Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad.
Robert Krulwich: And I'm Robert Krulwich.
Jad: Our show today is about finding clues to the past in the weirdest places and there is no weirder place to find the past than the story you're about to hear. It comes to us from Laura Starecheski who herself likes to get into old things.
Laura Strarecheski: My mom fostered that. When we were little, one of our outings that we would do would be to go to this toxic dump near my house where I grew up. It's on a top of a mountain. They sealed off this mountain and they made all the people move off of it. You're just walking along a trail and then you see all these old abandoned houses full of stuff. We would go into the houses, we'd find pay stubs, we'd find dishes, we'd find paintings. Even though we knew really why the people had left, we would try and make up other stories about why they left, maybe they were fighting in the middle of dinner and they just had to leave all their dishes on the table.
Jad: Fast forward many years, Laura is in New York and one day, she gets a call from her sister who tells her, "I just heard the most amazing story. I was at my writing class and the teacher told us this story. You should call him. Erick Gordon is his name. Take your tape recorder over to his office in Manhattan, make him tell it to you." That's what she did.
Laura: I just said at first, "I just want to record you telling the story."
Erick: Hey, how are you doing? [crosstalk]
Laura: How is it going? How he had found all these letters and photos and created a character. I had no idea that I would become so involved. Do you want to talk about that day that the story took place?
Erick Gordon: Sure. That day, let me see if I can put myself back in that day. I was living in Oakland at the time-
Laura: This is about 1994.
Erick: - and decided to go on a weekend camping trip with a friend. We're driving south on Route 101 through the central part of the state. My friend starts to frantically shout, "Look, look," and she's pointing out to this field. She can't even get the words out, she's saying, "Look, look," and she's shouting.
Laura: He tries to look.
Erick: I turn my head very quickly-
Laura: He can't see because his view is blocked by an overpass or a hill. He just has no idea what she's talking about.
Erick: She is stuttering her words and she says, "Ther-ther-there is," she's still stuttering and she says, "There's a goat standing on a cow's back."
Laura: She's like, "There was a goat standing on a cow's back in that field."
Jad: A what?
Laura: A goat standing on top of a cow.
Jad: A goat standing on top of a cow?
Erick: Of course, my reaction is, "That's absurd," and she says, "Pull this truck over, pull over." She's getting really angry. I said, "I'm not backing up three quarters of mile on 101."
Laura: They argue for a little while and Erick finally relents. 20 minutes later, they arrive back at the field.
Erick: We pull over and she just gets the hugest grin on her face. There is in fact a goat standing on a cow's back.
Laura: Still there.
Erick: We sit in the truck for a minute watching this cow who's close enough to the fence. We got a very good view of it and every time he takes a step to graze, the goat shifts from side to side, balancing.
Laura: They're kind of this unit.
Erick: Really amazing, you actually could see the goat's hooves bunch up in the cow's skin. We get out of the truck.
Laura: They slow get out of the truck to get a better look.
Erick: Right as I shut the door-
Laura: The goat jumps off.
Erick: -the goat jumps off. We're standing there dumbfounded, we move up to the fence and just-
Laura: Believe it or not, the story gets weirder.
Laura: Yes. Erick and his friend are standing totally still, hoping that if they just wait, maybe the goat will jump back on the cow. All of a sudden, Erick's friend notices something at her feet.
Erick: She bends down and picks up a letter.
Laura: A letter-
Erick: -right in front of the fence.
Laura: -and it's old, 50 years old.
Erick: It's kind of a crisp brown. We looked at the postmark, it was 1952. I open this thing up and read it and it's almost about nothing. "My dear, I wrote you a card after receiving the first one." I see some of these are so tough to read. I look down on the ground and there's another letter. "I've been slowly getting on my feet again," and another, "Ed is so much better." Looks like that's her looped F. And another, "Albertine sings very well indeed since you ask." They were blown, literally this line down the side of the highway, and we looked at each other and frantically started gathering these letters, filling our arms with them. Letters from the 1920s, I see a 1937 postmark and then she shouts from a couple of feet away, "1897, 1890," I'm gathering, my arms are getting full, I run to the truck and grab a garbage bag and I start filling it up. Then I start to notice Ella Chase, Ella Chase, Ella Chase, Ella Chase. These letters are all written to the same woman.
Laura: Over 300 letters, all written to one woman, Ella Chase.
Erick: Forget the goat and the cow, now we're standing in the middle of somebody's whole life correspondence spread out on the side of Highway 101. We just read and we read and we read into the night. Let me see if I can find-- There's a really old [crosstalk]
Laura: That day, back in 1994 began a 12-year obsession with Ella Chase. These letters are maybe Erick's favorite thing in the whole world. He keeps them in this big archival box in his closet.
Erick: Now, what's really interesting is there are a ton of letters that are written to her as mother or mom.
Laura: First thing Erick pulls out is this big stack of letters written to Ella during World War II.
Erick: I probably have 40 letters from boys in the Navy to Ella Chase with that read [unintelligible 00:06:02] stamp on the letter where they're calling her mom. I'll read you one and this is one that I-- April 2nd, 1941 from a GI named W. Murphy and he writes, "Well, mom, I hope you don't mind me calling you this because you-
Speaker 5: [unintelligible 00:06:20] just a mother to me and I hope I can be seeing you again. Keep writing to me if you will, I sure enjoyed hearing from you. Hope you received the letter that I wrote a few days ago but mail is a little slow going and coming out here. I'm feeling fine, only a little tired but that's nothing unusual as we are pretty busy all the time. Well, ma, I better close, and say a prayer for me if you will and God bless you. Love, W. Murphy."
Erick: August 3rd, 1945, somewhere-
Jad: 'Dear mom.' Were these her kids?
Laura: No, they're not her kids. They're boys, 18, 20 years old who were so attached to her, just by writing to her that they started to call her mom and there were 40 of these letters.
Erick: A number of them from what I can tell in the letters have never actually met her. She became this matriarch to all of these men in the war.
Laura: I'd never seen anything like that before.
Erick: There's something like this, this is-
Laura: I was amazed by the reach of her personality. He showed me dozens of letters, thanking her.
Erick: When you look at this, "I am so very grateful--"
Laura: "Thank you for what you did for my husband, thank you for changing the way that I think about my life." These seem to be from people who had only met her once.
Erick: The reverence-- People just speak to her, I can't figure out when she was married, I can't figure out where she was married, she ran for political office. This is a fascinating woman. She ran for political office in the 1940s, but I don't know what office.
Laura: That's where the story ends.
Jad: That's where the story ends?
Jad: What do you mean?
Laura: Erick has never tried to find out anything more. Remember how I told you he was a teacher before?
Laura: He started bringing all these letters into his classroom and ended up designing this whole curriculum around them.
Erick: I collaborated with the history teacher, the kids would each get a photograph, they'd have to put it in a plastic sleeve, each one of the kids, whenever they handled them had to put on surgical glove. In history the students would research that time period and then ultimately, they'd bring that work back to my classroom, my English classroom and they would start writing historical fiction.
Laura: Erick would ask each student to create a ghost biography of Ella Chase using her letters as a springboard.
Erick: Some of the pieces were wonderful. Just incredible.
Laura: He even had them title their papers, My Ella.
Erick: That's what's been much more meaningful to me.
Laura: The way Erick sees it, the real Ella was abandoned and he's given her a new life.
Erick: I feel like a guardian of this person's moment on the earth.
Speaker 6: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, [unintelligible 00:09:15] announcement for flight number 169 to San Jose, California.
Laura: Here's the thing, I was already going to California to visit a friend, and I couldn't leave things the way they were. The whole time I would look at these letters and look at the pictures, I would feel like, "There's more here."
Speaker 7: [unintelligible 00:09:34] flying time to San Jose will be approximately five hours and 56 minutes.
Laura: How did someone who reached out to all these people end up with their life on the side of the highway?
Speaker 7: [unintelligible 00:09:44]
Laura: I really wanted to know. Do you want to see some of the stuff because I brought it?
Marina: You brought some?
Laura: I knew I'd need help, I contacted this friend of a friend, Marina Cole, she's this amateur expert in genealogical research. I showed her the letters.
Jad: Wait, you had the letters? Did Erick give them to you?
Laura: Yes, even though he was convinced that they were abandoned, he told me.
Erick: I would love to find a family that this would truly mean something to.
Marina: Dear mom?
Laura: It's not her son, it's one of these letters from the World War II soldiers who all called her mom.
Marina: Oh, wow.
Laura: As soon as I started showing Marina the letters, her face lit up.
Marina: She is amazing.
Laura: The first thing we decided to do was to go to a historical society.
Marina: This woman, we know that she lived in Lomita Park. Since this is for Daly City, I assume- I went back and looked at census records to find out about a little bit more about her-
Laura: We found out that Ella had two granddaughters who are still alive. We sent letters to her granddaughters but they'd never respond. Day two.
Marina: State Street go on to Napa Valley highway--
Laura: My idea, my fancy this whole time has been, "We'll go to her house." The address that's on the letters. Well, it's worth a shot.
Marina: Yes, why not? Maybe bring one of the letters.
Laura: It was a single storey house, little rose garden. I think houses have a strong history. Someone there will be able to tell us something about her. Are they coming or--
Marina: I don't know.
Laura: No answer, so we tried the neighbor.
Speaker 5: What is it that you want?
Laura: Hi, I'm sorry to bother you. I'm looking to find information about a woman [crosstalk] this house.
Speaker 5: I have no idea, we're new here, ma'am.
Laura: Okay. Well, thank you so much. The missing husband.
Marina: I can't find anything on him at all. He's a complete mystery.
Laura: There were a lot of unanswered questions. We knew that we had to find Ella's obituary. Day three, the Napa Public Library. We're in front of the microfiche and we're scrolling through dates. August 22nd. This was our last hope.
Laura: The death notice comes up on the screen.
Marina: Chase in Napa, Monday, July 4th, 1950.
Laura: We scanned it as fast as we can for any new names that we haven't seen before. Almost right away, we noticed--
Laura: -Robert Lyle. There's a grandson.
Marina: There was a grandson.
Laura: A grandson. We had never seen this name before. He was listed.
Bob: Hey, this is Bob.
Carol: Hi, this is Carol.
Bob: We're either down at the store getting some milk or-
Carol: [unintelligible 00:12:50] we're somewhere, bye.
Laura: Hi, this is a message for Robert Lyle. My name is Laura Starecheski. I'm a reporter. I'm doing a story about a woman who I believe is your grandmother. Her name was-- I wanted to hear a voice, I wanted a voice. Marina returned to Los Altos to get back to her life. I waited. One day passed, then another, I didn't get a call back from him. Day six. [phone rings] It was Marina. Marina? She hadn't been able to stop researching.
Marina: It's really sad.
Laura: What is it?
Marina: In 1938, she filed for divorce. There's a series of articles where he denies that they were married.
Speaker 8: She pleaded with me to marry her, Ella did, but we couldn't get along and I refused to do it.
Marina: She was desperate for money, needed to sell the house. She couldn't do that without divorcing her husband.
Speaker 9: Trial of sensational "I'm Not Married case" expected in June.
Laura: It went on for a year, the huge headlines. Ella said they were married, Bellman, her husband, says that they never were. Ella couldn't produce a marriage certificate and then finally the whole thing ended with her just sitting in the courtroom refusing to answer questions.
Speaker 10: Ella A. Chase of Lomita Park, still adamant and defiant but this time alone steadfastly refused to answer questions.
Laura: That really wasn't the worst of it.
Marina: Then I found this really sad article-
Laura: From a few years later.
Marina: -let's see, let me find this.
Speaker 10: Christmas 1942, death took no holiday. On Christmas eve, Bellman Chase wandered along dimmed out Salford market. He had been drinking heavily, he was separated from his wife and family. Perhaps he was trying to erase thoughts that come to men at such times. Christmas day sprawled on his back on a sidewalk, he died. The warm sun shone clear on the fractured nose and the blue bruise on his cheek. "Looks like the bum is dead," someone said.
Marina: A couple of days later, it says that his body was left unclaimed in the morgue. They were not able to locate his estranged wife.
Laura: Really? It suddenly made sense. It was right after that that she started writing to Word War II soldiers. She probably needed them as much as they needed her. Day seven, Holy Cross Cemetery in South Francisco. Look, look.
Marina: Wow, Ella.
Laura: That's a nice headstone.
Marina: It is a really nice headstone.
Laura: It was grey and unpolished. She was buried with her mother and father.
Marina: I wish I'd brought flowers.
Laura: I know. We could go pick some flowers right over there.
Marina: We could. Yes, let's do that.
Laura: As soon as I got back I went to Erick's office.
Erick: Hey, how are you doing?
Laura: I had all these newspaper clippings in my bag and I was ready to show him.
Jad: How were you feeling at this point?
Laura: I was feeling a little nervous. Some of it is sad, I just want to make sure that you're ready for that. It's not necessarily positive enlightenment about her family. Let me get it out. As I'm taking the stuff out of my backpack, he stops me right before I hand it to him.
Erick: There's a part of me that's not sure that I want to see it. [silence] I think if there's no one that would receive these artifacts ultimately or that we have some sort of connection and appreciation to them. I'm not sure I want to see it.
Laura: You don't want to know any of it?
Erick: I don't. If there's no one to take them over, I want to live with them as a mystery.
Laura: I couldn't blame Erick. I was even a little bit jealous of him at that point because he got to choose whether or not to look at this stuff.
Jad: What then?
Laura: I went home, but as soon as I got home, there was a message on my answering machine.
Bob: Hi, this message is for Laura. My name is Bob, grandson of Ella Chase. You called and left a message for me to try and get ahold of you regarding some pictures and letters and stuff that were found along the roadside. I think I can help fill in the pieces for the puzzle because they probably came out of my truck on the way from San Jose to Southern California.
Laura: I have some pretty big news for you. As soon as I got home after I talked to you on Friday, I got a message from Ella's grandson. He's the one who dropped the box.
Bob: During the course of driving down Highway 101 taking these boxes home in the back of my pickup several of them blew out.
Laura: He tried to pull over and get it.
Bob: I stopped alongside the road, my wife was with me and we picked up everything we could see.
Laura: As soon as he started to collect it, the California Highway Patrol pulled over and told them that he had to keep going.
Bob: They were going to give me a ticket for littering-
Laura: -because the stuff's scattered everywhere.
Bob: Because the stuff was just blowing everywhere.
Laura: He has a whole bunch of boxes like the one that fell off.
Bob: I'm still going through this stuff and it's been 12, 13 years now.
Erick: You actually found who dropped this stuff. Did he sound sad about it? What was his reaction?
Laura: He just seemed happy-go-lucky about it, he was like, "I think I can solve your mystery because I dropped--" When I was talking to Bob, I told him about Erick of course and I told him how much Erick cared about all this stuff and he was really relieved. He didn't think it was weird at all. He just was glad that someone had cherished this stuff. He came up with the idea right away of sending Erick a replacement.
Bob: I have another group of pictures that--
Laura: Erick sent Bob all of Ella's stuff. Bob sent Eric this mystery box full of photos that he couldn't explain.
Jad: I still can't get over the timing though. Bob passes by in the truck, the box flies out and then what? Couple hours later, this goat jumps on a cow's back and causes these two people to stop and get the letters?
Jad: Do you think that goat on a cow was a sign?
Laura: What do you mean? [chuckles]
Jad: From Zeus, saying, "Stop. Erick stop."
Laura: I think you could tell it that way, but goats like to stand on top of cows.
Laura: Yes, goats like to stand on top of anything high. If there's a fence, they'll jump on top of it. If there's a house, they'll try and climb it. That's what goats do. Don't you think so?
Jad: [laughs] How do you know all this?
Laura: I've seen goats. My mom used to send me up the road to buy eggs from this woman who had all these goats and they had a little goat shack and all the goats would be clustered on top of the goat shack although they had a whole yard full of scraggly grass to graze in.
Jad: Did you ever say to Erick, "Erick, goats just like to do this?"
Laura: No. I never said that to him. Goats like to stand on tall things, but since when does a cow not care? The goat is not extraordinary, it's the cow.
Jad: It's a nonchalant cow.
Laura: Yes. [background noise]
Jad: Laura Starecheski is a producer. She lives in New York.
Robert: A nonchalant cow. [chuckles]
Robert: Hope you'll stay with us. Our next detective story begins with a drop of blood and from the blood, we discover 16.5 million baby boys.
Jad: This is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.
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