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.