Archive for Sunday, April 17, 2005

Ordinary letters from an extraordinary soldier

April 17, 2005


The sad thing about our time is that war letters have become a genre. We've all read them. They're in books; they're online. They're also in our own homes. In this country, in this age, is there a family that does not have a file of letters from a soldier, sailor or aviator tucked away in the closet or the attic? In some of our homes, those files get thicker every day.

Right now there's a new set of war letters circulating. Not exactly new, it turns out; they've been around for 60 years. But almost nobody knew about them, including the fellow who wrote them. They have been hidden away until now.

They are the war letters of an Army grunt named Robert Joseph Dole, and the people who first looked through the trove inevitably described them as "extraordinary." But they aren't extraordinary at all. They're ordinary, which in the end makes them even more extraordinary.

Listen to this: Can't anybody write in our family? I haven't gotten a letter from home yet. And to this: The thing I dislike most is night patrols. I think I age about 10 years on each patrol. You can't see a thing, which is probably the worst part of it. I've led quite a few patrols, and I'm gradually getting used to it.

This, too: Send candy, gum, cookies, cheese, grape jelly, popcorn, nuts, peanut clusters, Vick's vapor rub, wool socks, wool scarf, fudge cookies, ice cream, liver and onions, chicken, banana cake, milk, fruit cocktail, Swiss steak, crackers, more candy, Life Savers, peanuts, piano, radio, living room suite, record player, and Frank Sinatra. I guess you might as well send the whole house if you can get it in a five-pound box. I would like some food though, honestly.

These letters were hidden away in Russell, Kan., the rail, oil and wheat town that shaped Bob Dole -- made him into a high school hero, the $2-a-week soda jerk with the good high school transcript; supported him as he recuperated in a string of Army hospitals, though the reports reaching town verged on the hopeless; welcomed him back to 1035 N. Maple as a broken man, knowing that in his case the term wasn't a metaphor; and nursed him to health, watching in wonder as he sought office and then fame.

Most of this time, his two sisters were in Russell, tending to business (one was a hairdresser, the other in real estate), tending to their families, tending to the flame. It was in their mother's house that they found the Dole letters, organized in books, placed away, neatly, as if she expected someone to look for them someday. "Mom was very good about keeping things," Gloria Dole Nelson said last week. "Almost nothing got away from her."

This was the same mom who, in the tough years, worked as a seamstress and sold sewing machines and whose fried chicken and cream gravy (followed by sundaes with her own homemade fudge) made such an impression that people still raved about them long after she was dead. The mother who, in the saddest and maybe most revealing story of Dole's 39-month recuperation, held a cigarette on her son's lips. It was the only way he could smoke.

"One thing that never changes is that it's your mother who stands by you," Dole said in a conversation the other day. "I know this is true, because I've been down to Walter Reed (Medical Center) and seen amputees working on a machine and always beside them are their mothers. It's the mothers who quietly plug away and take care of people who were hurt."

Former Sen. Bob Dole is scheduled to speak at the Dole Institute of Politics at 4 p.m. April 26. A book-signing will follow the speech.

So, quietly, devotedly, Bina Dole kept her son's letters and then, a bit over a year ago, the former senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee started to go through them. He worked with a writer and used them as the spine of a new memoir, "One Soldier's Story." He finally told the tale his political friends and campaign advisers begged him to tell but his Kansas sense of pride and privacy wouldn't let him tell.

"It's amazing how those letters sound just like Bob," his sister said. "You can hear him when you read them." You hear a Dole you didn't hear on the campaign trail.

Now for the irony part. A few months ago Dole had hip replacement surgery. Shortly afterward, he tried to move a suitcase. He fell. Blood poured from his left arm (the better one, as he calls it) and from his eye. There were the inevitable complications. In the end, he spent 41 days in the hospital.

He nearly died in an Army hospital room that had, as something of a decoration, an old copy of the Constitution. For a few weeks -- the weeks he intended to use to prepare for his book tour to share the letters he left behind -- he depended on others for everything again. In a way, he was back on Hill 913 in Italy, a proud man who couldn't move his arms.

"I felt a bit like I did 60 years ago," he said. "People had to feed me. But I could walk most of the time. That was a big difference."

Now he feels better. He's up and around. He's still getting therapy on his left arm, but he can give himself a shampoo and comb his hair and go to the bathroom without someone standing there with him.

I seem to be improving every day and there isn't any reason why I shouldn't be as good as new before long.

Bob Dole wrote that letter more than a half-century ago. He says in his book that his war -- his struggle -- took place long after armistice and peace treaty. It is still going on, even if the man, a few months short of 82, is finally at peace. No need to send candy or gum or cookies.

-- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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