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Finding love at the mailbox

‘Buddy writing’ brought Staples couple together

By Bruce Fuhrman

Some relationships start with a smile, a conversation, a blind date, or a simple introduction. But for Bill and Annette Heldman of rural Staples, it all started with a letter.

In the military, during the peacetime of the 1950s and early ‘60s, it became common for soldiers or sailors to participate in “buddy writing,” a form of communication that broadened their connections to the outside world. It would often begin by one person encouraging his friend to write letters to his other friends back home (as strangers) in hopes of growing a bigger friendship network. It was unique, and for a short time, became a common way for Americans to get to know people around the country.

A letter that Annette received from Bill. It was sent with Duane Quiggle’s name on the envelope. Duane was friends of Annette in high school and was bunk mates with Bill in the Army. Duane encouraged Bill to mail a letter to Annette, and can be credited as the matchmaker for their marriage. Along with one of the letters from Annette to Bill. Contributed photos

Tucked away in a shoebox, hidden from others to find, are letters so alive with friendship and love that they almost have a heartbeat. The letters originated from Duane Quiggle of Fairmont, Minnesota, who spoke to his Army bunkmate, Bill Heldman, about writing to a young female friend back home. Quiggle liked the idea of buddy letters as a form of match-making and/or encouraging new friendships to form.

After joining the Army in 1957, Bill and Duane were boot camp roommates. Bill came from a military family. His father was a World War I veteran who became handicapped from combat. Bill and his two siblings cared for the small, self-sufficient farm near Staples. After high school, Bill worked at a local branch of the Northern Pacific Railway as a brakeman and switchman. He would later become a conductor. When he received a draft notice, the railway put his job on hold until he would return from his service.

The two young soldiers completed basic training, and Bill was moving on to be stationed in Des Plaines, Ill., to work in a military generator plant. It was not the exciting military life for such an adventurous and ambitious young man like Bill. It was sort of a lonely occupation, but still very needed.

Duane’s idea of having his Army buddy write letters to his friend, Annette, could help him through the tough times of solitude moving to a new location. Annette Hartung was a senior in high school at the time. As teenagers, Duane and Annette attended church youth group together in nearby Granada, Minn. She was soon to graduate high school to attend Business School in Mankato. She too would be needing some encouragement to meet new people.

Duane spoke to Bill about Annette before he left for Des Plaines, and he gave him her mailing address and suggested he simply write and introduce himself. Bill said he may have hesitated for a while, procrastinated, much like most people do when jumping onto Facebook or other social media platforms for the first time.

Bill sent this photo to Annette of himself and an Army buddy in one of the letters. It was taken with his Kodak Brownie 127. Contributed photo

Eventually, Bill would write to Annette. He even took things a step further and sent a photograph of himself in his military attire; a picture of him and a buddy taken with his Kodak Brownie 127 camera. He wanted to make a good impression of himself. His first letter spoke of what he did for the military, his interest in John Deere farm tractors, and closed with a series of questions for Annette. His words were spoken in the most genuine, polite manner.

It was good that he did this, as Annette recalled her mother opening the first letter from Bill at the mailbox. Together, mother and daughter would read it thoroughly.

Who was this military man writing her daughter? His words seemed harmless to her mother, so Annette excitedly wrote back. If Bill would write back again, Annette could read it on her own. The letters of friendship went back and forth throughout March and April that year, often written the same day as a letter would arrive.

The two agreed to meet for the first time in May, when Bill was on military leave and able to take the railroad train to Minnesota. He rented a car to drive to Blue Earth, which is near Mankato, for a friendship date, to go bowling. Unfortunately, after he arrived they found the bowling alley was closed that day, so the two walked around Blue Earth just talking.

“It was much better than bowling,” said Annette.

More letters were exchanged throughout the summer. In August, the two were able to be together for a second time, to attend his sister’s wedding in Staples. Annette recalled that with each new letter, their relationship had grown, and that they were considered a couple now.

“These yellowing pages of warm words, interests, and future plans turned our friendship into love for each other. A love that reached across the state lines,” she said.

Bill and Annette Heldman of rural Staples on their wedding day in the fall of 1959. The couple wrote letters to each other while Bill was in the service before they ever met as part of the “buddy writing” trend during that time. Contributed photo

Later, in December, Annette received one of her fondest Christmas gifts, an engagement ring from Bill.

The couple prepared for an October 1959 wedding. During this time, Bill was discharged from his service, and was able to get crop in the ground on the farmland he owned near Staples. He would also return to the Burlington Northern Railroad as a conductor and brakeman, a job he had before he was drafted. Annette would leave her schooling early, and took a job at the Martin County Bank.

The newlyweds held a goal of building a home on the cropland to begin a dairy operation. They rented a small, rural home (smaller a trailer house), near the land Bill owned. It was near where he had grown up. Annette remembered how small the house was, and how the family was growing, having four children during this time. It was difficult, but good. Eventually the idea of dairy farming became more of a reality as the cattle herd had grown toward 50 milk cows. The barn on the farm did not have the capacity for that many cows, so the cattle were milked in shifts. Annette would oversee the milking operation, while Bill was working for the railroad. It was a lot of work, but they managed to make ends meet. In 1966, the couple built a home—which remains on the farm today.

Annette recalled how her children would simply pitch in after some instruction, and at very young ages. The girls learned household skills, and the boys took on the farm chores and fieldwork. By the time the boys were about 10 years old, they were baling hay in small square bales, and able to back up a stacked load of 200 bales into the shed for unloading.

A couple of Annette’s favorites -- her grand children and her garden. Photo by Annette Heldman

The family would increase to seven children. As the next group of children became of a helpful age, they joined the work crew. Over the years, it was normal for them to take care of the fieldwork on the 200-acre farm, picking and processing a large garden of vegetables, and managing the dairy herd. They looked forward to harvest in the fall. There was family pride in the operation.

The Heldman family held the reputation of being strong and disciplined; a family that got things done. The family valued the suppertime meal, and it was served at a time when they all could eat together. It was here that they conversed about the day, fun things, experiences, and plans for tomorrow. When the children became teenagers, each were active in several high school activities (including wrestling, volleyball, music, and cross-country running), were in church every Sunday, and always active in the youth group activities. Throughout these years, Bill continued to work the railroad, and the farm chores always got done. During this time, Annette only missed one wrestling meet in Park Rapids, which she still has some regret.

Annette today at her home near Staples. Photo by Bruce Fuhrman

As the children found their spouses, some would live in nearby areas to continue working the farm or start one of their own. The next generation of Heldman has the “farming blood,” Annette said. In 1975, she began working off the farm at a local hospital in medical records. After 44 years, Bill retired from the railroad at age 69. It was to be a change of venue, a time to breathe, and for him to work the farm, as the family moved from dairy farming to beef and crop farming. However, it was short-lived as Bill would be taken away from the family in a suspicious pond drowning. The tragedy occurred on the back 40 acreage of the farm and remains a mystery. Annette has tearfully compartmentalized the incident as best she can. She quietly said, “I know where Bill’s soul is, and I will meet him there when it is time. And I will leave it at that.”

As life continues, Annette gazes out the kitchen windows to reflect on two walnut trees growing in the front yard. One of their sons dug up the saplings near Granada, to replant them on the farm several years ago. The young trees were from her childhood home, and are now full-grown shade trees.

Annette gathering some green walnuts from a tree on their Staples farm. She would peel them, roast them and eat them as a child. And she remembers nibbling on them while reading her buddy letters from Bill. Photo by Bruce Fuhrman

The trees remind her of how she and Bill became a couple. During the beginning of autumn, a yellow colorcast in the leaves would mark the start of the round, green walnuts falling from the trees and cluttering the yard. As she gathered them, she recalled how her mother would peel them and spend a lot of time during the cool evenings drying the nuts, picking out edible portions and roasting them for her children. They were good, and the only nuts Annette remembers eating as a child. She thinks about the quiet nights of 1958, nibbling on the nuts, and reading her “buddy letters.” These were good times in her life.

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