Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Our mail gets delivered mid-morning, brought in and sorted at noon. Bills to the computer room, junk mail to the garbage and personal correspondence to the kitchen table where it waits, unopened, until after work. When I can relax and enjoy it like the special treat it is.  

I email and text, like everyone else. And I handwrite letters. Because cursive is a beautiful way to say what you want to say.

Whether it’s telling a secret…

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sharing big news…

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or just saying “You should be here!”

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The time we take to smooth down the paper, get the right pen, choose our words and physically form them on the page adds weight to our message and a personal touch to its delivery. In an age when a thought can be typed, sent, read and deleted in seconds, handwriting gives us the gift of a conversation that can be relived over and over again.

January 23, 2016 is National Handwriting Day.

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Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

Episcopal Church at Fort Thompson

Episcopal Church at Fort Thompson

Near the clutch of churches
in the center of town,
no one sleeps past 7 a.m.
The bells that peal
from the four brother belfries
summon both saints and sinners.
Joyful Baptists, solemn Lutherans,
Prayerful Methodists, commanding Catholics.
Melodies distinct yet harmonious.
In the brief moments before the ringing fades,
In the breath between sleep and waking,
It doesn’t matter to which you belong.
Just that you believe in something.

Nod to the Del Vikings for inspiring the title to this week’s post…

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

I live my life with an angel on my shoulder, guided by the light of loved ones lost.

He’s a World War II veteran, in his 70’s,
and like many of that era, unfailingly polite.
“Please” for more ice chips,
“Thank you” for the bedpan,
“My apologies” for hitting the call button by mistake.
The lone occupant of a room with two beds,
he takes the one by the window
so he can watch the traffic.
He barely dents the mattress, is thin but not bony,
skin wrinkled but not pale and delicate.
He’s golden brown, a boy of many summers,
the same shade as my grandfather who’s a farmer
and I wonder if this man’s the same.
His hair, what’s left of it, is coarse and white
and his blue eyes are pale yet alert.
But it’s his arms that I study as I check his water pitcher.
They rest atop the sterile white coverlet like
fading portraits on a clean canvas.
Forearms covered in pictures, tattoos whose clear outlines
are muddied, the colors bled from age and the elements.
There are dates and a woman’s name,
a pin-up girl like the nose art of a bomber,
a dragon’s head that now spews a dim spark of its former flame.
While the old man sleeps, I try to picture him
as a strong young man whose eyes are clear,
whose heart pumps steadily, whose bare arms are unadorned.
Yet to travel to those places and see those things
that prompt him to wear his history forever on his skin.

Cottonwood Jail

The whole of Cottonwood (they number 12) are watching as I turn off the highway onto the gravel. Along the dusty path, buildings are scarce: a handful of houses, empty school, vacant grain elevator. A church slumps at the edge of town, peeled and pained by the prairie winds. Crows and turkey buzzards perch on its pinnacle, the steeple aslant.

I turn at Main Street and though it would be quicker to cut the corner and cross the barren lots, respect keeps me on the abandoned road, strewn with tumbleweeds and washouts. My four-wheel-drive skirts the ruts and comes to rest at the Cottonwood Jail.

The barbed wire fence holds me at bay but I walk the ditch as close as I can get, skirting the boundaries of trespass. The sun blazes overhead, puff clouds dotting the blue straight up for miles. The wind ruffles the yellow prairie grass and raises a howl from the darkened shack. The spectre of a former occupant, the last unfortunate led from his cell, across the dust to the square, up the steps, over the boards, under the dangling rope? Retribution awaits, its shadow hovering over the pine planks.

My camera quick draws from wrist strap to hand and I shoot into the sun, striking shadows with floating faces. I shiver in the heat, and retreat to my car, glancing both ways across the wide open field, feeling the weight of the watching. I make for the highway without looking back.

On the steps of the church, in the shade of the steeple, a pair of wizened cowboys watch me depart. Spitting the last of his chew into the dirt, the younger says to the other, “Puttin’ the jail sign on that old chicken coop was the best idea you ever had.”

“Ayuh,” says the elder, squinting across the prairie beneath the shade of his gnarled hand. “Those tourists eat that shit up.”

At the crest of the sledding hill...

 

 

 

 

The sledding hill glowed in the waning moonlight

awaiting the day’s complement

of sled runners and Spongebob moon boots.

An older man came walking through the pines

carrying a saucer in his leather-gloved hands.

He stopped ahead of my inquiring dogs.

“Thought it was a perfect time to try that hill,” he said.

“How was it?” I asked.

He grinned.

“Great. Fast.”

Then he marched down the Gulch trail, whistling in the darkness.

I watched him go,

wishing I’d thought to ask for a turn.

 

 

 

 

Swoop, sweep, spiral, spin.

A squadron of sparrows chase past my window.

Wings outspread, feathered bombers,

rapid-fire, they shoot through the treetops.

Seven avian acrobats, over, under,

flight paths cross, they glide in graceful arcs.

Speed round, filing by in formation

like the tethered tail of an unseen kite.

Dipping beneath my view

they skim the surface of the cool creek below

before bursting up through the birch boughs.

Skyward. Cloud-bound.