in the clean emptiness that followed.
Uncontrollably, tears gushed from that unknown place in her heart where the grief and pain of her father’s death overflowed. Wiping back her tears, she breathed. The book was but a grave marker for soldiers from San Francisco. She wondered about Peter and how it was that he only ever delivered death notices. Slowly closing the book, a newspaper clipping fell; it was yellowed and creased. Carefully she unfolded the delicate paper. She saw Peter’s words used as the title in an article from the San Francisco Chronicle, dated June 17, 1965, some 45 years earlier.
It had been a long year, by JC Ballard.
Peter Brandton was a war veteran from the First World War, “the war to end all wars” they declared, but this was never to be, as those living through the Second World War remember. Peter Brandton was born in San Francisco on December 12th, 1885 and died suddenly on October 03, 1945. As a young man, he studied as an apprentice glass blower, until called to fight for his country in 1912. Upon his return, unnoticed by any, he was forced to leave the hot furnaces, from injuries sustained as a soldier. He worked odd jobs and soon became known in the neighborhood as the “Old Soldier.” He was a friendly face and a helpful hand everywhere he went. Without family, he requested to re-enlist in 1941, but his card was stamped Denied. Insisting he could do the work of younger men, Peter Brandton finally became employed as Western Union’s oldest telegram delivery boy, at age fifty-nine. Peter Brandton had one request for the Wire Chief; his resolute was that all his assignments be War Department telegrams notifying the next of kin of the death of a soldier. From June 6, 1944 until September 02, 1945 when the last soldier came home to our beloved San Francisco County, this was his only job. Each day as he battled the hills of San Francisco, he faced his own battles, knowing that he was now the site of dread to all mothers, wives and daughters of soldiers. As he turned a corner, many rushed from the street, into their homes, closing their doors, praying that his shadow would not fall upon their door step. Peter Brandton delivered 99 telegrams during the year he was employed for Western Union. He respected each family, loved each family, and of those who fell on their knees in devastation, prayed with each family.
For Peter Brandton, it had been a long year.
Slowly folding the delicate news clipping, Audrey gently placed it back in Peter’s journal. She clucked her tongue thinking about the value of the book as a part of the collection, an important collection that would get her business ahead. Audrey reflected back on Peter’s drawing, the final one with the rose in full bloom. In her mind she heard Peter’s voice, “do not be guided by despair, be you and bloom.” It reminded her when she was young, as her father would describe the difference in valuables and values, “don’t be guided by valuables,” he would say, “be you and be guided by your values.” Staring at the final page, she thought how much she had missed her dad this past year, but somehow, just then, knew it would be O.K. and agreed with Peter, as she read his last entry again, but this time in… her journal-
It had been a long year.