Monday, August 9, 2010

A Fishy Love Story, Part 1

At the beginning of the 1937 Recession, R.W.M. (most likely Ralph Marlyn) worked at The Marlyn Fish Company’s Ketchikan cannery as a looming crisis threatened the southeast Alaskan fishing industry. Despite long hours and an unamused paternal employer, Ralph wrote his sweetheart Marjorie “Midge” Miller at least five letters while she was vacationing that summer in Hood River, Oregon. I had no idea what the letters contained when I first obtained them, but after transcribing them, I discovered the sweet love story of two young Depression Era Americans, longing to be together yet separated by unfortunate financial circumstances beyond their control.

Petersburg Waterfront and Wrangell Narrows. Alaska State Library Historical Collections. Used by permission. (The Marlyn Fish Co. is in the background on the far right.)

Ralph’s first letter was written the Monday and Wednesday prior to Monday, July 14, 1937, when it was stamped by the Ketchikan post office at 2 PM. The envelope bares a second stamp, one week later, as it was redirected from Hood River to the Coos-Douglas Homemaker’s Camp at Croft’s Lake in Bandon. (I’ll have to ask someone with the Coos County Historical Society what that was all about!)

Ralph is definitely at the stage between boy and man, wildly in-love but not yet grown up enough to carry day-to-day responsibilities. Writing instead of returning to the office, he teasingly blames his girlfriend for disrupting his work:

If you keep on writing as you started, I will really get fired and have to come down to H.R. and pick cherries for a living. A deluge of 4 arrived this morning and about all I did was to read and reread them. Papa would come out and glower at me and then stomp back and cuss awhile before shouting at me to do this or that (which he really didn’t want done). But I ignored him and read your letters till they are practically memorized.

The rest of the letter includes his thanks for a picture she sent and news about their mutual friends and the goings on at the cannery. He’s not shy about the fact that he misses her, although there’s more teasing than raw sentiment:

I surely miss my orange juice, dinners, etc, etc, (meaning mainly you). What in the world did you ever go away for, anyway? I hope your family get their money’s worth in a hurry because I want you back here. But then, your mama probably won’t let you go, you big sissy.

Unlike the letters that follow, this one only gives a slight hint of the economic problems that continued to build that summer. The correspondence abruptly ends in mid-August, with no indication that the couple would see each other soon.

For me, researching the people discussed in the letters has been quite a chore. Generally, only first or last names are mentioned. Miller is a common name, and I haven’t found any leads for Marlyn or Berg, the manager’s name, in Oregon or Washington records. Alaska’s territorial status complicates the matter. However, I’m still on the hunt to find out who Ralph and Midge were and if they ever were reunited.