The “Leaf Peeping” half-day trip sponsored by the senior hall finally took place and it started out at a brewery with lunch off their traditional Bavarian menu and it ended with us having homemade ice cream at a place with 300 Giant Bull Elk, reindeer, whitetail deer and Tibetan Yaks, raised to sell their breeding rights and babies. When the owner first started his “alternate animals” farm, he spent a month living with Eskimos and a month in Tibet to learn how to care for reindeer and Yaks. The color tour was all but forgotten as we rode through the 100 acre farm in a “stagecoach” while we got an interested and laugh-filled education about DNA proven blood lines, breeding, breaking up fights, birthing babies and keeping the animals fat and happy. We stopped at several places so we could hand feed adolescent Bull Elk and adult reindeer. The reindeer had soft, gentle lips as they ate. The guy said you could put your whole hand inside their mouths and they won’t bite. If you go in the spring, you can book tours timed so you can help bottle feed 40-50 babies. One of his Giant Bull Elks has won so many prizes that all his off springs are sold and pre-paid through 2020.
This week I also had go back to the hearing center and the inside of my ear was pronounced completely cured of its infection. But getting there in the rain was not fun. It was the kind of rain where the cars in front of you seem to disappear in a foggy mist and the windshield wipers had to go at a rate of speed that makes you feel its hypnotic pull. You’ve gotta be careful about what’s playing on the radio when the wipers are going with the beat of the music: “That old Wacky Tobaccy, kick back and let it do what it do.” No, Toby Keith! I won’t “puff it in a pipe, twist it in a stem” or bake it in some brownies. I’m changing the radio station.
Yesterday I was supposed to go to a cardio drumming class at the senior hall but it got delayed by three fire department guys who were running over their allotted time to teach a class on using an AED defibrillator. It actually looks pretty easy to use but I hope I never have to do it. There’s been a push in our area to get these machines in all public and private buildings and considering they cost well over a thousand each the project has been going well in the community. One tip I learned is if you are in a place where you have a choice in using a landline or a cell phone to call 911, using the landline because they can find you easier. If you don’t have your GPS turned on in your cell phone, their switchboard will show the address of the cell tower that picked up the call.
By the time the firemen were through our time for the cardio drumming class was cut back---so much so that a Gathering Girls friend and I played hookie and we went out for breakfast instead of working up a sweat. Even then we couldn’t linger long because I had to be back to the senior hall for the long awaited lecture about the Million Letters Campaign. It was a fascinating lecture that brought laughter and tears and more than a few “WOWs!” One of the ‘wow letters’ the speaker/curator showed us had a bullet hole through it and another was from the Revolutionary War. He also shared a little known fact that all the Native American “code talkers” used during WWII were so important to the war that each one was assigned a bodyguard to protect them and to also kill them if they were captured.
During the Q&A period I raised my hand and I explained that I was pen pals with over fifty guys stationed in Vietnam and I still have a big box of letters plus carbon copies of the letters I sent to them. “Is there any value in donating the entire collection,” I asked, “or should I go through them and sort out some I think are interesting?” The curator, Andrew Carroll, of the Million Letters Campaign got rather excited and said they’d love to have a collection like that. “Would I include the copies of my letters too?” “Absolutely! That’s a unique collection,” he said. “Would you feel comfortable donating them?” I told him I want to read them one last time but, “Yes, I feel comfortable donating them.” And I will. So now I have a wintertime project lined up.
He gave me his personal address afterward as well as the address to the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University in Orange, California. I’m both enthusiastic and finally at peace about my decision and about what the university is doing with this legacy project---to archive a quickly disappearing piece history that both honors our soldiers and makes the letters available for research material for writers, film makers and historians. It’s too late in my life to write the “penpals” book I envisioned coming from my box of letters---and to do it justice---but someone else might do it someday if they are archived at the center.
I brought the box up from the basement today and one of the first letters I pulled out to re-read from Vietnam, went like this: “If you were here, I would recite your last letter out loud. Your words are pressed in my memory like the purple violets my mother kept in her Bible. I read the letter so many times because the serenity of the woods you described was so real that I felt as if I was there with you. The quietness of home is one of the things I desperately miss. The sounds of being in a war zone are sounds I don’t think I’ll ever be able to erase from my mind. Incoming and outgoing mortars, men dying, and the bullets as they hit metal, dirt and human flesh are sounds unlike anything I have heard before. Last year I thought death was something only people with gray hair had to think about. Now I’m over here, and I can’t seem to think about anything else. If it weren’t for your letters, I don’t think I could make it. They are like a rope that keeps pulling me back to the world. The world where I was once a carefree boy who spent Sunday afternoons playing in my grandpa’s woods.” Reading this sent a chill up my spine knowing that, oh yes, there is a "penpals" book waiting to be written from that box. ©
Andrew Carroll’s twelve books based on War Letters
Toby Keith and Willie Nelson, Wacky Tobaccy