BATH – He thought, as he sat down in his Navy barracks 67 long years ago and put his pen to paper, that he was speaking to an audience of one.

And if he were still alive today, Bob Footer undoubtedly would look over his beloved wife’s shoulder as she taps his words on a computer keyboard and ask, as he so often did during their 64 years of wedded bliss, “For God’s sake, Cynthia, what’s the matter with your head?”

“A lot!” Cynthia said with a chuckle Friday as she rested her weary forehead on the neatly arranged letters — 837 in all, most still in their original Air Mail envelopes — that fill a tray on her dining room table. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Oh God, what have I got myself into?’ “

Call it a daily blast from the past. Or a labor of love. Or a race against time.

Whatever it is, four years after he died peacefully from natural causes at age 90, former Shipfitter 2nd Class Bob Footer has gone viral.

And Cynthia, who once a day sits down and carefully types another of his letters into her e-mail outbox and hits the “send” button, can no longer say with certainty how many people out there are hanging on every word.

“Everyone who gets it sends at least one copy to somebody else,” Cynthia said as four of her six children — Jane Whittaker, 67, of Five Islands and Susan Hummer, 65, Cindy Gabelmann, 57, and Bob Footer Jr., 45, all of Bath — nodded in agreement.

“I never knew he had it in him,” Jane said. She was but a 5-month-old infant when her father’s first letter to Cynthia arrived from Camp Peary in Virginia on Aug. 15, 1943…

“I didn’t think it was possible to miss anyone the way I miss you and the baby dear. It’s an awful feeling and has me hating this place already. These first few days are the worst though and maybe I’ll feel better later…So long for now, All my love to you and Jane, Bob.” 

They first laid eyes on each other at Morse High School in 1934.

Bob, a senior, was a star athlete who lettered in three sports.

Cynthia, a freshman, was a cheerleader who didn’t think he knew she existed until she got a job behind the soda fountain at Hallet’s Drug Store and started slipping him a free Coke whenever he came through the door.

They married in April of 1942. Little Jane arrived the following March. And that summer, like so many men his age, Bob left his job at Bath Iron Works, enlisted in the Navy and went off to World War II.

He wrote home just about every day. And just about every day, Cynthia wrote back.

He cherished her letters, but didn’t save them as he traveled from boot camp in Virginia to advanced training in Rhode Island to Navy bases in California, Hawaii and finally the islands of the South Pacific.

She too waited anxiously for the mail each day and, after reading each letter, carefully put it back into its envelope and tucked it into an old, wooden-framed suitcase.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, the pile grew.

Why did she keep them?

“Why wouldn’t I keep them?” replied a wide-eyed Cynthia. “I lived for them. If I didn’t get one, I felt worse than he did.”

Bob’s penmanship was flawless.

His writing, rich in detail and resonant with his no-nonsense voice, opens a window into the daily life of a young man from Maine as he prepares for and eventually deploys to the war against Japan… 

“I’m getting to know the fellows in the next bunks now and they are nice guys…The fellow on the right is trying to shorten his dungarees. He tried to cut some off the cuff but ripped them up the side and everybody is laughing like hell. Wait till I start shortening mine…

“Please pardon all these spots on this paper for the weather here is hot as hell and my hands are wringing wet. It’s almost impossible to lay your hand on this paper without it getting dirty…

“The fellows in this barrack are from every part of the country. The fellow above me is from Michigan, the two from one side from the state of Washington, and the two on the other side from S. Carolina and Arkansas. We have every accent known to man.” 

Shorty, the guy from South Carolina, cracked Bob up simply by opening his mouth — which he did often.

Then there was the musician who serenaded the camp with his trumpet each evening, the wise guy from the Bronx with his dead-on imitation of the umpires at Ebbets Field, the forlorn sailor who showed up at each mail call hoping for a letter from his wife — only to walk away empty-handed. 

“One of the fellow’s wife hasn’t written to him since he’s been here and he’s worried to death. He just walks around worrying himself sick. If there’s nothing wrong with her she should be shot for her indifference. I’m glad you love me so much, dear, and do all you can to make me happy.” 

Early on, virtually every letter ends with Bob telling Cynthia how much he loves and misses her and reminding her to “kiss little Janie for me.” And then, after he and Cynthia rendezvoused for a 36-hour liberty in Boston, along came Susan… 

“Well, honey, I’m going to close for now as it’s getting late. I love you darling so much that it’s become a mania with me. You and the children are in my thoughts all the time and it’s impossible to tell you how much the three of you are missed. Take good care of all of you and kiss Janie and Sue for me. So long for now…

“The boys are getting nervous here. There must be about 25 planes taking off from Quonset. They just skim over the barracks and what a racket! I hope they don’t misjudge a little.” 

From 1944 into 1945, Bob hopscotched across the South Pacific, ending up on Okinawa in the weeks before Japan agreed to surrender in August of 1945.

He spent his share of time in a foxhole, but never had to shoot anyone (at least he never wrote or talked about it) and never was wounded in action.

His last letter was dated Nov. 1, 1945.

“Well, honey, it’s finally happened and I’m really excited. Frame this for it should be the last letter you’ll receive from me while I’m in the service. They just called my name over the loudspeaker and I’m leaving at ten-fifteen this morning. … I’ve got to get everything packed and there’s not too much time. That’s one boat I don’t want to miss!” 

The letters, now so old that the Air Mail stamps have fallen off the envelopes, would still be in the old suitcase if Cynthia hadn’t realized last spring that they posed a bit of a dilemma.

On the one hand, she wanted to share them with her children. She thought they would give them a deeper understanding of their father, who came home, worked for 35 years as a repairman for New England Telephone and never wrote another letter in his long, happy life.

But on the other hand, Cynthia knew some of her husband’s words were written, well, for her eyes only. And even after she’s gone, she didn’t want anyone pawing through the more intimate details of her and Bob’s early years.

So last March, she picked up the first letter, opened an e-mail file and started typing.

And whenever she got to something that was between her and Bob, she simply inserted the phrase “private moment” and resumed after things cooled down a bit.

“If you don’t want me to send these letters to you, just let me know,” Cynthia wrote atop the first installment to Jane, Sue, Cindy, Bob Jr., and her two other daughters, Judy French-Lowy, 62, and Mary Dulik, 50.

Don’t want her to send them? Was she kidding?

“How many people get to read this kind of detail, a narrative that is going to lead up to the time you were conceived and carry through the time you were born?” said Sue, who was 18 months old before her father finally laid eyes on her. “It’s gripping and it’s powerful for me.”

Ditto for the four younger children, all born after Bob returned home.

“For those of us who weren’t part of this on paper, it’s still our history,” Cindy said. “It’s the history of our parents and their love, which ultimately created all of us. And we’ve been blessed to have been brought up in that.”

But it’s no longer just the kids, mind you, who log on each day hoping for the next installment of “World War II as seen by Shipfitter 2nd Class Bob Footer.”

The e-mail chain now includes grandchildren, great-grandchildren, extended family, friends, friends of friends…and it continues to grow by the day.

Recently, Cynthia got a phone call from an agitated daughter Mary in Pennsylvania.

“Why didn’t you write him?” demanded Mary, who’d just finished her father’s latest letter.

“What?” asked a befuddled Cynthia.

“You didn’t write to Daddy for two days — and now he’s so lonely!” Mary said.

It’s not the first time the past has morphed seamlessly into the present.

“We all know the ending, we know what happened,” explained Cindy. “But we still can’t wait to see what happens next.”

“It’s like our daily fix,” Jane added.

Which leads to another problem for Cynthia: Even if she manages to transcribe one letter per day, she fears she won’t have enough time left to pre-screen and transcribe every one before she rejoins Bob in the hereafter.

Still, it’s too late to stop. Thanks to Bob and his way with words, Cynthia now has a hungry audience to feed.

And besides, something happens when she sits down each evening, opens yet another envelope, carefully unfolds yet another letter, and loses herself in her husband’s prose.

“I can hear him,” Cynthia said, gazing at the stacks of yellowed envelopes.

“It’s like I’m going back in time.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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