A glimpse of Herman’s search for a wife:
December 13, 1945, home on the farm, Herman gave himself an early Christmas gift—a lonely hearts club catalogue, The Exchange, Kansas City, Missouri. As I mentioned earlier, Herman’s sister told me that he was very shy. The back page of this catalogue sounds like what he needed.
You say you are too shy, don’t know how to go about it, are not sure it’s “the right thing to do.” As far as being shy is concerned, meeting people through friendly letters is easier than meeting them in person—you learn to know them slowly and easily, and take your time getting used to them between letters. And it’s such fun to get letters.
The faded blue catalogue with the girl holding a parasol is folded in half and worn. When first discovered, it had a thin string tied around with the folded “key” of names and addresses safely secured. When I untied it, I remember thinking that Herman, forty years dead, had tied the knot in the late 1940s.
He probably carried the catalogue in his back pocket while working and pulled it out to study whenever he paused for a break. Many pages have margin notes with the woman’s address. I imagine him sitting in the kitchen of the old farmhouse in the glow of a kerosene lantern, twilight deepening at the end of a long day working alone, dreaming of a wife and children.
Maybe after spending the past three years with other people, Herman realized he was lonely. Perhaps seeing combat made him conscious of his mortality. I remember when I returned from Vietnam and rushed into a marriage. How excited I was when my son was born—how much I loved to play on the floor with him and later, when he could walk, go to the park with him. But marriage requires more than that. In retrospect, I was not prepared—knew nothing about the responsibilities. Within a few years the marriage was a failure. Herman, like me, was very naive in his ideas of what marriage would entail.
I think now, he and I shared a very similar experience. We had been raised in the isolation of rural northern Minnesota, left home and participated in a life-altering experience, and returned home several years older to a civilian society that we knew nothing about.
WWII resulted in the widowhood of thousands of women. A whole new generation of single women—war time high school graduates—were also trying to find their place in life. Add to that chaos, millions of returning men and women, veterans of the most violent war in history, searching for a new normal. It was a time of upheaval as Herman set out on his quest. The two dollars he paid for the “key”—the list of names and addresses of the women in the catalogue— included a twelve-month membership in The Exchange.
I suspect he agonized over spending the two dollars and studied the catalogue while he waited for the address list. I imagine he recorded the numbers of the women who caught his eye, so when the key did arrive, he was ready to put a name and address to each listing.
In this first catalogue Herman received, he wrote the addresses of twenty-three women in the page margins. Did he contact them all? It’s hard to imagine what went through his mind as he fantasized about life with each woman. The first one in the book hadgrabbed his attention, and he recorded her name and address. Where did his imagination take him?
Most of the women who attracted Herman’s attention were in their mid-thirties, which makes sense; a few were teenagers. Number 1, Myrtis M. Wolfer, PO Box 127, Honey Island, Texas, loved to dance and party, very unlike Herman. What attracted him? She had sound credentials but was about half his age.
What about number 81—a teenager? Today, in our materialistic society, it’s hard to imagine what a young woman, who came of age during the war years, a young woman who spent her childhood in the Depression, expected from life. What dreams might this teenager who was raised on an Oklahoma farm have? Did she come from a prosperous farm or did she come from a hardscrabble family of Joads—Steinbeck’s Dustbowl creation from The Grapes of Wrath?
Number 32 is a curiosity; did Herman consider selling his farm and relocating to hers?
There are no surviving letter drafts that he wrote to women. I believe he sent the original draft with a word or phrase crossed out or overwritten. I would love to know how he presented himself. For a man with an eighth grade education he was quite articulate and reasonably versed in grammar.
Did Herman make a list of qualities he wanted in a mate? From his mindset in the 1950s when I was a child, I’m sure Catholics were ruled out. Or did he cast a wide net, curious at what kind of responses he would receive?
I don’t think Herman had a very positive self-image. His bashfulness revealed itself quite early. Visiting with Herman’s old friend, Faye, I got a glimpse of Herman as a young man. Faye was twenty years younger than Charlie and Herman so recalls from a young girl’s point of view. She told me that Herman sometimes worked for Charlie in the 1920s and 30s. At the end of the week, Charlie asked Herman how much he owed him in wages. Faye told me, “Herman hung his head, too bashful to set a price, letting Charlie figure it out.” She continued on, “Herman was playful, like a big brother. Sometimes he’d sneak up and pull my ponytail.”
Fast-forward four years:
Herman accelerated his search in 1949. He received the latest edition of Standard Correspondence Club and subscribed to a new singles newspaper, Cupid’s Columns, “Foremost Matrimonial Magazine in the World.”
He discovered my mother. She must have purchased a long-term advertisement in Cupid’s Columns that began running the spring of 1949 because my grandmother, in her diary on August 11, 1949, wrote my mother’s address, 1871 Walton Avenue. That address is listed in the key for the January-February 1950 issue of Cupid’s Columns. (Note my mother’s alias.)
My mother wrote, Charming, attractive, pretty, refined brunette. 28, 5 ft. 41/2 in., 129 lbs. College educated. Plays piano and sings. I am wonderful cook and housekeeper. Know how to farm or ranch. Would love to correspond with farmer or rancher, or any respectable gentleman who loves children. I have 4 children, 7, 5, 3, 1. Would like to meet someone who would sincerely love my children and make them his own and be a good father to them, since they lost their own. My children would be a great help to a farmer or rancher in later years, however any gentleman who thinks he could love my children will be considered. Am willing to go any place in the world for the right man.