(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Observer in November 2014.)
Like her name, the letters to Evangeline are from another time.
They were written in the 1940s by three World War II soldiers dreaming of a young woman back home.
Eighteen handwritten letters to Evangeline Poteat, a 22-year-old working in a Charlotte munitions plant in 1944, were auctioned on eBay in March. Before that, they were sold at an antiques show in Portland, Ore.
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How the letters ended up across the country is a mystery.
They document an even more unlikely romance.
Eleven of the letters are from Teal Davis, stationed in Burma. The first begins “Hello, Van.” Within months, the greeting becomes “Dearest,” and the closing “Always.”
Now, 70 years later, the letters tell the story of two people who had never met, falling in love in a world at war.
‘Quite the beauty’
Sally MacNamara Ivey considers herself a “caretaker” of stories from the past.
Ivey, 57, has collected letters and diaries for more than 25 years. Some she sells, including a diary recently from the mid-1800s for $6,700. Others she keeps. Her personal collection includes letters from an Oregon pioneer family crossing the country in the 1860s and a 1930s diary of a young woman dating a man she later learns is a New York mobster. She blogs about the stories she uncovers, lectures and sells diaries to colleges for students to use as research.
Ivey paid about $35 for the collection of letters earlier this year from a dealer in Portland, near her home.
There are no letters from Evangeline included, so a reader is left to imagine her thoughts. But the three soldiers’ letters leave little doubt of their intentions: They long for the war to end so they can return to North Carolina, to Evangeline.
Ivey auctioned the letters on eBay, under the heading “Handwritten World War II love letters.” She noted in the listing: “I really wanted to see a photo of her after reading these letters, too, because she was quite the beauty according to the three soldiers who wrote to her.”
She remembers being struck by “how deeply in love” Evangeline and Teal were.
Sounds of parrots, monkeys
In 1943, Evangeline attended Appalachian State Teachers College. Letters arrived at her dorm that year from two former boyfriends she had dated in her hometown of Bakersville, located near the Tennessee border.
In one letter, a solider imagines their wedding. He wishes she dreamed of it, too.
“I know that you think that I am crazy for asking you so many times,” he writes from Camp Cooke, an Army training center in California. “Did you think the ring idea is OK with you, or is it? I love you.”
Another soldier, also based in California, remembers high school days with Evangeline: “We used to really have a swell time until Uncle Sam nabbed me.”
It was by chance that Evangeline started corresponding with a third soldier. Sarah Kate Davis, a roommate of Evangeline’s, suggested that she write to her brother Teal in Burma.
By spring 1944, when she mailed her first letter to him, Evangeline had finished school and moved to Charlotte. She worked at the “Shell Plant.” The factory employed 10,000 people, mostly women, to assemble anti-aircraft shells for the Navy.
It took Teal more than four days to respond. He wrote back on May 15, just three weeks before the Allied troops would storm Normandy in the D-Day invasion.
Teal complained about the long hours he worked and the monsoon season in Burma. “All I’ve done is complain,” he notes three paragraphs in. “Better stop.”
Teal then writes about his love for the North Carolina mountains. “A fellow never realizes how beautiful his own home country is until he gets halfway around the world from it.
“I was just thinking of the noises you can hear in those mountains early in the mornings and comparing them with here. Over here just walking to work (in knee-deep mud, of course) you hear wild chickens, parrots screeching, monkeys screaming and carrying on, and then comes the roar of airplane engines – such a combination.
“I’ll be looking forward to the day when I can meet you in person, but for now a letter will do. Be good, have fun this summer and write soon.
An important question
Teal Davis grew up in Rutherford County. Before the war he had lived just an hour away from Bakersville and Evangeline.
A talented athlete, Teal played end on an undefeated Cool Spring High football team in 1937 and left field on an American Legion junior baseball team that went to the state finals.
After entering the Army Air Force, he was told that a concussion he suffered as a child would prevent him from achieving his dream of becoming a pilot. He argued to the contrary, was taken up in a plane for maneuvers and passed out.
He served in Burma as a crew chief to other pilots.
When he writes Evangeline, he never speaks of the dangers. More than 360,000 North Carolinians served in World War II. Almost 6,500 were killed in combat and an additional 3,000 died from other causes.
Instead, he writes about the monotony of breakfast (“french toast, powdered eggs, french toast, powdered eggs”), nights spent watching movies (like “The Wizard of Oz”) and waiting for the next letter from Evangeline.
His letters are as long as seven pages, written in ink except twice when he used pencil, saying he was too tired to refill his fountain pen.
On Dec. 2, 1944, seven months since their first correspondence, Teal sends along two snapshots of himself, and asks Evangeline a question he says he has never thought much about, except since May: Home or church wedding?
“Those big weddings are pretty and all, but a simple little home marriage seems more earnest and sincere.
“What I’m trying to say is that I only want to get married once and that’s for keeps.”
He writes: “I’ll never be content until I’ve met you and tried to make some daydreams come true.
“You know, I’ve quit trying to reason out why I should fall for someone I’ve never met – it just happened.”
Hints of attraction
What is the spark that causes two people who have never met to fall in love?
Perhaps an autobiographical essay Evangeline wrote in high school tells us.
She loved music, and writes that she doesn’t know what she would do if she couldn’t play the piano.
In his letters, Teal often quotes song lyrics to describe how he feels when he gets mail from her: “I feel like a feather in the breeze” and “It rains pennies from heaven.”
In a chapter titled “The Kind of Boy I Admire,” Evangeline writes that she prefers a boy with a sense of humor.
Teal describes his military unit’s reaction to a recent movie. “This one tonight was ‘Rainbow Island.’ You know the kind – lots of girls in sarongs, but not so much sarong on the girls. The way the guys were ohing and ahing there wasn’t anything sarong (so wrong) with the picture.”
Evangeline writes with pride about the valor her great-grandfather showed when he was wounded during the Civil War and helped save a wounded comrade.
Teal was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for bravery and heroism beyond the call of duty when he and three others rescued a crew member after an oxygen tank exploded, catching a plane on fire.
Evangeline might have seen all those traits in Teal from his letters, or learned about them from his sister.
“I guess my favorite book is a good romance,” her high school essay says. “I always like for (the heroine) to fall in love with a tall handsome man.”
It’s clear, from Teal’s letter on March 4, 1945, 10 months into their correspondence, that she has.
“You asked if I minded you saying that you love me,” he writes. “Hon, I’m just happy that you can say that.”
But he was increasingly frustrated that the war was keeping them apart.
“I’ve heard very little about going home or about any of the possibilities that could happen to us,” he writes that summer. “I’ve just got to get there soon because I want to see you so very much.”
The letter was mailed on July 11, 1945.
Five days later, in the New Mexico desert, the United States successfully tested the first atomic bomb.
Within weeks, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed. The war was over.
A quiet life
A church wedding won out.
Teal, 25, and Evangeline, 23, married on April 21, 1946, in a candlelight wedding at Bakersville Baptist Church amid baskets of white dogwood and evergreens. Evangeline wore a gown of white lace and net with a necklace of amethyst and pearls that belonged to her grandmother.
The great drama of their lives was behind them. Teal and Evangeline settled into a quiet life together in Forest City, just outside Shelby.
They had two children – Larry, born in 1947, and Jane, in 1951.
Teal worked in the post office for more than 20 years, then for more than 25 years at the family’s building supplies business. Evangeline was a homemaker who returned to Appalachian State for her teaching certificate, then taught school from 1963 until the mid-1980s.
“Van Davis was one of the most memorable school teachers I had,” recalled former student Shane Earley. “She told stories of the war, how times were tough growing up in the Depression era. She tried to instill in us that life is not always easy, that we should get an education and strive to grow.”
At home, there was always music. Evangeline played and taught piano.
Teal and Evangeline had their own humor, making jokes that only they understood.
They had traditions. Saturday nights often meant going dancing at the Elk’s Club. For anniversaries and birthdays, Teal always bought Whitman Sampler chocolates.
They traveled often, annual car trips to Carolina Beach before school started, and even a cross-country drive to Alaska. They were happiest when they were together and surrounded by family.
Teal spent the final year of his life sick in bed with emphysema. Evangeline rarely left his side – only to get chemotherapy for her throat cancer, and for an occasional rest when her family demanded it.
On May 8, 2001, Teal died of congestive heart failure.
Evangeline suffered a stroke in February 2004. She died a year later.
Hearing their parents
Larry Davis and Jane Simmons were surprised to learn the letters that brought their parents together during World War II still exist and had surfaced on eBay.
They have saved boxes of family history – photographs, letters and other keepsakes – and can’t imagine how the letters ended up in Portland.
They were intrigued by this part of their parents’ lives, which they knew little about.
In September, as they read the letters for the first time, they laughed at their father’s jokes. Jane pointed out his references to musical lyrics.
“Mama would have liked that,” she said.
They were surprised how romantic their father was.
“I think he just proposed to her in this one,” Larry said, clutching the letter that asked what type of wedding she preferred. “Did he just propose to her?”
When Larry, 67, and Jane, 63, read the recovered letters, they found something their mother had hoped for. One of her only regrets, her children remember, came in Teal’s final months. She bought a tape recorder for her husband to tell the stories of their lives so she could remember them in his voice. But he was too sick.
Now, as she had wished, they heard their father again in his own words.
“I can hear him,” Larry said. “But a lot of it is the way I never heard him.”
Time to plan
Perhaps if Evangeline and Teal had met first, they still would have fallen in love.
Or perhaps being 8,000 miles apart let them get to know each other in ways they could not have if their courtship had been filled with Saturday night movies and dances.
Perhaps waiting for a letter that took two weeks to arrive gave them each time to more fully envision a life together.
“This being over here has had one advantage,” Teal writes on May 26, 1945, a year after their relationship began. “First time I ever really had time to think and plan for what I really want.”
He describes the future he hopes for with the woman he has not met, using a phrase from a story he recently read.
“Small Town America,” he writes. “Doesn’t sound very ambitious, but if you’ll think about it you’ll find that if done right, it can mean a lot.”
He could not have known then that they would marry and live together for 55 years in Rutherford County, a place with the slogan “small-town friendly.”
But that’s what he wished for that day from halfway across the world, a soldier at war dreaming of Evangeline.