Thursday, November 12, 2009

Veteran's Day 2009, 40 years ago today


I had the best of intentions. Veteran's Day for me began very early. I had intended to post this as an early Postcard Friendly Friday image, and I will link to it from Marie Reed's blog when she announces it. I'm not Talking Turkey like she is, but this story is a bit longer. I'm going to tell you about my Veteran's Day. It's never too late.

We've been involved in a local project sponsored by the Lewis & Clark Library called The Big Read. The library received a grant to enable them to involve the community of Helena in getting "back to the book" as a means of enabling better communications. The library collaborated with the local high schools, the Holter Museum of Art, and several other local organizations to make this a true community event. The grant came from the National Endowments for the Arts Program, and this year a group of teachers from the high schools and the library chose a book called "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. Approximately 1,000 high school students received the book for free, and along with the book they also received a readers guide. There were also almost seven hundred of the books available, through the library, for those interested in having a copy of the book for themselves. I have a copy signed by the author while he was here in Helena to speak about the book itself and the things HE carried. The Holter Museum of Art also participated, by providing gallery space for an exhibit in conjunction with a variety of programs sponsored by the library over the course of a month from October 11th to November 11th.

November 11th started at 3:00 AM for me. I woke up in a cold sweat. Tuesday evening I went through 'my box' looking for more envelopes to fill in the blank spaces in an album that my wife put together. Some of you that follow PFF have seen my FREE mail that I sent to her over the course of my year-long vacation in SE Asia. She had removed about fifteen of them to lend to the Holter for the gallery display of "The Things They Carried". I decided to see if I'd written her a letter on November 11, 1969 (forty years ago to the day), and I had. My wife had warned me that I should not read the letter. I didn't listen.

I was invited to Helena High School to talk about the things I carried, and the things that I did while in Vietnam. My wife and I spent a half an hour with the BioClub in Sandi Wardell's classroom, we were interviewed by Jesse Rogers and Kelsey Stordahl for the school newspaper, and we did a presentation for Robyn Duff's very enthusiastic Art class. We were guided around the high school by the Librarian, Niki Whearty, who was very gracious and understanding of the baggage I carried. I have to say looking back on it, that although it was emotionally draining, I would not have passed up the opportunity to speak to these young students. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

NOW. The cover. The USPS issued the POW-MIA stamp on May 29th, Memorial Day, of 1995. I decided at the time to do something 'special' because the Vietnam Conflict was an integral part of my life having spent a year with the Marines as a Hospital Corpsman. I came up with the idea of using the dog tags (from the theme of the stamp itself) of a Montana man, learn as much as I could about him, and use his dog tags as my art. Little did I know when I began where this journey would lead me.

Lee's mother is still living with her daughter in Wolf Point, Montana. Every year on Memorial Day she makes the almost five hundred mile trip to Choteau, Montana, to pay a visit to the Choteau Cemetary to honor her son. When I finally was able to connect with his sister, she told me she would ask Lee's mother if she knew what was on Lee's dog tags. I was told the story of her mother's search several days later.

When Lee's belongings were returned to her from the ship he was stationed on, she placed his sea bag in a closet. Just short of thirty years to the day that he was shot down, she opened the sea bag for the first time and found a pair of Lee's dog tags.

I completed the art work on several covers before the First Day, and on May 29th, 1995, in Choteau, Montana, I had them canceled and gave one of the envelopes to her.

Forty years ago TODAY, I was knee deep in a rice paddy. Every day for the next ten months, I will try to recall how I spent my days with the help of the letters enclosed in the Free Mail I sent to my wife, and I will also recall The Things I Carried. And still do.

Lee E. Nordahl was shot down over North Vietnam on December 20th, 1965. Although he survived the crash and was taken to a hospital, he apparently died shortly after his arrival, although photographs were taken (and undiscovered for over twenty years) of him receiving treatment. God Rest his soul In Peace, wherever he may be.

24 comments:

  1. Wow, I'm just stunned by this one! Dave, I am really moved by your generosity and kindness in sharing your experiences and also by what you did for Lee's mother. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A thought-provoking and moving post. Your wife must cherish those letters that you wrote to her. How perfect that you had your artistic tribute to Lee Nordahl canceled at the town of his resting place, Choteau, Montana.

    ReplyDelete
  3. AnitaNH and anyone reading these comments.

    Lee is at rest somewhere near Honoi, in what was then North Vietnam. Hs remains, despite several attempts to find them, have never been found. Thus, he remains an MIA. His mother returns to Choteau for Memorial Day to pay her respects at a memorial tree which was planted in the cemetary.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I just put the words "free mail" in the search box at the top of your blog to bring up more examples of your work. I especially like your use of the peace symbol in PFF#5 and PFF#3.

    In my 55 years on this earth I have never thanked a Veteran so this is long overdue. Thank you, Dave.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dave,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and art at the Holter last month--that was an amazing event! You have really given Lee Nordahl's family a precious gift, and I'm sure it comforts them to know that he is remembered. I'm also thrilled that you spent yesterday with Niki and students at HHS--I'm sure it was a memorable day for everyone, and such a powerful way for students to observe Veterans' Day. Thank you Dave!
    Pad McCracken

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is a fabulous post. I would say it is one of the best I have seen on veterans. There is so much to think about when I read a post like this and faces flash back and bodies come and go. It is amazing the flachbacks. Thanks for this post, Dave.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you for your well-written, moving post. I have not read The things they carried but I will put it on my short list.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Moving post. Thanks for your service!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks you Mr. Cachet, for that heat-wrenching story about Vietnam and "The Things You Carried" during a very difficult war. My nephew is back from Iraq and maybe you'd keep him in your heart - I think he's carrying around things that no young man should have to carry...
    Beautiful postcard too!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Dave, like Christine I was floored (and teary-eyed) at this post! What a fabulous project for those students and a chance for you to share your experiences with them. And what a fabulous thing you did for Lee Nordahl's family. 'Thanks for sharing' somehow seems pitifully inadequate for this one.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Dave,
    Wonderful, stunning, thought provoking post. Wonderful art work. Thank you. Thank you for serving our country. Thank you for being you.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Wow--stunning story, beautiful postcard. Thank you for serving our country. You are one of my heros. God bless you.

    ReplyDelete
  13. An extremely moving and thoughtful post.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I've been at a loss for words for over 24 hours now, I have read and re-read this many, many times, along with the other comments, and I just have no words. Tears but no words. Love to you. Judy

    ReplyDelete
  15. I enjoyed your story. I'm glad the students had an opportunity to learn about history from someone who participated in it.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Important and moving post. Thanks you, and happy PFF.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Dear Brother, I found a few words, but they were preceded by silence and reverence for who you are and what you've done.
    You are an alchemist. You have taken ugly black goal and transformed it into GOLD.
    Bless you. May what you carry become lighter and lighter as you give it away.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks for stopping by my blog. A nice story. Have been to Helena many times, not so much the past few years. My uncle started up Capitol Ford long time ago. My Mom was born in Hall Montana. We spent many summers growing up fishing in Yellowstone and on the Madison (from Calif). Love the idea of your decorating your envelopes. My Dad was a cover collector for many years so intriguing envelopes caught his attention.
    Judy

    ReplyDelete
  19. Dear Dave - it is impossible for me to tell you how touching I found this latest blog posting of yours. It is a lucky person indeed who can write with such beauty and render the thoughts and feelings behind those words into artwork.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Wow, what a post! That sounds like a wonderful project that you were involved in.

    Thank you for your service.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hello Dave! What good news! I'm so glad you enjoyed my mail art. Yes, they're a bunch of numpties at NZ post. They get paid enough to get it right, so it really is annoying when they don't. Nevertheless, they got it right this time round - even though I had to pay them again to do so - and I'm so very happy that you have an idea for that outrageous type-written letter. I imagined a black man - a Blue's player, tanked up on Absynithe, upset and angry, stabbing away at his typewriter keys as if there was no tomorrow.

    ReplyDelete
  22. PS. I'm a Kiwi (a New Zealander) NOT an Aussie (Oz). Dave, that's like calling a Canadian an American! Shame on you!!! I'm not sure I can forgive you for that faux pas....
    you're just going to have to send me some more fabuolous mail art...muh ha ha...

    ReplyDelete
  23. Apologies for my typo. It should have read,
    "You have taken ugly black coal and transformed it into GOLD."

    ReplyDelete
  24. gorgeous, and moving. is that O'Brien book wonderful? I've enjoyed all of his since I read that one. a dear friend has MMA from the dioxin in Agent Orange during his stint, and he wasn't even in combat. he was a REMF (wrote REMF Diary). the mind reels at the impact that 'engagement' has had throughout the world and the decades.

    I love how you always put 'my box' in quotes.

    thanks for this post.

    ReplyDelete