First Place Essay: "Please Be Advised"

by Michael Withiam '79

 “Please be advised your son is missing in action.”

“Please be advised your son has been killed in the service of his country.”

My grandmother lived 100 days past her 100th birthday, and I will never know how many times she told her stories of delivering telegrams with grim, terrible news during World War II.

She was a small woman in physical size, but so strong. She commanded attention and respect when she entered a room, and her straight, direct way of speaking held your focus like a laser beam.

She was a railroad station agent, one of millions of women who did “men’s” work during the war. Receiving and delivering telegrams was one of the many duties she performed, but one task stood out from all the others.

“I hated that job,” she’d say, starting her story again. “But I was the only agent, so I had to do it.

“The whole town always knew something was up because I’d lock the station up at a strange hour.

“I knew people were looking out their windows, wondering ‘who this time’ as I drove away.

“I knew almost every one of them,” she’d say, shaking her head slowly, her eyes sad. “Damn town only had 500 people, but every family had someone off to war.

“I had to get the sheriff to go with me,” her eyes locked on mine, and seeing something clearly from years ago. “Couldn’t be alone in case something happened.

“The family’d see you coming up the walk and open the door before you got there.

“You had to read the telegram to them, then make them sign for it. Weren’t allowed to touch them —,” her voice trailing off.

“How the hell you supposed to do that?” she’d ask, anger and indignation in her voice. “Neighbors. Friends. Not touch them, help them?”

She’d smile her catch-me-if-you-can smile and lean toward me.

“I broke that rule a lot.

“Damn govinment,” she’d say, sitting back and slapping her thighs with hands. “What do they know?”

“Hated that job.

“But I always thank God I never had to take a telegram with my name on it,” she’d say, voice quieter, like a secret was being shared. “Always worried one day I’d get one about Al Jr. when I was alone at the station. Wondered what I’d do if I found out him that way.

“But he made it home,” her voice strong again. “I had it good.”

But there was always a tear in her eye when she finished.

“Get me a damn cigarette!” she’d bark, getting you to look away so she could wipe the tear from her cheek.