Letters from home…

    Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.

    In the days before texting, when long distance phone calls still existed, the letter was the best way to communicate from far away. It also presented a much more personal, intimate, opportunity at discourse. If I dropped a letter into the outgoing mail slot at the Lusk Post Office before 7 pm, it was waiting for Sue in Greybull by 11 am the next day. The power of the letter has left us, most likely to never return.

    We get what passes as letters from banks, insurance companies, medical bills and millions of tons of bulk mail dumped in our mailboxes every year, but we rarely receive a letter.


    It’s an institution almost as old as recorded history. The Egyptians delivered mail 4,000 years ago, and the Chinese had an elaborate delivery system 1,000 years later. The Persians, Greeks, and Romans all had mail delivery, but the Mongols had the most efficient system around the year 1,000 AD.

    In America, it was Ben Franklin who outlined and guided the development of the United States Postal System. Despite its detractors, the US Postal Service is the ONLY government agency that not only pays its way but makes a profit while delivering an incredible amount of mail, parcels, and packages across the globe.

    If you think the post office is inefficient and expensive you can thank the Neocon Newt Gingrich for imposing ridiculous regulations that now have the postal service funding retirement accounts for mail carriers who haven’t been born yet. It was a “pay it forward” method of draining the post office by setting up retirement accounts 75 years in the future from present-day operations.

    Brilliant, if you’re an anarchist, or were receiving substantial contributions from third-party delivery companies.


    These thoughts came to the fore last week when I took a phone call from Michael Toyne. Mike had read my County 10 story on Sweetwater Station and wanted to use a couple of the photographs in a book he was writing.

    We hit it off right away. He was a 1974 high school graduate, and I was a year later. He retired from the U.S. Air Force, I grew up on air force bases and we both shared a love of history, the type that isn’t written about in history books.

    Call it an infatuation with original research, but putting down the ideas, memories, and events of people who would be forever lost to future generations has great appeal.


    Mike sent me a signed copy of his first book, “Brown Mule 7.” He wrote it in an interesting style. Some of the text is his, with a few lines from other books on Vietnam, but the bulk of it is letters from his late brother Leon to their grandparents, their parents and one to Mike as a younsgster.

    Leon Toyne was a 1964 graduate of Fremont County Vocational High School. (aka Lander Valley High School)

    Leon was drafted and spent ten and a half months in Vietnam as a wireman with the U.S. Army before ending up in an Okinawa military hospital with a fractured skull.


    The letters to his grandparents, as Mike indicated in his introduction, should be read “between the lines.” No grandson wants to unduly upset their loving grandparents, but Leon was in harm’s way 24/7 whether in the bunker, out in the open jungle, or marching across open rice paddies. You get that realization amid the innocent banter about rain, wind, cold, food, and the local wildlife. No need to get Grandma and Grandpa more upset than they already were with a grandson forced to fight the Viet Cong in an ill-advised war in Southeast Asia.

    The letters are poignant, to the point at times, and dashed with a hint of blissfulness. It makes a unique and compelling narrative.

    I have a box of letters that Sue wrote me from Greybull during the 1981-82 school year. I’m a bit of a packrat when it comes to sentimental things, while she prefers a clean, austere home, devoid of clutter. (Yes, she threw all of mine out.)

    It was 308 miles from Lusk to Greybull one way. She was a first-year second-grade teacher intent on doing the very best for her students. Suffice it to say she is a perfectionist and if it’s something she is interested in she’ll devote endless hours and equal amounts of money to see it through.

    I was a football, basketball, and track coach, teaching six preps at Niobrara County High School and sponsoring three clubs. Still, we found a way to rendezvous in Casper, at my parents’ home between Pavillion and Kinnear, or in Greybull.

    In between, letters filled the void. A stamp cost 20 cents in 1981, a much cheaper alternative than the long-distance rates. (remember long distance?)

    I wrote letters to Sue during my prep period from Monday to Thursday, and we called on the weekends. After practice, I drove or sometimes walked the half-mile from my apartment to the post office to deliver the letter before 7 pm.

    I wish I had my letters to read, but Sue’s letters reveal a youthful innocence, an outlook on life not tempered by the forces of darkness that knock the idealism out of young people. They remain a snapshot in time.

    Leon Toyne’s letters have that same youthful idealism.

    As a historian, I’ve always enjoyed reading diaries, personal letters, and correspondence from earlier periods.

    Ken Burns, the exemplary video historian, knows the power as well. His “Civil War” is the best thing that PBS ever produced in my opinion.

    In the second episode of the series titled, “A Very Bloody Affair” Burns introduces the world to a letter written by Sullivan Ballou, a major in the Second Rhode Island just before the first Battle of Bull Run.

    It brought me to tears the first time I heard it, and it still does to this day. Here is one moving section that exemplifies the power of the letter.

    “Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.”

    A few lines later, Ballou begins to conclude this immortal letter.

    “But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.

    Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.”

    Ballou was killed in action a week later before the letter arrived home to Sarah in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

    E-mails and texts have their place, but they will never, never have the power of a handwritten letter.


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