A Man of Letters

by Kristen Nance, Texas Voices Editor

The letters began with an off-hand comment between two business associates.

“I’m taking my family to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the Bicentennial.” My dad tossed the thought out onto the pile of small talk after a meeting. On the plane home, Bill Palmer grabbed a legal pad from his overstuffed briefcase and penned his first epistle to my father and our family. It was an eleven-page summary of the sights to be seen and bargains to be had in our destination. This was Bill Palmer’s way, and the beginning of a thirty-year friendship recorded in letters.

 Bill had a room upstairs in his Hollywood home he had claimed for his own, safe from the maid and his wife’s attempts to organize him. Wide windows opened onto a view overlooking the city below. Souvenirs from his travels, mementos of his children, plaques and awards from work, and Indian artifacts filled a wall of bookshelves. The other walls of the room wore a mural of family photos and favorite Republicans. In the middle of the room stood an old, scuffed desk, wood warmed from years of use. An old coffee mug labeled “World’s Greatest Dad” held pens pilfered from various hotels, with the matching notepads and the day’s newspapers scattered nearby. Photos of his son and daughter and his beloved Charlene, still his starlet after all these years, faced his chair. A miscellany of boxes held Indian arrowheads and a collection of odd stamps. Here in this cluttered sanctuary, he wrote the letters that became such treats to his friends.

Sitting in the creaky chair, he read the day’s newspapers with scissors ready to clip a coupon or a sports score as the need arose. He read with friends and family in his mind, peering at the words through their eyes. A newspaper article, an editorial cartoon, even a restaurant advertisement might trigger a sudden thought of someone special. When something caught his eye and started his heart to thinking, he quickly clipped, then snatched the nearest hotel pen and pad and wrote—real letters, communication safe from the intrusion of text messages, emails, and the electronic shorthand they generated. His large, strong hands struggled to keep pace as his quick mind raced through advice, inspiration, encouragement, and laughter. Though angular and crisp, his forceful handwriting had a conversational grace that drew the lucky reader along from word to thought to joke. Red ink might pop in to emphasize an idea. Anticipating his reader’s comments or laughter, he might physically pause in the letter, and then continue with his own wry humor. Letters to my dad usually included a sports clipping detailing the latest battle of his high school alma mater or an editorial cartoon reflecting their shared irreverence and sense of the absurd. Bill’s letters were concrete, elegant reminders of, “I thought about you today and wanted you to know.” Although impulsive bursts of friendship, these letters were masterpieces—bright strokes of word and deed.

Once written, these masterpieces deserved proper frames.  The box of stamps on his desk held a variety of values, colors, art, and themes, all purchased in bulk from a discount warehouse on the East coast. He carefully selected a hodge-podge of stamps, exactly totaling the day’s fare for a letter’s journey, and each with a special message for the recipient. My father’s might have included great personalities from jazz, history, or sports. Addressing the letter might include hand-written asides, comments on the stamps, or clever nicknames the postman must have hated deciphering. I picture Bill carrying the letters to the mailbox and raising the flag, satisfied with the results of this daily, deliberate chaos.

The post office must have had a time counting up the pennies in each stamp. But the letters flew across the country, landing in mailboxes and delighting friends. The whole family knew a Bill Palmer original and shared the event of its arrival.

When my twelve-year marriage ended and my daughters and I were finding our new path, I received my own original Palmer. Instead of a random clipping, the news from my father of my finalized divorce generated a letter to me. The impulse to comfort, encourage, and inspire hope sent Bill to his desk. I had never met him but knew his letters well. When I found my own letter addressed in that firm handwriting and decorated with brightly colored stamps, I pulled it reverently from the mailbox. On my envelope, stamps cried out, “Give me liberty or give me death,” celebrated the American woman and love, exhorted us to swear “hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  Bill added a bright red “and women” to Thomas Jefferson’s quote. The thoughtful words were written on a card depicting a 19th century U.S. cavalry victory with a Teddy Roosevelt-like lead rider. Bill called my new life “bright, grand, and glorious.” I could hear his own battle with cancer in his urgent advice to cherish my children, celebrate my family, and live each moment of life in hope. I determined to follow his advice.

One fall shortly after, the letters stopped coming. We knew the scissors lay still, the stamps undisturbed, and the pen silenced. There would be no more delights in the mailbox. The lost art of letter writing may have died with Bill Palmer. Bill wrote letters to honor his friends and to communicate his commitment to them across miles. He wrote letters to celebrate the people he loved and the things they cared about. He wrote letters to connect. His dedication to the art and purpose of letter writing nurtured friendship across the miles and over decades.

 My father still has a collection of his letters, including the epic that began their friendship, and I treasure mine. In an age of electronic abbreviations, Bill Palmer sent pieces of his heart with each scrap of newsprint and sealed his letters with good wishes. Our hearts were filled, faith renewed, and hope inspired.