Monday, February 21, 2005

Small world

Published February 21, 2005

I wrote an article a couple years ago that made it's way into this newspaper for Memorial Day and also made it's way around the country via the internet. It was a tribute I wrote in honor of my father who died 42 years ago on February 20 while serving in the United States Air Force. A piece of that tribute included a condolence letter that was sent to my mother by the mayor of Comfrey Minnesota where my father's plane crashed. The reason I included the letter in the tribute was because it said personal and heartfelt things that touched me in ways the form letters of the military and the White House did not. It was hand written instead of typed. It had a smudge where words were carefully contemplated and it quoted scripture from the New Testament. It said everything one needed to hear when all that's left after sudden death is words of comfort. It was written by a stranger yet the person always seemed familiar to me.

Not too long after this tribute made its way through the internet, the condolence letter made it's way back to it's writer. It was republished in his local newspaper. I know this because his neighbors wrote me emails telling me that he was still alive. They told me what a fine man the mayor of Comfrey was, a good neighbor, a good citizen, a family man. I already knew this long before. I knew it from reading his letter from 40 years ago.

When I found out that he was still alive after all these years and was in his 90's, I decided to telephone him and thank him personally for his special letter. I wanted him to know how much it meant to me in different times of my life. I was a little nervous when the phone rang on his end and a younger man picked up the phone. "Is this the residence of "? I asked. "Yes, this is his son. May I ask who is calling?" I told him my name and he paused. "I know you. I live in Carmichael, California". As soon as he said that, a light clicked on. The last name was a name I knew well. It turns out this his son is a physician I used to hire to consult on medical cases I had need for evaluations on. His son is a surgeon in Sacramento, one I greatly respected, as we had a 12 year business relationship when I was handling claims. He was there visiting his Dad and told me that they had all marvelled how the letter had come back to him after 41 years. His mom had recently passed away and his dad was having a hard time. When his father got on the phone to speak with me, we both cried. I cried for his loss not because I knew him well, it was because I knew him without having met him.

He described February 20, 1963 like it was yesterday. It was cold and snowing and the wind was blowing hard. Comfrey was in the middle of blizzard conditions. He and his beloved wife Donni, while sitting in the kitchen, heard a terrible sound overhead, a large plane whirling out of control They heard it spinning overhead and then the crash that rattled the village like a huge earthquake. He immediately ran to the phone to call for help. He said the crash left such devastation that the whole town came together for the search and rescue. His letter was written on March 5, 1963. He told me that his wife helped him write the letter because they were a good team. His wife passed away February 17, 2003 around the time his letter made it's way home. I couldn't have written a sympathy note to him any better than the one he wrote to me before I was born.

I keep up with him on the internet. I read that he has recently retired after a combined service to his country and community which spanned over 50 years. When asked about his many years of service to his fellow citizens, he humbly stated " I thought I could help". What an understatement.

Tammy Maher is a resident of El Dorado Hills and bi-weekly columnist for the Mountain Democrat. You can reach her at

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