What’s in your family’s past that you have never been able to explain? I would be willing to bet that there is, at least, one mystery that you would like to solve.
So, hop in your Marty McFly (Back to the Future) DeLorean Time Machine, albeit an easy chair and laptop, and get to work. Why you may become so excited about your revelations that you’ll be motivated to write a book. Worked for me. In fact, my detective work led to two novels.
Discovery is so cool, especially when you have a vested interest. One seemingly meaningless document took me to a place I knew nothing about and revealed a segment of Charlie Polk’s life of which I only had minuscule information. The place – West Point, Virginia. For the life of me, I don’t know how or why that piece of paper survived for 63 years. Found it in an old box of photos that belonged to my grandmother. Clues. Just like a mystery novel.
Last night, a friend asked me to help her learn more about her family. But she had no idea where or how to start her search. The simple answer, start with what you know.
Case in point. I knew, based on conversations with my grandmother, that Charles Polk, Jr. worked at hard labor, building Virginia roads after he graduated from high school. I also knew or had been told, that he left his class ring in a restroom at a service station during that time. That’s it. Nothing more.
Then I found a 1953 Reimbursement Voucher, which clarified my grandmother’s claims and added more vital layers of information.
Oh, my gosh. Check out those meal prices. About three bucks per day. Hotel rates? $2.50 per day.
What about lodging at the West Point Hotel? Googled the heck out of it and came up with nada. But there is a West Point, Virginia and that’s when I came across a web page featuring town history and a photograph of the hotel that was torn down years ago.
In a previous article, I talked about another valuable piece of info uncovered on the document. His job for the Virginia Highway Department was not nearly so exciting as advertised by his mother. Instead of road builder, he was a car counter. That was before computers when counting was handled manually. Hashmarks on a clipboard.
Also, in the box of family memorabilia was a stack of letters from Charlie’s friends, most of them girls, and one who made her home in, you guessed it, West Point, Virginia. In one of her letters, she talks about working as a waitress at the West Point Hotel Diner, which is where their summer romance began.
Another group of letters from a gal named Roxanne from New Bern, NC during the USMC years. Google Maps to the rescue. New Bern is just 18.6 miles away from the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, SC. Roxanne’s address was in her letter so; I looked it up on Zillow. House is still there. Beautiful pic. What the heck? Let’s try ancestry.com. Found a census record for Roxanne and discovered that she was only 14 years old and dating a Marine. What? Didn’t include the rest of what I found, but I traced Roxanne all the way to Arkansas, where she became a prominent socialite. Died a few years ago.
The preceding is just a sampling of the clues that helped me unravel some mysteries about my family’s past and helped me to become a time traveler. All of it from my living room chair in Alabama, Starting in the small town of Strasburg in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and then 17,000 miles away to Iwakuni, Japan. All the while, experiencing the way it was in 1953 to 1955.
I am happy to report that at no time in my time traveling did I encounter a bully named Biff.
Hop in your DeLorean and get to work. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
You can read about my family mystery, Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare. And if you would be so kind and like the book, then leave a review.
Characters in stories must be believable. Even amazing superheroes have flaws and weaknesses.
Case in point…Kryptonite and Lois Lane make Superman weak and stupid. So, when I decided to write a book about my childhood hero, I was determined to find the holes in his perfection.
The star of Farewell PFC POLK is Charles F. Polk, Jr., my Uncle Buddy. He died when I was 7-years-old, which means that I have little recall of the actual man. Most of what I know about him was advanced by my family, the best PR firm ever.
Did I want to risk knocking him off that pedestal? Not at all. But I did want to know him better and answer the question, “Was he that good?”
So I began my research without the benefit of a single living family member to assist. Fortunately, my grandmother left behind a trunk filled with Charles Polk memorabilia, and the United States Marine Corps was wonderfully forthcoming with detailed records of Buddy’s military service.
As with any tragedy some facts are misunderstood, erroneously reported, or misrepresented. The first myth-buster was that he was accidentally killed by his best friend in Korea. In fact, PFC Polk was killed in Japan which was revealed in several documents.
My grandmother often talked about Buddy’s job out of high school when he worked for the Virginia Highway Department. She was persuaded that he worked on the roads doing heavy labor. In reality, he spent the summer of ’53 sitting along Virginia roads in a chair, counting vehicles. His job title is listed in the travel reimbursement request form below.
Armed with that simple document from 1953, I uncovered a photo of the hotel (no longer exists) in which he stayed and where he met the love of his life, that is, in the hotel dining room.
West Point Hotel, VA
To be clear, I don’t believe for an instant that Buddy’s mother lied about details of his life away from home. Just like most parents, she was left out of the loop. Parents have two ways of keeping up with their children. Eavesdropping on their conversations with their friends (not always intentional) and monitoring Facebook (not an option in the 1950s).
One tale that was often repeated was an incident in which Charles was reprimanded by a Marine Corps officer for carrying a New Testament in his shirt pocket. The miniature Bible was in his personal effects and mentioned by him in a letter to a girlfriend.
Buddy Polk was strikingly handsome, and blessed with movie star good looks. Again, it was his mother who advanced the story that he had a bunch of girls after him. Was that true? Judging from numerous letters from multiple love interests the answer to the question is a resounding “yes.”
Letters from friends were a great resource for time, places, activities, his thoughts, and key players in his story. Judging from the testimonials in those letters it was clear that he was perceived as a “good guy.”
In researching the letter writing of a girl named, Roxanne, who was madly in love with him, I unveiled a shocker. The girl from New Bern, North Carolina, was only 14 years old. They met when Buddy was stationed at Cherry Point at a nearby beach. And they dated (maybe only once). After his death, Roxanne paid a visit to my grandmother who would have had no idea that the girl was so young. She thought that it was strange that her daddy drove her to Virginia all the way from North Carolina. Knowing Mable Polk as I did, she would not have been happy to learn that her 19 year-old-son had a 14-year-old girlfriend. But then again, the more I studied the letters, the better I was able to understand the relationship. She was into him. He was just nice to her, you know, the good guy thing. Didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
His real love interest was Sally Duffy, a girl that he had met while working for the state in ’53. The letters revealed that their love was rekindled to the point of thoughts of matrimony.
Conclusion: After a ton of research, digging through family and military records, tracing the paper trail of his letters, and essential data uncovered through ancestry.com…Charles Polk, Jr., really was that good.
If you get around to reading my novel, and I hope that you will, please be so kind as to share a review. You can get Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare here.
Ten reasons to read my book. Now there’s a challenge. For me. Not you. Every author struggles with the question, “Who would want to read my book?” Then there’s that annoying inner voice that yells, “Nobody!” Ouch.
My best friend recently declared my reader worthiness on Facebook. “He is one of the most Prolific Writers of the 21st Century. If you want a Great Read… Order all his Books.” Thanks, Kurt. Wish everybody felt that way.
Most people have no interest in a book about the death of a loved one. Morbid. Sad. Depressing. I get it.
“The hero of the story gets killed mid-way through the story?” Yep.
But…that’s life. The way it really is. Happy endings are what we make of life’s gut blows.
Farewell PFC POLK is a celebration of that mysterious inner strength of the human spirit that rises above tragedy and rebuilds…finds a way…wins.
So, then, here are my ten reasons for reading my book:
You will definitely feel something. Heck, I cried when I wrote it. I also laughed. My favorite moments of writing are the ones that move me. That’s when I know that a scene has power.
2. This story will inspire you. There is life after the painful loss of a child. When buried in a crisis it’s difficult if not impossible to see a positive outcome. The mountain of pain is too high..the floodwaters of despair are too deep. But, one day, we find ourselves on the other side of the mountain beside still waters where faith and hope are restored.
3. It’s a beautiful love story. Yes, the hero of the story has a major love interest. Buddy Polk meets and falls in love with Sally Duffy in the summer of ’53. But, Sally, follows her head and not her heart and breaks off the romance at summer’s end. Buddy is so devastated by the experience that he joins the United States Marine Corps.
4. It’s a story about faith lost and regained. Buddy’s mom was the family’s spiritual rock. Her unshakable faith was brutally shaken to the point of nonexistence, and she feared that it was lost forever. In the midst of her hopelessness, she is confronted by an unlikely source which helps her to find her way back. With renewed faith comes hope.
5. It’s a mystery. The official Marine Corps report stated that PFC Charles Polk was accidentally killed by his best friend. But there are lingering questions about the authenticity of that friendship and the circumstances surrounding the death which are detailed in the book. I would love to hear your opinion on the matter. Was his death accidental or the result of a sinister plot to murder?
6. It’s based on a true story. Truer than not. Like I said in a previous post, “Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
7. The book deals with some of life’s greatest questions. “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow it? Is our future revealed in our dreams?”
8. The book is historical fiction. Farewell PFC POLK is set in the 1950s, and although not intended as such it does feature a plentiful supply of 50s trivia. The places, fashions, songs, movies, and more are spot on. In one scene, Sally Duffy is unhappy because she has to pay more than 20 cents for a gallon of gas. Later, she spends $20 for an entire week at the Hotel Strasburg.
9. It’s a story with plenty of humor. One of my favorite scenes to write was when Buddy goes to boot camp. Drill Instructors aren’t particularly funny when you’re going through it but, after the fact, they’re a hoot. With a background in writing comedy routines for a popular radio program (The Burt and Kurt Show) that I co-hosted for more than 40 years, I can’t help but add some comedic relief.
10. The story is a gripping drama and powerful story told in my wholesome writing style. In other words, no smut, no filthy language, and no gore.
There. I’ve done it. 10 Reasons You Should Read Farewell PFC POLK. Please add my novel to your To-Read list and if you like it, a review would be greatly appreciated.
And…I’ve got some good news. For a limited time, I have lowered the price of the eBook to just 99 cents. The print edition is also available for $9.93. Both versions are available here: Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare.
Book II from IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE is here!
Farewell PFC POLK: The End of a Nightmare opens in 1945 with a troubling nightmare on Charles Polk, Jr.’s 9th birthday.
There was that dream again. Buddy sat up in his bed and looked around the room for more pictures like those still fresh on his mind. Black and gray images depicting deep emotions of sorrow, pain, shock and desperation. People he knew: crying, moaning, screaming. There were strangers among them: motionless, speechless, sad. And the hundreds of black flowers on a bed of stars, stripes, and brass buttons made him feel trapped, isolated, helpless, and afraid.
My new novel picks up the story of Charlie and Mable Polk, 35 years after the end of Book I, IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE: Faith Conquers Fear. The flame of love as depicted in the first book was long gone by the time Charles, Jr. hit his senior year in high school.
Aging does more to a married couple than just alter physical appearance. Beyond the visible wrinkles…bulging waistlines, graying hair, and sagging skin are internal changes evidenced by altered personalities, irascible dispositions, and negative attitudes. Romantic closeness and intimacy are replaced by enmity, strife, and distance.
As their love faded, Charlie Jr.’s romantic star was rising, with not just one but three girls longing for his undivided affection. There was Bobbie Jean Beeler, the nurse.
She could have kicked herself for saying something so foolish. “I am so sorry. I should never have said that. It’s just that…I’m crazy about you. See what you do to me? You make me act all stupid. I’m so into you that, even when I’m with Cliff, I pretend it’s you. Look, I’ve said enough, more than enough.”
Roxanne Smitherman, a student from New Bern, NC, nearly captured his heart, until he found out something about her that instantly cooled their relationship. I’m not going to give away what happened but here’s a clue.
About a quarter way through the movie, Roxanne took Buddy’s hand and held it tightly. He was pleased with what he perceived as a demonstration of affection. But at the halfway point, Mrs. Smitherman grabbed his other hand, and as the tension built in the Hitchcock thriller, the hand squeezing intensified.
Then there was Sally Duffy, a pretty waitress from West Point, Virginia that swept him off his feet. The feeling was mutual, well, sort of.
Sally’s icy stare melted. She had that dear-in-the-headlights look. Stunned, motionless, silent. Tears began to stream down her cheeks and then slowly she walked toward him, threw her arms around him and hugged him with all her might. Finally, she allowed her eyes to meet his and then she kissed him, softly at first and then passionately. After a moment, that Buddy believed was pure bliss, she pushed him away. “I’ve got to go,” she said, unable to stop crying. And then she walked away and never looked back.
So, what do you do when you get jilted? I don’t know about you, but Charles answered that question by joining the Marines. He enlisted on the Buddy Program, which meant that he and his best friend from high school, Donnie Turner, went through Boot Camp together.
Donnie glanced at Buddy to see how he was holding up under the pressure, which resulted in an angry drill instructor yelling within an inch of Donnie’s face. “Did I tell you to turn your head?”
“No, sir,” yelled Donnie.
“Will it happen again?”
“Was it a stupid thing to do?”
“So, you’re stupid.”
“You’re not stupid?”
“When I get finished with you, you’re gonna be a genius. Ain’t that right?”
“Yes, sir.” ”
What are you gonna be?”
“A genius, sir.”
“Right now, what are you?”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Stupid, sir,” yelled Donnie, louder than before.
Just wanted you to know that there’s more to this story than just tears. It is a very emotional story but there’s plenty of humor interspersed through the narrative.
Two days before his 20th birthday, Charles (aka Buddy) was accidentally killed by his best friend, or at least, according the official Marine Corps report. But is that what really happened? Does a best friend try to get his pal fired from his job, force himself on his girlfriend, and then lie about the circumstances of his death? Sally didn’t think so and with good reason. Don’t want to give that away either.
PFC Charles F. Polk
There’s no greater pain for a parent than the loss of a child. The tragedy catapulted his mother into deep depression and caused her to lose the spiritual strength upon which her family had always relied. Her faith failed and she feared she would never get it back.
How do you put your life back together after losing your greatest earthly treasure? Therein lies the reason for the story because there is life after the death of a loved one. You can and you will experience joy and happiness again. Mable Polk’s faith did return with a little help from an unlikely source.
Farewell PFC Polk: The End of a Nightmare is based on a true story. I should know. I was there.
Although I was 7-years-old when he died, my family kept his memory alive and used his life as the standard to which I should aspire. This book is also dedicated to my grandparents, Mable and Charlie Polk, who suffered the unfathomable pain of losing a child. Their climb from the pit of despair taught me that life isn’t always fair and tragedies don’t always have happy endings. But where there is faith there is always hope.
This book is not about a popular subject but it is something that all of us either have dealt with or will face in the future. This is not a counseling book or a how-to guide on how to survive after the death of a loved one. It’s just a story of what can be…when we have faith.
You can get your copy of Farewell PFC POLK in print or eBook formats from most of your favorite online retailers.
Click below to BUY NOW!
If you like the book then I would really appreciate a review at Amazon.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post. Have an awesome day.
Mable at age 19, two years before the romance began. Her mother was already concerned that she would end up on old maid.
" width="195" height="300" /> Mable Shown
Charlie and Mable are shown here on their wedding day. The horse, Blackie, is also mentioned in the story.
Charlie and Mable Polk, 1919
What inspired a series on the Valley of Hope? What is it? Where is it? Why is it important?
To be clear, the Valley of Hope is a real place but the concept is a state of mind. The place is the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was where early settlers came, many of them immigrants, with hopes and dreams for a better life in a new land.
I grew up in that beautiful Valley with its rich farmland and breathtaking landscape. The opening words to America the Beautiful capture the pristine beauty of the countryside.:
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
As a child I took it for granted, didn’t seem all that special. In fact, it was a boring place to live, or so I thought.
Except for a brief stop in Middletown, most of my growing up was in Strasburg. Mom and dad lived in several different houses there but the place I have always claimed as home was on Capon Street. That’s where my grandparents lived and the central location for my fondest memories.
Can’t tell you why, maybe it was all the personal tragedies, but as high school graduation drew near I couldn’t wait to get out of there. My father died when I was eleven, mom remarried and soon after suffered a debilitating stroke, and I was a fat kid who was often picked on. Can’t believe I just told you that. Just needed a new start.
Music was my ticket out and off I went, leaving the Valley of dreams to chase my dream.
Trombonist in the Navy Band, radio personality, Southern Baptist pastor, published author, and a wonderful wife and family is what followed. So, I’m confident that physically leaving the Valley was the right decision. However, there’s a part of me that remained, like an anchor, firmly holding me in place, keeping me from drifting aimlessly away from my roots.
My heart still lives there, in the Valley of Hope. Never left. The seeds for my future were planted there. They just bore fruit elsewhere.
So, the Valley of Hope is a real place where life happens, good and bad. Seeds of hope are planted there that blossom into something beautiful and better which is what I want to happen with my books.
No matter how difficult the trials in your life, it is my fervent desire that you will discover hope and inspiration IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
My granddaughter often jokes about my advanced age. “Did they have electricity when you were a little boy?” “Were you frightened by the dinosaurs?”
Once in a while I try to tell her about what it was like when I was her age, which by the way, is not so antiquated as she might think. We even had TV, albeit 3 channels with rabbit ears.
I was her age once and surrounded by adults who attempted to fill me in on their past, but just like her, I wasn’t the least bit interested in those ramblings about Aunt So and So and Uncle What’s His Name.
None of that genealogy stuff really meant anything to me until about a year ago. Come to think of it, I don’t have a clue as to what triggered my interest. Suddenly, I wanted to know more about those people from my past and began to try to piece together what little I remembered about them and the stories they shared.
There were clues in the attic. Old family photos and even some old love letters written by my grandparents.
So, I Googled their names. Nothing on Mable or Charlie Polk, my grandparents. And then, one of those bothersome ads popped up telling me that I could trace my roots and discover my past. Of course, it was going to cost me. So I took the plunge and went to work at ancestry.com.
Soon I found documents revealing boatloads of info about my past. Death certificates, birth records, census records, travel manifests, military records, newspaper articles….and a nifty tool for helping me to construct my family tree. As a side note, I have now found 6,204 family members. I’ve traced them back to the Vikings and the Huns. That explains Uncle Willard.
Seriously, let me show you what can be learned from one boring document.
My grandmother, Mable Polk, had a bunch of sisters and a brother. I recalled very little about her siblings. Her sister, Pearl, did snuff. Her brother, Walter, introduced me to my first foot-long hotdog in Winchester. Her sister, Ella, lived in Baltimore where we occasionally visited which is where I discovered tamales sold by a street vendor.
You see, it’s little memories like that upon which you can build your research. So, my grandmother, the youngest, was born in 1897. Luckily, there was a census conducted in 1900.
Oh, and by the way, I don’t expect that my family info will be interesting to you. My intent here is to show you what can be dug up (pardon the expression) about YOUR family.
First thing I notice is that Ella is missing. Further research indicates that by 1900 she was already married and living elsewhere. Second, Moses Shown was 9 years older than his wife, Mary. There’s 3-year-old Mable at the bottom of the list. Oh, yeah. Forgot about Aunt Less and Aunt Carrie. Vaguely recall them from my childhood, but there they are and now there is more substance to my faint recall.
Some other gems uncovered in that census: Moses was the only one in that family who couldn’t read or write and they all spoke English. What’s that? Why would the census be concerned with Americans speaking English? Thought that was just an issue for now. We really are a nation of immigrants.
All the aforementioned folks can be found IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE.
I’ll bet there are some really interesting people in your past. Why don’t you enrich your life’s experience by paying them a visit as a time traveler? Who knows, you might become so inspired by your discoveries that you’ll write a book.
Someone asked me recently, “How much is fiction and how much is truth?” Great question which I’ll attempt to answer by revealing some of my research.
It is also important to define the genre, Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past
That definition is a very broad stroke and leaves considerable room for sub-genres like romance, mystery, etc. Personally, I am drawn to Historical Fiction because I’m old. Just kidding. I like the genre because it creates mood, feeling, and color.
When writing IN THE VALLEY OF HOPE, I had a very specific geographic region and time period in mind that related to historical characters. The places referenced are very real and for the most part still exist. Most of the dates are accurate although there are some that are speculative and based on my best guestimate. For example: Charlie’s 1918 WWI draft registration is spot on because I found the original registration document. He registered at the Shenandoah County Courthouse in Woodstock, VA.
WWI Draft Registration p.1
WWI Draft Registration p.2
Many of the Wissler family events are linked to accurate dates based on stories uncovered in Woodstock, Virginia’s Shenandoah Herald. From November 11, 1891, I found the following article concerning the purchase of Strathmore.
Frank Wissler Purchases Strathmore
Check out all the valuable info revealed in an account of John Wissler, Jr’s wedding from June 24, 1910.
John Wissler, Jr. Wedding
In one scene in the story, when Charlie’s father, Bill, is belittling him, he references his deceased child, John. That idea was based on a Herald article from June 23, 1905.
Death of Bill Polk’s son
Although I had done considerable ancestry research on my family, I was unaware of my Great, Great, Grandmother Teeny Shown. Well, actually I had uncovered her name, but did not know that she was called Teeny or that she was somewhat famous. Until discovering the following article, from February 13, 1909, I only knew that her name was Christina.
Golden historical nuggets are found by asking lots of questions. That “who, what, where, when, why, and how” that was drummed into me by a high school English teacher, keeps me busy. Example: What about travel in the Shenandoah Valley of 1910? How would it differ from travel just 10 years later? Surely automobiles began to enter the picture but when and how many and what kind? Horses, horse drawn wagons, horse drawn buggies, mule and buggy, oh yeah, and miles and miles of walking. Back then, walking was not for exercise, it was a necessary form of transportation. But wait. The IN mode of transportation was by train. Check out the following train schedule from 1910 and notice how it linked the towns of the Valley.
Valley Train Schedule
For me, Historical Fiction is a work in progress. There’s the initial research and then continual research until I hit those coveted words, “The End.”
So, in answer to the original interrogative, “How much is truth and how much is fiction?” Truth is the anchor and used as accurately as possible and fiction is where creative imagination breathes life, emotion, and interest into the story. 50/50? Uh, maybe. Whatever a good story requires.