Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Letters Home by Glenda Helms

Letters Home begins in June 1970.  The narrative is pieced together from the author's letters home from Europe, and letters to her husband, and from a diary the author kept during that period.  There are also a few letters written by her husband, who served in the Air Force, to her.  Now and then the author adds some explanatory text to help us understand what is happening in their lives at a certain moment.

I enjoyed Letters Home.  It is well-written and well-edited.  It flows nicely, chronologically, and the Postscript gives us some closure.  I would have loved to have seen photographs in the book to accompany the story, especially when specific photos are mentioned.  The beauty of e-books is that photos can be added easily to the book file, so I hope that in future, the author adds a few to the memoirs.

1971, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in Portofino, Italy

Letters Home feels like the contents of a time-capsule from over forty years ago that has been opened and made public.  That feeling comes not only from the far greater number of European military bases in that period, but also to the social and economic situations in America and Europe.  What I found most striking was the depiction of innocence and decency in the U.S. that seems to have been replaced in forty years time by much harshness and crudity.

Perhaps the contrast is so strong due to the decency of the narrator and her husband, and of their families?  Perhaps it is because of the lovely, human details included in the book, and the direct, honest, simple narrative style?  Or perhaps the contrast is so strong because a major crude and rude-ification of U.S. society has taken place in the past forty years?  I will leave the answer to that question to you.


For a taste of the decency I mean, here is the author writing about her homesickness:
My mom was the best though.  She was a wonderful writer and always wrote details of what was going on in everyone's life back home.  She kept me up on family news, and news from old friends who were getting engaged, getting married, and other girl chit chat.
The closeness between the author and her family is touching, especially for someone like me, who has never experienced that.  Her family's loving support inspired the author to take a chance on a man she barely knew, and to move to the other side of the world to be with him.  The couple's time abroad, living in foreign cultures, brought them closer.  Overcoming the difficulties together created a bond between them that lasts to this day.  The stresses of the military life, however, did not help all the marriages described in the book.

Here is the author telling her husband about her mother's blessing:
Mother said to me that the angels must have been watching over me when I found you, and that's the way I feel.


Some 1970s nostalgia...

The largest portion of the book covers the time the couple lived in Italy.  That is why I requested a review-copy of Letters Home.  The couple lived near Brindisi on the heel of Italy's boot, and they took every opportunity to travel through Italy and Europe.  The economically depressed, and socially hyper-conservative area of Italy they lived in was understandably difficult to adjust to.  They enjoyed their escapes to the wealthier, more relaxed areas of Italy and Europe.

Here is the author quoting a salty soldier's opinion of San Vito, the base's location:
A guy on the base says that if they gave the world an enema, San Vito is where they would stick it in.
I traveled through Europe in the early 80s, and I lived in Italy through much of the later 80s, and I have visited often since then.  I can honestly say that I notice very little difference between Italy of the 70s and Italy now, except for a price inflation that has made living in Europe more expensive than living in the U.S.  Socially, Italy is still nearly a generation behind the U.S., and the south of Italy is even further behind.  The younger generation struggles to pull the society around them into the first-world's twenty-first century.

President Richard Nixon Greets Washington Senators Catcher Jim French after their Win over Brewers

Here is the author's first impression when she and another military wife arrive in Rome:
We arrived at the airport in Rome anticipating getting on another plane that would take us to Brindisi.  To our dismay, we missed our flight by minutes.  We were heartbroken.  We now had to endure sitting at the airport most of the day while exhausted, dirty, and disappointed, waiting for the next flight.  I discovered right away at the airport that Italian men were way too attentive.
That sometimes-aggressive attention from men has changed a bit, but not much.  Misogynistic comments and behavior are still common, and the social conservatism is still most striking southern Italy.  The author and her husband also very quickly encountered a rip-off-foreigners mentality that has characterized too many Italians for generations.  They also noticed the poverty and the filth, most noticeable by comparison when they traveled to spotless Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.


Brindisi, Italy, which I know first hand to be a rather horrible town, a base for ferries to Greece, and the home of money-grubbing, unhelpful ticket sales offices, and female-hounding sleezeballs.

The couple decide, for some unknown reason, to get married in Italy.  The bureaucratic hurdles they have to jump are the same for pretty much anything in Italy today, from getting a telephone, permits, driver's license, etc.

One account of their time in Italy struck a strong cord with me.  Their rented apartment is broken into and they are robbed.  The author's husband becomes very worried for her safety since she is often home alone for long periods of time, so he sends her back to The States early, to keep her safe, and to give him peace of mind, but they both suffer greatly from the separation.

A decade after their misadventure, I met an American soldier who experienced a similar thing, near Naples, and he and his wife made the same decision, with the same suffering.  He explained that, sadly, the apartments of American service people in Italy are routinely targeted by Italian criminals.  The wife of the soldier in Naples was raped during the robbery.


The subtitle of the book is The Story of an Air Force Wife, and the account could be seen as something that generic, but it is really so much more.  There are many Air Force wives described in the book, friends of the couple.  There are also many Air Force men described in the book.  But this is really the story of one specific Air Force wife and her husband.  The two were lucky to have found each other, and bright enough to recognize what they had found:  their perfect partner in life.

On the cover of the book you see in a photo the smiling faces of the author and her husband from about the time the letters were written.  I've heard it said many times before by people looking at soldiers and their spouses, and I found the thought running through my mind:  They're just kids; so young!  When one thinks of them getting married and moving around the world, one can't help but imagine that their story could not have gone well, but it did go well.


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Rome's Airport in 70s

The 1970s in the U.S. are usually portrayed as a time of domestic strife dealing with a controversial foreign strife, and of growing social change.  That does not come across very strongly in this book.  Politics are barely touched upon, and the opposition to the Cold War's hot wars is not mentioned at all.

The social changes, mainly the growth for women in education, employment and in reproductive and health decisions, are touched upon to a greater extent, because the author is a woman who seeks to get an education and employment.  She also chooses to postpone having children until her husband leaves the Air Force, with her husband in full agreement, but there is no real discussion of the new sexual freedom that was ushered in with reliable birth control, The Pill.

There is only one mention of birth control, when a young Air Force wife has an unexpected pregnancy because she never learned about birth control from, as the author says, her mother.  Although the author doesn't discuss birth control in any detail at any point in the book, I assumed that she was using The Pill.  So I kept waiting for a connection to be made between the author's serious problems with hair loss, and the very high-dosage birth control pills that were used at that time, but the connection was never made.  Hair loss, for both men and women, is directly linked to hormonal levels, but the doctors kept sending her to dermatologists!

Here is the author talking about her frustrations as a military housewife:
I had a nice long talk with Sheryl last night.  We both miss those long calls with our mothers, and we both get tired of the menial tasks of housekeeping.  We wish there was something more exciting for us to do here.
The author encountered the prejudice of the military command, who believed military wives were only there to make comfy homes for their husbands, not to work.  The military at that time spent a fortune on shipping in and housing Americans to do civilian jobs that the military spouses could have done.

Jack Nicklaus Watches Pres Ford's Golf Swing at Inverrary Classic, Lauderhill, Florida, Feb 2, 1975

I found this time-capsule book a fascinating read.  Because of my age, I could see what had changed in the forty or so years since the letters were written.  I could also see what had not changed much in that time.  I find myself wondering what younger readers might make of the book?  And what might military spouses think of it?  Has life for the spouses changed that much? 

When people call themselves Italophiles, it is because they love the beauty, and the rich culture and history of Italy, including the musical language.  The authors, too, loved those aspects of Italy, but like all foreigners who live for a time in Italy, they admit that there are many negatives to Italian life.  In Letters Home you can read about the past struggles and the joys of this charming couple, the cumulative effect of which made them Italophiles.

President Jimmy Carter Talking with Reporters, Jan 24, 1977

From the book's description:
In the 1970's, Glenda met the love of her life, Michael, a Sgt. in the Air Force. She left her family and all that was familiar to follow him to Italy where they married.  During the next eight years, they were sent to Italy and Germany where their lives were filled with adventure, travel, hardships, and homesickness as they experienced the magic of Europe together.

Letters Home is available as an e-book, in various formats, via Smashwords, a major on-line e-book store.  You can sample the first 20% of the book for free.

The Kindle e-book and the paperback edition of Letters Home are both available from  Here are direct links to both:

Visit the author's Facebook page.  Here is a link to the Wikipedia article about the San Vito Air Force Base.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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