October 11, 2012

"One Man's Trash..."

By Kathryn Kramer
Archivist, Montana Historical Society Research Center
One morning in September, Rich Aarstad, our Senior Archivist, handed me a wrinkled white trash bag with a sad, dirty pile of papers and envelopes in the bottom and told me to find out what was in it.  All I knew then was that the papers had been described on the donation intake form as “1 bag correspondence—1940’s-1950’s Kathryn Teakles”—and that these papers looked like an asthma attack waiting to happen.  Thankfully, I don’t have asthma. I launched myself into the task, and soon, the large green table I call a desk was all but covered in chronological piles of dirty little envelopes with neatly written addresses and faded stamps and stickers, and my hands were covered in a thick layer of dust that turned the water in the sink brown when I washed them.  With each letter I unfolded, a puff of dust would rise into the air, disturbed by the movement of the paper.  I wised up pretty quickly, and took to cleaning each letter with a soft-bristled brush both before and after I opened it.
Letter from Valerie (James' girlfriend and future wife) to Kathryn Teakles.
An archivist does not sit down and read everything in a collection, even when she kind of wants to—there’s simply no time for that when nearly every research center and archives in the world has a mile-long backlog of unprocessed collections.    My job wasn’t just to put the letters in order, though; I would also need to take inventory and describe them for the research center’s records.  As well as noting the names of senders and glancing over opening lines, I picked a few letters from each year at random to read in whole, sometimes searching out more when some interesting event seemed to have occurred.  Slowly, a story began to emerge.  While Mrs. Teakles must have had decades’ worth of correspondence from family and friends over the course of her life, only a few years’ worth had been saved.  It soon became clear why correspondence from the 1940’s dominated the collection when I began to find letter after letter from one of her sons, Philip, on U.S. Air Corps stationary, and V-Mail from another of her sons, James.  Philip’s wife, Margarett, also wrote to her mother-in-law, and curiously, letters from someone named Valerie with a return address in Wales began to appear in 1944—first addressed to “Mrs. Teakles,” but later to “Mom.”  Sometimes one of Valerie’s letters would share an envelope with one from James, and then the return address was literally cut from the page.
What I learned was this:  in 1942, Philip (then thirty-four years old) enlisted in the Army Air Corps and James, nine years his junior, in the Army’s regular service.  Neither saw action; Philip was trained as a flight instructor and James was made a bookkeeper at a military hospital in Wales.  Back home, their mother, a resident of Montana since 1905, returned to her native Washington to work for Boeing as a central systems wiring specialist on B-17’s and B-29’s.  After over a year and a half of training, which he apparently never had much chance during his service to put to use, Philip was discharged in 1944.
Letter from Cpl. James M. Teakles in England, to his
 mother, Kathryn Teakles, in Washington, Oct. 11, 1944.
James, on the other hand, was shipped across the Atlantic at the end of his training, though his service in the 81st General Hospital seems to have been fairly uneventful.  His love life was another matter.  Valerie, whom he met at a dance, was a native of Cardiff whose family did not initially approve of this American beau eight years her senior.  By 1944, James and Valerie were serious enough about one another that he introduced her to his mother via mail and asked them to write to each other regularly, which the women did.  James and Valerie married in 1945, her parents apparently having become reconciled to the idea, and after the war she immigrated to the United States.  Though the collection ends abruptly at the beginning of 1946, other records show that “Jim and Val” both made it home to Montana later that year, that Philip became an air traffic controller after his return to civilian life, and that Kathryn Teakles returned to Helena and lived here until her death in 1962.
The story told by the Teakles correspondence is not one of derring-do or wartime horrors.  None of the people involved actually fought in the war, and they often spent more paper reflecting on romance, family news, and financial troubles than on the global conflict that had forced them apart—and that had brought James and Valerie together.  In other words, it is a story of ordinary people during extraordinary times—and it is a story that was nearly lost but for a donor and a couple of archivists who recognized that treasure sometimes comes disguised as trash.
The Kathryn Teakles Papers (SC 2615) will be available in the Research Center of the Montana Historical Society in the near future.

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