‘Dead Letter’ by Marc Kuhn (Book Excerpt)

Dead Letter Book Cover

About the author: Marc Kun is the author of best-selling books, Dead Letter and the Pope’s Stone. He has also written About A Farm. He is a retired radio executive. Read his interview here. Here you can read the excerpt from his book, Dead Letter. Courtesy: Marc Kuhn.


Book Excerpt: Dead Letter Copyright: Mark Kuhn

Chapter 1

Sandra Henderson was her usual attentive self as she sat in trigonometry class and attempted to keep up with Mr. Kaufman’s triangular configurations drawn on the blackboard.  She was not aware that the button on her blouse, the second one down from the top, had come unfastened.

Robert Harris, who sat at the desk next to Sandra, was also attentive this afternoon.  He had noticed the opening in Sandra’s blouse and he was attempting to strategically place his head in such a position that it appeared as though he were paying attention to Mr. Kaufman, while still allowing him to stretch his eyes to the farthest possible position to the side of his face so that he could focus on the more interesting exhibit to his right.andra Henderson was her usual attentive self as she sat in trigonometry class and attempted to keep up with Mr. Kaufman’s triangular configurations drawn on the blackboard.  She was not aware that the button on her blouse, the second one down from the top, had come unfastened.

“Mr. Harris, can you tell the class how to calculate angle ‘C’ of this triangle?” Mr. Kaufman asked in a voice considerably raised above his normal volume.  Robert was totally startled upon hearing his name.  In fact, that was actually all he did hear as he frantically readjusted his posture.

“Ah, excuse me.  What was the question again, sir?” Robert asked his teacher.

“Mr. Harris, I suggest you get your mind and eyes off the spherical aspects of geometry and back onto the angular pursuits of trigonometry.  That is, after all, what I am attempting to teach you in this brief amount of time you and I have together this semester.”

The class laughed.  No one had any idea what Mr. Kaufman was talking about, but it totally caught Robert Harris off guard in a most hilarious way.

At that very moment, the bell rang and the students sprang to their feet in unison.  It was the last class of the day.  They made their exit with corresponding haste.  Consequently, in the matter of the five or so seconds the bell was ringing, the incident was over and Robert was spared any further embarrassment.  In this same span of time, Sandra noticed her unfastened button and hastily corrected the situation.

Centreville High School was a two-story, colonial brick building on Chesterfield Avenue in the small town of Centreville, Maryland.  In 1943, just about every young person between the ages of 14 and 17 who was white and who lived in and around Centreville attended Centreville High.  There was a separate high school for blacks.  As in many states, segregation in Maryland schools would remain the norm for another 11 years until the Supreme Court ruled on the Topeka, Kansas case of Brown v. Board of Education.

America was three years into World War II in 1943, but student concerns at Centreville High School were more focused on school work, the daily responsibilities expected to be fulfilled at home, and an exploding curiosity with schoolmates of the opposite sex.

True, the boys did spend some time thinking about the war.  Most who were in the lower grades, however, thought it would be over and done with by the time they graduated.  The boys in the senior class had a different perspective.  They knew that, come graduation in June, most of them would be enlisting in one of the armed services or waiting to be drafted.  Having come from strong patriotic, rural stock, the boys were eager to join the fight.  For many, the war was an exciting alternative to wasting away on Maryland’s Eastern Shore harvesting tomatoes year after year or hauling bushel baskets of crabs and oysters out of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Eastern Shore of Maryland is a land mass that expands well beyond the lapping waters of the Chesapeake on the West and the Atlantic Ocean on the east.  It is a sizable peninsula extending 180 miles down from its Pennsylvania border to the north, to Virginia’s Eastern Shore on the south. A large wedge is cut from its eastern half by the state of Delaware. Otherwise, Maryland’s Eastern Shore spans 100 miles at its waistline.  Its shoreline runs twice that length.

The plantation called Chesterfield once occupied the land on which the town of Centreville was originally established and named in the late 1700s.  It was selected as the county seat for Queen Anne’s County because of its central location, hence its name.

Several miles to the east, tiny trickles of water with names like Mill Stream Branch and Three Bridges Branch seemingly surface out of nowhere. These meander westward through Centreville, swelling as they go and eventually feeding into and supplying the Corsica River.  At the other end of the Corsica, about five more miles west, the river broadens as it empties into the Chester River which then swoops southward and dumps into the great Chesapeake Bay.  Here, in the 1940s, a bountiful supply of seafood, coupled with the skills of seasoned watermen, kept packing houses busy along Centreville’s riverfront.  Times were improving.  An aggressive poultry industry in the southern reaches of the Eastern Shore had kept much of the area faring better than many communities elsewhere that suffered through the depression.

Agriculture, however, was the main enterprise.  Farms stretched outward from Centreville into the rich soils of the historic Eastern Shore.  Here, family farms produced a hefty harvest of tomatoes that supplied local canneries from midsummer to well into fall.  Crops of wheat and cob corn for feed occupied many of the remaining acres.  Most farms, too, tended cattle and hogs, and barnyard hens along with ducks and turkeys.   The labor was intense and the hours long.  Everyone in the family had responsibilities.  All in all, Centreville was a vibrant area and its people resilient.  The Eastern Shore was blessed with a strong heritage and its people had deep respect for the beauty and the bounty its environment provided.

Sandra Henderson and Robert Harris were typical representatives of Centreville’s younger generation.  Robert’s family had owned the Harris Farm for as far back as the family could be traced.  It was located about two miles east of Centreville. Sandra’s parents were the proprietors of the town’s largest hardware store, Centreville Hardware. It was a major operation providing both hardware and feed supplies to area farmers.  Lumber was about the only product Centreville Hardware chose not to stock, mostly because of the Fox Lumber Yard just down the road.  The two businesses complemented each other well and their owners had become good friends.  With all the farms in the area, both operations had more than enough orders to keep them busy and their bank accounts robust.

Sandra and Robert had daily household chores to do, plus weekend hours to devote to their family’s business.  Sandra helped out in the store and Robert had learned how to operate a tractor and plow fields.  He was also adept at handling a pitchfork and tending to the smaller animals in the barnyard.  Both children were hard working, kept their grades up at school and were well known and liked by just about everyone in town.  And in town, by the way, it was not unusual that most everyone knew everyone else.  If you were a youngster you had to keep your behavior on guard.  Most anything you did that may have been considered questionable was usually known to your parents by the time you arrived back home.

It was no accident that Robert sat next to Sandra in trigonometry class.  Unlike the other teachers who insisted on an alphabetical seating chart, Mr. Kaufman didn’t care.  As the students entered his classroom back on the first day he told them they could sit anywhere they wanted as long as they kept that seat permanently.  One of the younger and more likable teachers at Centreville High, Mr. Kaufman was a pretty hep cat according to most of the students.

George McCaffrey had already taken the seat next to Sandra when Robert came in and learned about Mr. Kaufman’s innovative seating arrangement.  Robert quickly approached George, subtly slipped him a buck and told him to skedaddle.

“That was easy,” Robert thought.  George, on the other hand, had no idea that Robert would have readily paid much more to have the seat next to Sandra.

Today, for a brief moment only seconds in length, his investment paid off.  Robert would never forget the day he peered into the spectacular wonderland beyond Sandra Henderson’s second button.

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