By RON KELLEY
The world was at war. England, Germany, North Africa and Russia were war zones where no civilian was safe. All of Europe was in tatters. The Pacific was full of battleships and submarines. Many thousands of soldiers were dead or wounded. Concentration camps were doing their grim and evil business and the POW camps were full.
Here at home, people did whatever they could to help the war effort. Women took over jobs that were once the solitary domain of men. Gasoline, food, goods and services were rationed. Towns were under blackout orders, citizens were on the alert for anything suspicious and families lived in mortal fear of receiving those black-edged telegrams from the War Department on behalf of a grateful nation.
The year was 1944. The letter was mailed from Route A North, Ponce de Leon, Florida, to Stalag 3-B in Germany via the Kriegsgefangenenpost or Prisoner Of War Post. It was addressed to Pfc. Kylea Laird. Laird was an Army infantryman who had been sent to North Africa to do battle with the forces led by Gen. Rommel. Laird, a gunner, had been captured by the Germans during his very first day of combat. Wounded twice, he was sent to a POW camp in Poland where he was held until the end of the war.
The letters, in and of themselves, were not particularly remarkable, but they must have seemed like a lifeline to the young private. The typed letters were sent by the young soldier’s mother, Mrs. Donie Laird, and were full of news from home.
In one letter she wrote, “Well, I can’t tell you how thrilled we all were when we got your picture. We were so thankful for the picture, and glad to hear you are still all right.”
The letter goes on to describe the family’s crops, “the finest that could be,” and gives accounts of Aunt Beulah and Uncle J.W., Aunt Lilly Neal and Ethelene’s new baby. At the bottom of the letter, Laird’s mother had attached a tiny flower and had written “A flower from home.” Part of the flower still survives 64 years later.
Another letter from home contained news of the family’s success with their sugar cane crop, news of cousin Tom King and his plans to go squirrel hunting, and the good price they all got on their peanut crop. A neighbor, Mrs. Stevenson also sent a few lines in the letter, promising they would “all be at the depot to greet you.”
This story has a happier ending than some. Pfc. Laird survived his internment at Stalag 3-B and arrived home by train. On the day of his release, Laird weighed only 76 pounds. Yet, he was never seen by a doctor, just sent home, one of only two survivors from his original company.
Though he did recover somewhat, family members say he was never really the same after the war. Son Kenneth said, “He was easily startled by loud noises, especially sirens, which could make him scramble to his bed screaming.” Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome is common today, but was unknown at that time.
Yet, Kylea did return to take up the strands of his former life. He owned and operated a Pure Oil service station in Freeport at the intersection of SR. 20 and what is now Business 331. He married, had children. He even entered public service. Kylea Laird was elected to four terms as a Walton County commissioner. He was well-liked and respected throughout the county.
Laird was only 47 years old when he died in office. Yet his legacy remains. A highway was named after him. His family has continued his success. Kylea’s granddaughter, Jennifer, has a successful medical practice there in Freeport and is expecting her first child. Like ripples in a pond, the good things he did lived on long after he was gone, which is all any of us might hope to achieve.