Writing Three Thank-You Letters

(Writing Three Thank-You Letters by Alex Haley was originally published in the November 21, 1982 issue of PARADE Magazine.)

Alex Haley, the author of Roots, served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. It was during his service that Haley taught himself the craft of writing stories. During the long patrols, Haley began writing letters to friends and relatives, sometimes sending over 40 a week. He received in reply almost as many letters as he sent out, and became somewhat famous among his shipmates.

Haley soon found himself fielding offers from his fellow crewmen to help them with their letters. Some of his fellow crewman even offered a financial compensation to lure the ever-eloquent Haley into composing convincing love letters to the objects of their affections, without, of course, letting the “object” know that the letter was actually written by Haley. Apparently his ghost-writing was successful and Haley consequently accumulated a goodly sum for his off-duty writing.

Haley also listened to the old salts aboard when they would spin their nautical yarns and decided to begin writing in earnest. He composed short articles and sent them off to magazine publishers, including the Coast Guard Magazine, a privately-printed magazine that was popular with most Coast Guardsmen of the time.

Haley talked of how the greatest enemy he and his crew faced during their long sea voyages wasn’t the Japanese but boredom. On an especially lonely day at sea—Thanksgiving—he began to give serious thought to a holiday that has become, for most of us, a day of overeating and watching endless games of football. He decided to celebrate the true meaning of Thanksgiving, not by remembering the Pilgrims and their turkey dinner, but by writing three special letters.

Writing Three Thank-You Letters

It was 1943, during World War II, and I was a young U.S. coast-guardsman, serial number 212-548, a number we never seem to forget. My ship, the USS Murzim, had been under way for several days. Most of her holds contained thousands of cartons of canned or dried foods. The other holds were loaded with five-hundred-pound bombs packed delicately in padded racks. Our destination was a big base on the island of Tulagi in the South Pacific.

I was one of the Murzim’s several cooks and, quite the same as for folk ashore, this Thanksgiving morning had seen us busily preparing a traditional dinner featuring roast turkey.

Well, as any cook knows, it’s a lot of hard work to cook and serve a big meal, and clean up and put everything away. But finally, around sundown, with our whole galley crew just bushed, we finished at last and were free to go flop into our bunks in the fo’c’sle.

But I decided first to go out on the Murzim’s afterdeck for a breath of open air. I made my way out there, breathing in great, deep draughts while walking slowly about, still wearing my white cook’s hat and the long apron, my feet sensing the big ship’s vibrations from the deep-set turbine diesels and my ears hearing that slightly hissing sound the sea makes in resisting the skin of a ship.

I got to thinking about Thanksgiving. In reflex, my thoughts registered the historic imagery of the Pilgrims, Indians, wild turkeys, pumpkins, corn on the cob, and the rest.

Yet my mind seemed to be questing for something else—some way that I could personally apply to the waning Thanksgiving. It must have taken me a half hour to sense that maybe some key to an answer could result from reversing the word “Thanksgiving”—at least that suggested a verbal direction, “Giving thanks.”

Giving thanks—as in praying, thanking God, I thought. Yes, of course. Certainly.

Yet my mind continued nagging me. Fine. But something else.

After a while, like a dawn’s brightening, a further answer did come—that there were people to thank, people who had done so much for me that I could never possibly repay them. The embarrassing truth was I’d always just accepted what they’d done, taken all of it for granted. Not one time had I ever bothered to express to any of them so much as a simple, sincere “Thank you.”

At least seven people had been particularly and lastingly helpful to me. I realized, with a gulp, that about half of them had since died—so they were forever beyond any possible expression of gratitude from me. The more I thought about it, the more ashamed I became. Then I pictured the three who were still alive and, within minutes, I was down in the fo’c’sle.

Sitting at a mess table with writing paper and memories of things each had done, I tried composing genuine statements of heartfelt appreciation and gratitude to my dad, Simon A. Haley, a professor at the old AMNC (Agricultural Mechanical Normal College) in Pine Bluff, Ark., now a branch of the University of Arkansas; to my grandma, Cynthia Palmer, back in our little hometown of Henning, Tenn.; and to the Rev. Lonual Nelson, my grammar school principal, retired and living in Ripley, six miles north of Henning.

I couldn’t even be certain if they would recall some of their acts of years past, acts that I vividly remembered and saw now as having given me vital training, or inspiration, or directions, if not all of these desirables rolled into one.

The texts of my letters began something like, “Here, this Thanksgiving at sea, I find my thoughts upon how much you have done for me, but I have never stopped and said to you how much I feel the need to thank you—” And briefly I recalled for each of them specific acts performed on my behalf.

For instance, something uppermost about my father was how he had impressed upon me from boyhood to love books and reading. In fact, this graduated into a family habit of after-dinner quizzes at the table about books read most recently and new words learned. My love of books never diminished and later led me toward writing books myself. So many times I have felt a sadness when exposed to modern children so immersed in the electronic media that they have little or no awareness of the marvelous world to be discovered in books.

I reminded the Reverend Nelson how each morning he would open our little country town’s grammar school with a prayer over his assembled students. I told him that whatever positive things I had done since had been influenced at least in part by his morning school prayers.

In the letter to my grandmother, I reminded her of a dozen ways she used to teach me how to tell the truth, to be thrifty, to share, and to be forgiving and considerate of others. (My reminders included how she’d make me pull switches from a peach tree for my needed lesson.) I thanked her for the years of eating her good cooking, the equal of which I had not found since. (By now, though, I’ve reflected that those peerless dishes are most gloriously flavored with a pinch of nostalgia.) Finally, I thanked her simply for having sprinkled my life with stardust.

Before I slept, my three letters went into our ship’s office mail sack. They got mailed when we reached Tulagi Island.

We unloaded cargo, reloaded with something else, then again we put to sea in the routine familiar to us, and as the days became weeks, my little personal experience receded. Sometimes, when we were at sea, a mail ship would rendezvous and bring us mail from home, which, of course, we accorded topmost priority.

Every time the ship’s loudspeaker rasped, “Attention! Mail call!” two-hundred-odd shipmates came pounding up on deck and clustered about the raised hatch atop which two yeomen, standing by those precious bulging gray sacks, were alternately pulling out fistfuls of letters and barking successive names of sailors who were, in turn, hollering “Here! Here!” amid the jostling.

One “mail call” brought me responses from Grandma, Dad, and the Reverend Nelson—and my reading of their letters left me not only astounded but more humbled than before.

Rather than saying they would forgive that I hadn’t previously thanked them, instead, for Pete’s sake, they were thanking me—for having remembered, for having considered they had done anything so exceptional.

Always the college professor, my dad had carefully avoided anything he considered too sentimental, so I knew how moved he was to write me that, after having helped educate many young people, he now felt that his best results included his own son.

The Reverend Nelson wrote that his decades as a “simple, old-fashioned principal” had ended with grammar schools undergoing such swift changes that he had retired in self-doubt. “I heard more of what I had done wrong than what I did right,” he said, adding that my letter had brought him welcome reassurance that his career had been appreciated.

A glance at Grandma’s familiar handwriting brought back in a flash memories of standing alongside her white rocking chair, watching her “settin’ down” some letter to relatives. Frequently touching her pencil’s tip to pursed lips, character by character, each followed by a short, soft grunt, Grandma would slowly accomplish one word, then the next, so that a finished page would consume hours. I wept over the page representing my Grandma’s recent hours invested in expressing her loving gratefulness to me—whom she used to diaper!

Much later, retired from the Coast Guard and trying to make a living as a writer, I never forgot how those three “thank you” letters gave me an insight into something nigh mystical in human beings, most of whom go about yearning in secret for more of their fellows to express appreciation for their efforts.

I discovered in time that, even in the business world, probably no two words are more valued than “thank you,” especially among people at stores, airlines, utilities and others that directly serve the public.

Late one night, I was one of a half-dozen passengers who straggled weary and grumbling off a plane that had been forced to land at the huge Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Suddenly, a buoyant, cheerful, red-jacketed airline man waved us away from the regular waiting room seats, saying, “You sure look bushed. I know a big empty office where you can stretch out while you wait.” And we surely did. When the weather improved enough for us to leave, “Gene Erickson” was in my notebook and, back home, I wrote the president of that airline describing his sensitivity and his courtesy. And I received a thank you!

I travel a good deal on lecture tours and I urge students especially to tell their parents, grandparents, and other living elders simply “thank you” for all they have done to make possible the lives they now enjoy. Many students have told me they found themselves moved by the response. It is not really surprising, if one only reflects how it must feel to be thanked after you have given for years.

Now, approaching another Thanksgiving, I have asked myself what will I wish for all who are reading this, for our nation, indeed for our whole world—since, quoting a good and wise friend of mine, “In the end we are mightily and merely people, each with similar needs.” First, I wish for us, of course, the simple common sense to achieve world peace, that being paramount for the very survival of our kind.

And there is something else I wish—so strongly that I have had this line printed across the bottom of all my stationery: “Find the good—and praise it.” ~ Alex Haley.

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