As waves rolled near her grass hut on the South Pacific island of Los Negros, 22-year-old Della Fahley wrote a letter in February 1945 to her parents back in Bloomington.
Fahley was on a layover en route to Australia, where the U.S. State Department had assigned her to work as a secretarial clerk. Over the next three years, she would handle official government correspondence while taking the time to write more than 200 letters home. In this one, she described a volleyball game with military medical personnel and visits with islanders whose "little tiny kids run around naked."
She was gathering shells along the beach, she wrote, where "every time I'd stoop over a big wave splashed all over me." She'd lost her pen and asked her folks to send along an Eversharp fine point. "Don't worry about me," she wrote; she was feeling "swell" and eating well.
Almost as an afterthought, she had a request: "Save my letters for me … will you?"
Her parents, Anton and Agnes Fahley, did just that, preserving the letters in a three-ring binder that for a while went missing. Not that Della fretted. "That old thing?" she once said. "Nobody cares."
Luckily, her kids cared. Her son Brian Wilson, a professional writer, discovered the binder on a trip home and vowed to publish the letters penned by his globe-trotting mom. Just before he died of cancer in 2004, Brian asked his older sister, Linda Keegan, to finish the project.
Now Keegan has fulfilled that promise, compiling 193 of the letters in a 376-page book, "Love, Della," for relatives and friends. The letters chat about things ranging from Aussies bristling at Della's brash dancing to her camel ride near the Egyptian pyramids after being assigned to Cairo.
"Halfway up the walk from the Sphinx we found a couple of camels so of course we had to get on," she wrote.
"My mother's tenacity and gutsiness just jump out," said Keegan, a retired interior decorator who lives in Bloomington and turns 71 on Monday. In the introduction, she calls the book "a remarkable true story of the adventures of a strong, beautiful independent young woman far ahead of her time."
The sixth of seven kids, Odella "Della" Fahley was born in 1922 and earned her pilot's license by age 21. She married Norman Wilson, a major in the Australian Army, in Melbourne in 1948 and returned to Bloomington with her husband and baby Linda in 1952.
The couple raised three kids as Della worked as a school secretary and Norm became a manager at the St. Paul Cos. Della died in 2013 at 90, two years before Norm died at 96.
Back in 1944, when a supervisor said she'd been assigned to Australia in 1944, she "almost fell on my face," she wrote the folks. She had been hoping for Europe or South America. But her sense of adventure quickly eclipsed any disappointment.
"Yep! I'm going west all the way [to] the Pacific and all those South Sea Islands I've always wanted to see down to the 'land down under,' " she wrote home from Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve 1944.
In her 1945 beachside note, Fahley noted how rare civilian women were in the war-torn Pacific — especially at church on Sunday.
"I thought I might just as well dress up a bit, so I discarded my usual slacks and donned a dress," she wrote. "I guess I disrupted the whole service, and even the nurses whistled. Seeing a civilian girl itself is almost unheard of, but one in a dress? Yikes!"
She raised eyebrows with her open-toed shoes and intimate dancing, according to a Sydney Telegraph clipping she included with her letter.
"Am green with envy at all the American girls' summer shoes which have come to light lately," the Telegraph reported. "Especially admire atomic blonde Della Fahley's platform soled toe-peepers."
In a 1945 letter to her parents and brother Eddie, Fahley wrote that she'd been attending dance parties near the U.S. embassy in Canberra, Australia's capital.
"We dance as we always have back home and never thought anything of it, although it certainly isn't the Australian way," she wrote, insisting she "got the biggest kick" out of a local dance teacher's criticism of the Americans' "woo-woo style."
"The girl's left hand, instead of resting sedately above her partner's left elbow, is flung carelessly round his neck," the paper reported, adding that the "boys like it because it enables the shyest to dance cheek-to-cheek."
Fahley's future husband was among those happy boys. "Norm is very nice looking, not very tall, about 25 — strictly Irish, a Catholic and loads of fun," she wrote.
When the Fahleys of Bloomington finally welcomed home Della and met Norm and their little girl in 1952 at the Milwaukee Road depot in Minneapolis, Anton called it "a thrill for all of us."
"Just thinking of the satisfaction it will be to be able to have all of you with us … and you, Linda, may be able to read this one day," he wrote in an epilogue to the binder.
She's not only read it, Grandpa, but Linda has published the letters in a book that captures the feisty wanderlust of a State Department clerk in the 1940s.
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Reach him at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.