A grandfather's wartime letters home about his baby daughter find new meaning for his grandson, who's serving in Kuwait during his child's first year.
Shane Myre always was close to his Grandpa Chuck. The family resemblance shows in photos of grandpa when he was about Shane's age -- both darkly handsome, compact, athletic. Shane spoke at his grandpa's funeral in 2006. Yet the grandson never imagined how their connection would deepen over this past year, through a packet of old letters, two babies, a world at war and a pencil.
Shane, 34, has served since last May in Kuwait with the Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps of the Minnesota National Guard, with the 1/ 34 Brigade Combat Team. He left at home his wife, Gloria, and their 6-month-old son, Gabe, but they've stayed in touch through the spontaneity of e-mail, the immediacy of Skype and the reliability of telephones.
During World War II, Capt. Chuck Myre left behind his own first-born, 8-month-old Jayne Anne, to serve as a Marine Corps pilot in the Pacific campaign. He and his family had letters.
Yet perhaps because letters are so tangible, they had been saved -- bundled and squirreled away until the inevitable sorting and divvying of family possessions unearthed them. Reading them, Greg Myre -- Chuck's son and Shane's dad -- saw the parallels of first-time fathers being halfway around the world during their babies' early months.
"I know Shane isn't the first one to go through this," said Greg, of Apple Valley. "But to see how his grandpa also was going through many of the same things, I decided to send them -- to do something for my son."
After a moment's hesitation, he sent the originals, "so he could hear the paper crack and see the actual handwriting."
"What really strikes me," he added, "is how Grandpa could never have known that, while sitting in his hooch on a hot, sweaty island, serving his country and waiting to get home to his family, he would write words home that over a half century later would bind his thoughts and experiences with one of his grandchildren, sitting in his hooch in a hot, sweaty Middle East country, serving his country and waiting to get home to his new family."
Greg also took the time to group the 40-some letters into four bundles so that Shane's son, Gabe, would be about the same age as Grandpa's Jayne Anne as the letters arrived.
"The similarities are amazing," said Shane, calling from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. "His feelings of being away for a year from his child are so similar to what I've felt."
For instance, after Gloria told him that she was teaching Gabe how to brush his teeth, Shane unfolded one of his grandpa's letters to read his reaction to news that Jayne Anne had gotten her first toothbrush.
Shane would hear about the first time Gabe sat up, or got his first tooth, or stood up in his crib, then find that the next letter in the stack almost invariably included his grandpa's thoughts upon hearing that his daughter had reach those milestones.
"When Grandpa learned that Jayne Ann was 33 inches tall, he went out with a pencil and marked a two-by-four with how long that was," Shane said. "He wrote that, oh my goodness, he thought that was so tall. So when Gloria told me that Gabe was 32 inches tall, I took a pencil and marked 32 inches on my office door, so I could imagine if Gabe was coming around the corner towards me, that's what it would look like."
Far from making him homesick for St. Paul, Shane said the letters actually helped him deal with the separation, just knowing that his grandpa had faced the same feelings, "like the insecurities about going back."
As Jayne Anne Myre, who grew up to become Jayne Olson of Edina, said, "The letters seem to have helped him, just knowing that someone went through this and it's normal to feel some things."
Before he left for Kuwait, Shane posed for a photo, crouched with arms wide in a "come to Papa" stance, then hung it over his baby's changing table. That's enabled Gabe to have a daily -- or many times daily -- way to see his dad.
"Shane recorded a few audio books before he left," said Gloria. "And we've been able to talk almost on a daily basis. But having that photo over the changing table has been great. Gabe stands up now and pats it."
With any luck, Gabe may be patting his dad's cheek for real in the next several days as members of his unit return to Minnesota. Shane knows he's missed his son's first snowfall, first birthday, first Christmas. Even though he knows that Gabe now is 16 months old, he's prepared to be a bit startled upon seeing him, given the tricks of the mind. Through the letters, he learned that his grandpa had felt the same way, contemplating returning to an 18-month-old daughter he still remembered as an infant.
"They send you pictures that show how your kid is growing and you can see them getting older and getting stronger," Shane said.
"But when you close your eyes, all you see is the size they were the last time you held them. That last physical contact is what stays in your mind."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185