LOS ANGELES -- It was strange enough last month when an 85-year-old retired farmer in Iowa received a letter his brother had sent in 1943 when he was stationed at California's Camp Roberts. It was stranger still when, a few weeks later, Camp Roberts got a letter sent in 1944 to a woman who had worked at the Red Cross hospital there.
The hospital was leveled decades ago.
Postal authorities are mystified.
More than 96 percent of the mail is delivered on time, said James Widgel, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service. Only very rarely are vintage letters found on shelves or behind sorting cases that haven't been moved in decades.
"It's not a trend," he said. "It's an anomaly."
On May 17, 1943, Lt. Mervin Teig wrote a letter home from the sprawling Army base north of Paso Robles. He had signed up for military service 10 days after Pearl Harbor and just wanted to let the folks know he was still OK.
"How's good old Iowa?" he wrote. "Has Tilford cracked up the Ford yet? If he's smart, he'll stay there and feed the pigs and polish the Ford. I see too many of these young fellows in uniform out here."
The young officer saw combat in Europe, emerged unscathed and, after a business career in Mason City, Iowa, died about 10 years ago. His younger brother Tilford stayed on the farm.
About a month ago, Tilford Teig received a phone call from a person whose name and position he didn't catch. The caller asked whether Teig wanted an old letter sent by Mervin to their parents, who are long deceased.
The man could have been from the Postal Service's "mail recovery center" in Atlanta -- a facility known during a less euphemistic era as the "dead letter office," where workers try to puzzle out the proper destinations for millions of errant items.
"Everyone's just guessing about it," Tilford Teig said. "Maybe it got lost out there in the post office in Paso Robles. Who knows?"
Just as baffled was Gary McMaster, curator of the museum at Camp Roberts, which is now a training ground for the California Army National Guard.
"You hear about guys getting tired of delivering mail and holding it in their attic for years," he said. "You never know."
McMaster is trying to locate a Miss R.T. Fletcher -- the addressee of the letter delivered to Camp Roberts a couple weeks ago. That's more than 66 years since Aug. 9, 1944, when the letter was postmarked in Montgomery, Ala.
"It just came right in with the rest of the mail," he said. "There was no explanation."
The return address was torn off the envelope when it arrived, and McMaster doesn't feel right about reading the letter inside.
"I respect privacy," he said. "And we wouldn't want to get the institution in trouble by violating postal regulations."
McMaster has received a few leads, but nothing definitive, from Alabama, where the Montgomery Advertiser ran a story about his quest. He also has asked the Red Cross to search its files for clues. If he doesn't get anywhere in the next few weeks, he said, he'll ask postal authorities what to do next.
He may be told to send the letter to Atlanta.
"That's typically where these items wind up," said Widgel, of the Postal Service.
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