The letters sat in a box in Fran's attic. They were uncovered by her son not long after the death of her brother, William Beresh, a Baltimore City firefighter who lived to the ripe old age of 96 despite a taste for unfiltered pall malls. They came addressed from "Somewhere in Italy" or "Somewhere in Belgium." They had been sent by William and Fran's brothers, Walter and Henry, two men who didn't live past the age of 35. The men who wrote the letters were factory workers at Bethlehem Steel-turned-soldiers and killed in combat during WWII. These letters, mostly addressed to Fran, discovered in 2010, hadn't been seen since 1945. She had no idea they still existed.
Walter Beresh entered the Army in 1941 following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served in the African campaign, was stationed in England and saw fierce fighting at the Anzio beachhead in Italy.
Henry Beresh, the younger of the two, was conscripted in 1945 at the age of 23. After basic training, he served on a mortar team for fourteen days until he was killed in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge.
When Walter, battle weary and stationed in Italy heard news of his younger brother's death, he wrote to his still younger sister, simply, "Cheer up and smile, won't you." After enduring five years of combat, Walter was cut down at the age of 33, twenty-three days before the surrender of Germany. Fran has noted she is unsure how he would have handled a peaceful life after all those years of war.
When the letters were unearthed, they were copied by Fran's son, himself a lifelong Navy man, and emailed to family members. They brought the family closer together. They gave Mike Beresh, the paternal grandson of William and great nephew of Henry & Walter, an idea.
I first met Mike Beresh when he was the drummer for a weird experimental band called The Everything Bagels. They played at shithole dives around Baltimore; some people liked them and others, like me, felt confused or annoyed when they played. But I'd also known Mike by reputation years before we spent any time together. In Maryland, it isn't uncommon to hear the words "greatest songwriter" hung around his neck by those in the know. He is outrageously prolific and sounds slightly embarrassed at having recorded 21 albums, more than one a year since the age of 19. "I think that's about right," He tells me on the phone, making a crack about needing an editor. Yet despite the quality of his writing and the sheer amount of songs he's put out, before I knew him, most the stories I'd heard about Mike were outrageous Paul Bunyan-esque tales of boozing. The songwriting was something of an asterisk to a legendary drinking career. And of course, those stories were exaggerated. And of course, maybe they weren't exaggerated all that much. But Mike, soft-spoken with a slight Baltimore accent, has a singing voice that is high and sweet. It sounds like it could come from anywhere in this vast country. And as far as the content goes, he's a guy who exemplifies the country maxim of three chords and the truth. Mike formed The Country Devils in 2000. They play often, in a realm far outside the strangeness that was The Everything Bagels. And as time has passed, Mike has set the hard living ways aside in favor of higher callings: music and family. As he ended our last conversation, "Well, I'm gonna read to my son for a while now."
So when Mike Beresh read the letters, his first thought was of the musicality of them. Walter was prolific and knew how to turn a phrase in a sparse, direct manner. Some would be surprised that a factory worker and grizzled Army grunt wrote poems. But Walter did. His powers are on full display in this piece, "Bella Signorina de Cassino," where he encounters a beautiful woman in a war-ravaged village:
"As soon by scent she turned around
Cold, this is what I've found
Her face so round and white from the fright
She stood and starred with fists closed tight
Her youth and beauty seemed so rare
In this land so completely bare
Her big brown eyes so full of fear
The belle of Cassino she will always be"
Henry had written less before his life was cut short but his words were there, too. Mike sat down and wrote over thirty songs in two weeks based on the letters. He trimmed them down to twelve and debuted the music at The Creative Alliance at the Patterson in the Highlandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, only a few blocks away from where Walter and Henry grew up. The words of the letters were given an entirely new life. The debut concert was turned into the live album, one of my favorite records of the year, called Letters to Baltimore From the War.
Those were the first batch of letters.
After the release of that album, Mike was approached by BR McDonald, head of the Veteran Artist Program. At McDonald's prompting, Mike met with and talked to a group of more recent vets. He met them at their homes or out for drinks, recording their stories with a a small handheld recorder. He met with Erin Buyers, a medic whose first patient was an eight-year-old boy whose arm had been blown off in crossfire. She talked to him, among other things about what it was like to be a woman in the military. He spoke with Jeremy Johnson, who came out of the closet before the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and was discharged from the military only to rejoin once the law was repealed. Mike enlisted the help of his band member, Adam Miller, and the two wrote songs for all of them. Mike visited the house of Tracy Miller, whose son, Marine Corporal Nicholas Ziolkowski, was killed in action in November of 2004 in the Anbar Province of Iraq. They spent an afternoon talking with each other and Mike penned the song "Gold Star Mother":
"Sometimes I think it is easier when you know
Death is waiting at your door;
You can prepare yourself,
You can't prepare yourself;
Because loss is loss and love is love."
When asked how she felt about the song written for her son, Ms. Miller replied, "It's what I told him. It's what I said."
'Letters from Baltimore from the War Volumes I & II' will be performed live at The Wind Up Space in Baltimore, Md., on Saturday, Oct. 20. For tickets, click here.
Follow Michael Patrick Flanagan Smith on Twitter: www.twitter.com/flanagansmith