Trunk treasure — Shipman discovers WWI history, reconnects with the past
Ruth Shipman, a 93-year old retired Haywood County language arts school teacher, recently uncovered a historical gold mine when she opened her mother, Jennie Green Dotson’s, old dusty trunk — a trunk that brought back a flood of memories of Shipman’s father, Farida Foster Dotson, a World War I veteran born Aug. 23, 1895.
The historical hunt was prompted when members of her church, Bethel Baptist Church, asked if she had a WWI flag to commemorate the 100th anniversary July 28.
“I remembered I had an old WWI, flag so I went looking for it,” said Shipman.
When she first held the flag in her hands — a flag that showed its age with only 48 stars, before Alaska and Hawaii became part of the United States — tears came to her eyes because that flag was given to her mother when her father’s life was cut short in 1943 as a delayed result of war injuries.
As Shipman passed by the church and saw her father’s old flag flying in the wind to salute all WWI veterans and their families, she was proud.
“Many lives were lost and changed fighting for that flag and we should honor it in memory of our veterans,” she said.
However, the flag was just the first historical war memorabilia she found. She couldn’t believe all that she found next in her mother’s trunk, which told the story of her father — the WWI hero behind the flag.
She found his registration certificate from June 1917 and the dog tags he wore as a private first class in the 56th Pioneer Infantry, Company G. Her mother had even saved a small, cracked mirror he used when he served in Germany and France during the war.
“I imagine he put that mirror up in a tree to shave,” said Shipman.
Also in the trunk were his honorable discharge papers and a well-deserved Bronze Star that he earned as a member of the defensive sector in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive battle.
She almost overlooked a delicate handkerchief that her father had mailed to her mother during the war.
“Daddy had met Mama at a little wooden church called Fincher’s Chapel before the war,” said Shipman.
On that old ivory handkerchief were these words straight from the heart of a homesick soldier — “Forget Me Not — when the golden sun is sinking and your mind from troubles free while of others you are thinking will you sometimes think of me?”
He didn’t have to worry about his girl back home, Jennie Green, forgetting about him because she loved him dearly, Shipman said. After he came home in December 1919, the two were married Jan. 6, 1920. The Dotsons raised a girl and two boys — Ruth, Thomas and Troy — while Farida worked at Champion Papers for 20 years aside from the three years the family spent in Union, South Carolina, from 1924-27.
“Daddy talked sometimes about traumatic experiences in the war because he was in heavy artillery and it bothered him about how many men he had killed,” said Shipman. “He would be sleeping and think he was on a war field and wake up shouting.”
Between the intense war flashbacks, however, he remained determined to create positive memories with his family he loved — and he did.
Shipman grew up on Medford Farm Road between Canton and Clyde and her eyes still shine with good memories of going rabbit hunting with her father and eating hot dogs and marshmallows during Saturday afternoon picnics on Fines Creek and Betsy’s Gap.
She was “Daddy’s Girl.”
“We went swimming a lot on my grandfather’s property and he would hold his arms out and say, ‘Swim to Daddy!’” Shipman said.
“He was a good dad and he just let us be children,” she added.
That’s why fresh tears came to her eyes when she found the very last letter that her father wrote to her. He wrote a touching and humorous letter, dated Nov. 28, 1940, while she was in college at Carson Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee.
Snippets of the letter include: “I kissed your picture when I came home and saw it ...Well it’s been a long time since I wrote a girl a letter but I guess you will be surprised to get one from me ...You know Christmas is coming and I am looking for Santa Clause to bring me something for Christmas so that’s why I am writing so soon … be a good girl … from your old Dad.”
Even after she graduated from college, she was still “Daddy’s Girl” no matter how old she was.
“I remember one Sunday afternoon, Daddy let a young man come over to visit me and we sat in the living room and Daddy sat on the front porch the whole time. I was already teaching school at the time and I was so embarrassed,” she said with a laugh.
She appreciated her father’s protective love, however, her father died shortly after that on a Sunday afternoon in 1943 when he was only 48.
“He had been gassed in the war and he had a lot of problems with his lungs and it finally killed him,” Shipman said.
“Daddy was a good and decent man and I always wanted to marry a man like him,” she said.
In 1946, just three years after her father died, she married a man named Arthur Shipman — a man she says she fell in love with because he was so much like her father.
“Daddy never got to meet Arthur but I know that he would have loved him,” she said, noting that she and Arthur were married 61 years before he passed away from cancer in 2007.
As a fitting reminder of her father’s love for her, Shipman found a picture deep in the trunk of her handsome father dressed in his military uniform. At the bottom of the picture, there was a picture of a baby girl sitting on a front porch rocking chair.
“That baby girl was me,” said Shipman, pointing to the history-rich photo framed in an oval frame.
“Mama told me one time that he put that picture of me in there and he said, ‘That’s Daddy’s little girl — don’t let anybody take that picture out!’” she added.
So, that’s where the picture is going to stay.