This photograph was found in an empty house in Albertville, Alabama.
By: Sandy Williams Driver
The empty house echoed my every move while taking room measurements for the local real estate agency where I worked part-time. The previous owner of the property had passed away a few months earlier and her family was forced to sell the old home place due to financial reasons.
It was a large dwelling, obviously added onto many times, with high ceilings and creaking floorboards. I counted five fireplaces, two still in apparent working order and the other three boarded over. The air was cold inside the vacant rooms and I couldn't help but shiver while speculating on the lives of all who had lived and loved there. I kept thinking, "If only these walls could talk."
A long, narrow hallway ran parallel down the right side of the house and a pile of cardboard boxes immediately caught my eye. Even though I knew that curiosity had killed many cats, I didn't hesitate to take a peek inside the top container. When the flap was finally worked loose, a musty odor filled my nostrils and wonder filled my eyes.
I knelt down and removed a handful of old photographs, mostly 8 x 10's, and all black and white. The remarkably clear images revealed scenes from what appeared to be the 1940s. The majority of the people were dressed in uniforms and seemed to be going about their usual military business.
Many of the photos were taken in some sort of store and stacks of clothing, large trunks and magazines filled the background. One was taken of a row of soldiers getting their shoes shined; another caught a handful of smiling GI's lounging around a crowded bar; and another showed a few young recruits getting their first "buzz cut."
Time stood still as I stared deeply into the naïve faces of the young men and women who looked recently severed from their momma's apron strings. Their uniforms were freshly starched and their medals shiny with polish. Shoelaces were smartly tied and hats tipped in arrogant angles.
Their smooth faces and smiling eyes indicated they were new inductees gearing up for deployment. They looked ready for anything and scared of nothing as they prepared for the sacred mission to defend our beloved homeland.
I couldn't help wonder how many of those proud shoulders came home slumped with fatigue and battle scars from their tour overseas in the months after the photos were taken. Or how many were returned in hastily built pine boxes draped with an American flag while their families stood with tear stained faces listening to the haunting notes of Taps.
There was no information written on the back of the photographs, so I had no idea the dates or the places the pictures were taken. I couldn't assign a name to any of the unfamiliar faces, but I knew each of them probably once had a family somewhere praying for their safe return from a nation ripped open wide with war.
When the bottom of the box became visible, I set it aside and opened the lid of the one underneath. Another treasure was wrapped in tissue and the smell of old paper filled the air. With trembling hands, I picked up an old newspaper, yellowed and brittle with time. The date at the top was December 10, 1941; just three days after those Japanese aircraft dropped a chain of bombs on the beautiful, unsuspecting island of Pearl Harbor.
"U.S. Forces Beat off Jap Attack!" the headlines screamed in bold letters under the masthead Martinsville Daily Bulletin. On the front page of the Virginia newspaper, I read the story under "Japs Sink Two British Battleships," and the one about "Naval Battle Reported Raging near Manila."
While the sun slowly made its descent towards the western border, I sat on the frayed carpet in that hallway reading those periodicals which originally costs three cents. I was mesmerized by headings like "FDR Confident of Victory," "Nine More Local Men Volunteer," and "City to Aid in War Relief Fund."
I learned that Dr. E.M. McDaniel would be at the armory to examine new men at the regular drill that night at the VPF and that the entire company would be furnished with mackinaws to bring the unit to full uniform.
Miss Elizabeth Tyree announced that a women's ambulance corps would be organized immediately and everyone interested in joining should meet at the Henry Hotel at "7:30 o'clock Friday night."
S.M. Schriebfeder, the manager at Jobbers Pants, announced that the company had given each of its approximately 1,500 workers $1 in defense stamps to get them started on saving them.
The shadows grew longer on the wood-framed windows as I turned the pages of history and smiled at an advertisement from Leggett's Department Store. "Gifts for the House" boasted Bed Spreads for $1.19 to $4.98, Jacquards and Cheniles, and Canon Towel Sets for .29 to $1.98, attractively gift packaged.
"Gifts for the Man" included Ties, .39 to $1.00, and Shirts, $1.00 to $2.00. "Gifts for the Woman" displayed Bed Jackets for $1.19 to $2.98, all sizes and styles, and Pocket Books for .59 to $2.98, all colors and leathers.
Chesterfields cigarettes promoted they were now "milder and better tasting" and Coca-Cola sported "Get refreshed." The lowest priced "6" in America was a big, roomy 1942 Studebaker Champion, factory delivered for $810, federal tax included.
Nothing but the Truth with Bob Hope was airing at the Roxy and on Thursday and Friday it was Jackie Cooper in Glamour Boy. The Rex Theater was showing High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart on Friday and Saturday.
The employment section of the Classified Ads listed that Mr. Lundeen needed a salesman with a car and offered a guaranteed income of more than $50 a week. A young man was wanted for a bookkeeping position, apply to Box X, and experienced waitresses were needed, dial 2212.
A small, two-room furnished apartment on West Main Street was available to rent for $12 a month and a house was for sale on Elm Street for $800, with $200 down and monthly payments of $21. There was even a farm on the market with a large house, several outbuilding and137 acres for $4,000.
The comic strips in present day newspapers are my favorite section, but they can't compare with those drawings from yesteryear. Li'l Abner, Alley Oop, and Popeye were hilarious and so were Flapper Fannie and Muggs and Skeeter.
I carefully replaced all the newspapers and photographs to their original storage cartons and was surprised to find the afternoon had completely faded into night. I decided to call the realtor who had sent me to the house and tell him about my delightful discovery. Hopefully, he would have the number of a family member who would want the assortment of riches from days gone by.
I was taken aback when he said the family had been previously notified of the items left behind, but had stated to "just throw them away."
How on earth could a person in today's generation have such a blatant disregard for the past? The city dump was absolutely no place for the treasures in those boxes. I knew that there was no way I could ever throw such items away. The people in those photographs were someone's father, uncle, cousin or grandmother. Someone, somewhere, had a name to assign to every face.
I thought about the hefty stash of old family pictures at my house and the pain it would cause me to get rid of them. They were a big part of me and I cherished each and every one of them.
The container of brittle newspapers held stories of history in the making. Not tales repeated dryly in a Social Studies book or listed chronologically in an encyclopedia. The stories were fresh and real. Those newspapers from Martinsville, Virginia, and Johnson City, Tennessee, were artifacts, a relic of the past that would one day be too faded to read. I wanted to examine each one and absorb every detail to get an actual insight into the eventful era my parent's and grandparents resided and survived.
I just couldn't toss them all away, so I carried each fragile box outside and placed them in the trunk of my car. I took them home and proudly stacked them high on the shelf beside the collection of my own family's legacy.
Those rescued items hold no sentimental meaning for me, but I value them just the same. They are discarded memories from a golden age in the past that were once treasured by someone. And that's all that matters to me.
Sandy Williams Driver is a freelance writer and editor for U.S. Legacies Org. from Albertville, Alabama.
Published U.S. Legacies: September 2004