A mysterious letter that sat unopened for nearly 70 years, and was found last month tucked inside a book bought at a Lakeland thrift shop, was finally opened Thursday, revealing a soldier's love during a time of war.
At first, Sheila Polk, who found the sealed note in a World War II history book, didn't want to open the envelope, which was addressed from one service member to another.
But when she learned that both the sender and the intended recipient were no longer alive, and when Postal Service officials said she could, she opened it.
To her delight -- and just as she'd suspected -- it was a sweet love letter.
"Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me," read stationery that included an image of a couple sitting beneath a tree.
Below, were the words Sgt. Albert C. Alm, Jr., of Army Airfield in Palm Springs, Calif., intended for Pfc. Helen Rothurmel of the 555th WAC Squadron in Love Field, Dallas.
Alm's opening words in the hand-written letter, dated May 26, 1945, came from a man weary from the war and longing to return to civilian life.
"Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me."
"Dear Helen, I bet you thought I was shipped back overseas again, huh? Talk about trying to keep up on letter writing. I can't even catch up now," the letter began. "Sometimes it's hard to believe yet that I am back in the States even though I am in another desert here. I was hoping I would stay around the Midwest again, but no such luck. They always seem to keep me as far away from home as possible. I consider myself lucky though that I had my furlough from South Bend.
"I was sure glad I got to see you that morning at church," Alm wrote. "I am sorry I wasn't so talkative but being around a lot of people all of a sudden had me speechless. I guess that is what happens after being around only a handful of men for a couple of years."
Alm sought to inform Rothurmel that he had a "nice job here working in the snack bar at the Officer's club," although, "we are so short of help here I have had to work every day so far.
"There are a few fellows I know from overseas here, so I don't feel that I am alone here," he writes. "I have yet to meet somebody from home, though."
The letter concludes with an apology from Alm for not writing sooner before concluding, "Love, Al."
Polk, a self-described romantic who initially tried to see that the letter was delivered as addressed, believes the innocent, but affectionate words are those of a man in love.
"If you're writing to your sister or your niece or your friend, you don't use that kind of paper."
The letter bore only the word "free" where a stamp would go, as mail sent from military bases did not require postage. Three date stamps on the outside of the unopened envelope show it likely never made it to Rothurmel.
Alm, who died in 2009 at age 88, never married. An obituary found by FoxNews.com said he lived most of his life in New Carlisle, Ind., and retired at the age of 60 as a salesman for Interstate Bakeries after 34 years of service.
Born in Chicago, Alm was a WWII Army Air Force veteran, according to the obit, and a life member of VFW Post 9423, Rolling Prairie, American Legion Post 297, New Carlisle.
"Albert marked the graves with American flags on Veterans Day at Olive Chapel Cemetery for 30 years, and carried the flag in the New Carlisle parade for 50 years," his obituary reads, adding that he "wintered in Sarasota, Florida, from 1984-2004."
Alm's surviving brother, 86-year-old Richard Alm, of Sarasota, said he did not know of a woman named Helen Rothurmel and declined to comment further when contacted Monday.
Rothurmel, whose name was also at times spelled "Rothermel," died in 1990. She was born in 1922 and, like Alm, originally from Indiana.
Rothurmel was a private who enlisted in the Women's Army Corps on March 2, 1944. She later married and had three children before living her later years in Lakeland, Fla. -- the location where the book and letter were found, leading Polk to question whether Helen had received the letter but chose not to open it.
"Maybe Helen didn't read it because she didn't want to open old wounds," she said.
Polk discovered the letter last month inside the book, "World War II on the Air: Edward R. Murrow and the Broadcasts that Riveted a Nation," with a CD narrated by former CBS News anchor Dan Rather.
For Polk, sadness came over her upon reading the words that Rothurmel never saw.
"I'm sad for Albert because it seems like he really had feelings for this woman and because of their military status, it prevented him from seeing her," she said. "It's sad to me that he never got married. Maybe he thought, 'If I can't have her, I can't have anybody.'"
"Reading the words that he actually wrote in his own handwriting ... for the very first time .... It's like he's expressing his love from the grave," Polk said.