Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Knitting Socks--The Story Behind The Story

On the back of this photo, Jim wrote in big letters:

Have you noticed that nearly every story has another story behind it?  So it is with my tale on learning to knit socks. I led you to believe that my seeing a link on a yarn site was what triggered Jim's and my desire to do something for our troops over in the "big sandbox." My part would be learning to knit the socks. Truthfully, the longing to "be there" for our military stems from something far more heart tugging than that. It is a story that goes back in years. Let me share it with you.

When Jim was sixteen, he decided to join the Navy, but the Bell Bottomed guys said, "No thanks, you're too young. Come back when you're eighteen."  He told me he went home in tears, only to be told by his mom that she wasn't surprised the Navy thad turned him down. "They don't take cry babies," she said.

Undaunted, Jim discovered that he could join at seventeen if he had parental permission, so when he turned "the magic age," he and his parents headed off to the recruiting office and signed on the dotted lines. A four-year hitch active duty in the Navy; three years inactive to follow. It was the time of the Korean War. Yet Jim was happy and so were his folks. Their three oldest were now all serving, the oldest daughter in the WAVES, the middle son in the Army, Jim in the Navy. And all in Korea.

Jim's first duty station was aboard the USS Whiteside, an attack cargo carrier that earned four battlestars during the Korean War. The Whiteside traveled back and forth between Treasure Island near San Francisco and Sasebo and Yokosuka, Japan, carrying supplies to be dispersed to the troops fighting in Korea.

Over the more than fifty years Jim and I were married, he mentioned from time to time that his parents had not been letter writers, and that he'd not once received mail from home during his deployment. Every so often he'd tell me how hurt he'd been that it seemed no one cared enough to contact him. He also told me that he'd devised a way to make a point at home. He had a buddy take the above photo. On the back, in big letters, Jim wrote NO MAIL and sent the letter off to California. 

No go. His parents still didn't write and to this day I've never figured out why. They were great parents and top-notch people. Perhaps they didn't realize how much their three oldest children wished to hear from them. Perhaps they were more involved in raising the two young ones still at home. Since they are long gone, there is no way to know. And since Jim never questioned them about it, he never knew either.

It isn't that my husband talk about the subject a lot. He didn't. Yet over the years he mentioned it enough that I knew it was a long standing wound in his heart. So when Jim and I sat down and put our heads together, deciding what we could do for our men and women in uniform that would be feasible, Jim came up with sending them mail. His standard soapbox theme was "Everyone in the service should get mail. Lots and lots of mail. So much mail that they never feel as alone and forgotten as he had." Then he would tell me about going to every single mail call aboard ship, always waiting to hear his name. "We'd all be on deck, Sandy, hoping for mail that day. When everything was passed out, there were those of us still standing there empty-handed. The hurt in those guys eyes is something almost unexplainable. I've never forgotten it." I knew it was true. I also knew that what he'd seen in their eyes, they had seen in his.

That drove me all the harder to find troop names so we could write them. . We realized we couldn't send letters or boxes addressed "To Any Sailor or Soldier or Airman". Not since Vietnam. That is when I accidentally discovered Soldier's Angels. But we could only adopt one troop at a time. So we did. But I kept looking for other ways. Then one day I came across a link to There it was. All kinds of names, all sorts of men and women wanting someone to write to. Who knew how many "Jims" were out there? So I signed up.

At that time, anysoldier was new; there was no cost to get names; I could ask for up to five a day. So I did. Every day, like clockwork, Jim and I adopted five troops who sounded lonely. When letters and emails began coming back to us, I told Jim I was just plain out of things to write about. Anysoldier's rules stated no talk of war; no politics; no sad stories of your own; keep everything upbeat. I did that for a couple of weeks. By then I was tired of talking about the weather, which flowers were in bloom, what new recipe I'd tried, or did we think the hometown ball team would win. Since we replied to every letter, card or email, I had to find some new subjects.

One night I asked Jim, "What on earth do I talk about?" He thought for a moment and said, "Just write to them like they are part of our family. Just be yourself. Be chatty. Let them know what's going on. We have adopted them into our family now. Write them as such."

That's exactly what we did. We continued like that for nearly three years. Over all that time we received thousands of letters and emails (I have proof) and made some of the best friends we mostly never met. As requests came in, whether for warm socks, wool hats or scarves, I contacted my church, my friends' churches, and assorted organizations for help. Everyone came through and in the blink of an eye, my computer room became known as "The Soldier Room." Friends had donated so many things, there was barely one small path through the maze. I did knit all the socks myself, but had four others knitting hats, scarves, and helmet liners to military specs I'd found online. And even though we constantly told our adopted family that many others were helping us because they had wanted to do something for our military for a long time but didn't know how, we were the ones who received what came to be boxes and boxes of letters and cards.

As Jim's Parkinson's disease progressed and all but a few of our adopted troops were home, I let up a bit, though I had no intention of quitting. Somebody else made that decision for me. One day I signed on to in order to request some new names and was told I was banned. Whether I didn't give them enough money or took too many names, I do not know. I wrote the site's founder and asked for an explanation, but never got one. I told them I'd written to every single person we'd adopted and could prove it. They seemed to care not. Every so often I sign on, just to see if I've been unbanned. So far, no good.

By that time, I knew Jim was winding down in health and as I wanted to spend every minute I could with him, I chose not to follow through. At least a dozen of our original adopted military stayed in touch. I knew when they were once-again deploying and went back into letter writing as best I had time for. If I had my druthers, I would still be writing our loved ones in the desert. I'm alone now; I have time. I would love to carry on that which meant so much to Jim. Everytime we received a letter or an email, I'd read it to him and watch that happy smile spread across his still-handsome face. He knew someone had had a great mail call. It made him genuinally happy to have encouraged another's heart. His goal was to let them know they were important to us; that we cared about them; that we prayed for them each day.

In all, Jim and I adopted close to 2,500 troops. Not all wrote back. Many did. All the letters, etc. are saved, because they came from family whose names I still know.  I remember well what some of those letters said: "Just think, if Jim had gotten a lot of mail when he was in the Navy, we would never have met." And this: "I don't always open your letters when I get them. I save them until a time when I'm really down and depressed. That's when I take the latest one out of my pocket and read it." And this: "We were in a battle and the guy in front of me was hit and I should have been next because I was right behind him, but the bullets fell short and rolled down a small incline. It's times like that that you know someone is watching over you. Thank you for praying for me."

Every troop we became pen pals with came home. Some were wounded in body, some in mind, some in spirit. But they all came home alive. I give thanks to the God of the Bible. The One Jim and I served during our lifetime together. To ensure each troop was prayed for by name, we made a list; Jim took half and I took half. Every troop and his unit were prayed for regularly--whether they themselves were believers or not. Even today, with Jim gone nearly a year, I still receive an odd email, asking me if I remember them. Of course I do. How can one forget family?

In all those years, Jim and I were blessed with many forever friends we never would have known otherwise.  About a dozen eventually found their way to our home, all with family in tow. What fun to actually meet them and have time to sit and chat. What Jim and I had started as something small that we could do by ourselves,  eventually came to involve dozens of friends, family, and retailers. There were others who simply gave us money for the postage, which had now risen substantially. Who could have guessed that Jim's desire to do unto others that which he wished had been done unto him would become a major entity in itself?  Many years ago, the Lord looked down from heaven and saw the sadness of a young sailor who received no mail. And in His time, he turned it into a blessing, both for our troops--and for Jim. All things really do work together for good.

Jim's duty aboard the USS Whiteside was the boiler room. I expect that came later
than this photo. He often talked about having to scrape and paint,
scrape and paint. Looks suspiciously like that's what he'd been doing when this
photo was taken.

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L Keith

Photos are the property of the author and may not be reproduced without permission. 

1 comment:

  1. I made sure those letters you sent to me got passed around, and the care packages were shared out with not just my "kids" in the lab, but with the wounded soldiers and civilians at our hospital.

    I think your count of 2500 is too low.