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Prime Time: The most feared man in town

The most feared man in town was, of all people, the depot-agent.

Feared for reasons that then and later made no sense.

Feared not because of his behavior or his personality (he had none).

To add to the weirdness, the depot agent was feared only when he was driving in his car.

Otherwise, when walking up and down main street, he was no problem, so the townspeople were safe; the country folks were safe, because the walking depot-agent was not in his auto for his prescribed errands to spread fear - and worse than fear, to divulge information that was so unwanted, so shocking, so tragic as to traumatize and destroy entire families.

And how did the depot-agent do these terrible things to people?

He simply delivered them telegrams, notably the loathsome kind of message that began with the simple words: "We regret to inform you..."

World War II for America was the biggest event of the 20th century. The entire world was altered because of this monumental war, a war fought essentially in Europe and Asia, but a conflict that also engulfed Americans both abroad and at home during that time period, 1941-1945.

Consider that there were 16 million Americans in military uniform in those years. Given the entire population, it came down to one out of every 10 Americans was in uniform. With those odds, there was scarcely a single American family anywhere who did not have someone close to them in service.

The casualties were equally monumental in terms of numbers killed and wounded. For Americans by August 1945: 321,999 dead; 800,000 wounded, captured or missing in action.

There is a correlation, of course, between these huge casualty numbers and depot agents in rural America. Considering that at that time there were no computers or cell-phones, when even having a telephone in the home was not all that common, the quickest form of national communication was by telegraph, those messages coming across the wires in Morse code. All railroad stations had telegraphs and agents who could read the code. They got the news first; they spread that news, good or bad.

By law, the U.S. War Department was to inform all families by telegram about any family member in the military who was killed, injured, taken prisoner, or missing in action. Those telegrams began: "We regret to inform you..."

Again by law, the depot agent must take this news and bring the telegram and deliver the telegram in person to the family affected. Little wonder then that there was this negative reaction to seeing the depot agent in his car, folks fearing that he just maybe might be on his way to deliver horrible news to some family. A scary thought; a scary man.

Though all the agents were doing was carrying out their assigned duties, but nevertheless there were many incidents and stories about scared citizens who became hostile and acted out their fears against them both vocally and physically. Strange times; strange actions; strange reactions that had no logic; when "kill the messenger" had a warped logic of its own.

Our family was personally involved in sharing this fear. In 1944 (I was 13) my oldest brother was in the Army Air Force stationed in England. He was a top-turret machine-gunner in a B-24, a plane sometimes referred to as "the flying coffin."

On this one afternoon, I was in the living room with my dad, who looked up from his newspaper as we heard a car driving up our driveway. He got up, went to the window to look to see who was driving in and his first words were uttered quietly but intensely: "Oh no. . . oh no. . .oh no." It was the depot agent.

My father blanched. His face went ashen. He seemed ready to keel over but caught himself, then slowly straightened up and steadied himself by putting his hand on a table. For whatever his reasons, he then walked clumsily to the door and stumbled outside to meet the depot agent.

The two men met halfway.

The agent did not have a telegram in his hand; he held instead a small crate of peaches and his opening words: "I managed to get a few cases of these and wondered if you might want to buy one."

Though Dad did not at that moment want to buy anything, he immediately said a loud "Yes." (He later said he would have bought them all - and the truck that brought them - just out of sheer happiness of the news he did not hear.)

Back inside, Dad walked back again to his favorite easy chair and collapsed into it, exhaling one big sigh after another. The sound of the depot agent's car was fading far away. It was over. My father's obvious relief was almost palpable as he sat there smiling down at a crate of peaches lying across his knees.