An innocuous postcard among hundreds of old photos and documents. I kept shuffling it around from pile to pile as I was going through boxes and boxes of stuff from my recently passed aunt’s house. She was 92 when she died late last year. Her mother (my Grandma Keck) lived to be 95. My first task was to see if there were any important documents that would help our family lawyer piece together the value of her estate, partly because she left no will, and partly because she was…let’s just say extremely disorganized.
After we got the business end organized, it was time to go through photographs. Most of the ones I found I had never seen. They were either tucked away in Grandma’s room, or they were inherited by my aunt from an aunt and sister. Luckily my aunt had given me one of her aunt’s photo albums when she was alive. We carefully went through each photo as she identified who she could. This helped when I found the other hundreds of photos. But still, most were unmarked. There were also mementos from travels, clubs, and events. And then there was this beat up and faded post card. I almost threw it away several times. I guess the French caption made me curious enough to move it to another pile.
Each pile kept getting smaller and smaller until I picked it up one last time and studied it. My grandparents didn’t travel much, and I know they didn’t leave the country together. My great aunt did travel frequently, so it must be hers. But this was pretty old. I was guessing 1920’s, and she did most of her traveling in the 1950’s to 70’s.
I put it under a bright light and put on my reading glasses. The picture was of a hotel somewhere in France. I turned it over to see who it was addressed to. No address, no postage. Why would this be saved? Then, as I turned it slightly, I saw faint impressions of hand writing on the back. It was written very poorly, like a child’s handwriting. All I could make out was something about “Mary (maybe)…cross…my room…door.”
Time for forensics. I used to do a lot of forensic audio when the police or a lawyer would bring me poorly recorded tapes from a sting operation or some other no-good deed. I would work for hours trying to hear what was being said (CSI and other unrealistic movies and shows have it wrong – it doesn’t magically take seconds to hear something in perfect clarity – it takes hours and days to barely hear something audible above the noise). You have to be careful to not hear something you want to hear, only what’s there. You can try to connect the dots (gaps), but its not always safe to assume. In this case, I was assuming a child wrote it.
In order to see the writing more clearly, I scanned it in grayscale and brought it into Photoshop. I used various tools to enhance the text, but I still couldn’t see much. When you’re working with forensic audio, it helps to go back to square one a few times. When you do, it forces you to go down an alternate path which might reveal something else. In this case, I rescanned the postcard, but this time in RGB color.
Playing with the color channels, I started reducing and increasing different colors. When I increased the blue channel, most of the text magically popped out. After blending some other channels in and sharpening the picture, I was satisfied I had revealed about all that was left.
I uploaded this image along with the postcard front to Flickr in an album I’d created for this giant archiving project. I’d hoped someone in the family could figure out who wrote it and what it meant. While visiting my mom, I showed her the pictures on my iPhone. As an writer and a lifelong word puzzle junkie, she was able to complete the words:
“Mona note the cross above the window. That’s my room just above the door. X”
Mona was my Grandma Keck’s name. I saw that earlier. What I had disregarded was the “X.” Mom said “X, find an ‘X’.” I flipped to the picture of the front of the postcard and zoomed in. I closely scanned back and forth until I saw it. There it was on the building itself in handwritten pencil. It finally dawned on us that my Grandpa Keck wrote this to his wife during World War 1. He was sent to the western front in France to battle the Germans. He was severely injured in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne on 9 Oct 1918. His arm was nearly shot off with a bullet or shrapnel. In addition, he was exposed to mustard gas.
After Grandpa Keck’s injury, he was shipped to a hospital in central France to recuperate. This is a postcard he sent Grandma showing where his room was. The Hotel de Parc in Chatel-Guyon (formerly Chatelguyon) was converted into a U.S. Army hospital. Obviously Grandpa was having great difficulty writing at the time, because his later writing samples were quite neat.
I have been able to track down Grandpa’s particular fighting unit (116th Infantry, 29th Div.) and where he was injured. It turns out that his unit was part of the final big push by the American and French forces into German lines that would ultimately end the war.