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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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April 2010 Archives

A Letter From the Past

It was going to be a spring-cleaning double whammy: Rake the garden, tackle the basement. I expected to end up, at the very least, with a pile of mulch and some extra shelf space.

I didn't expect a jolt of déjà-vu, let alone a history lesson. But both were in the first box I opened.

Most of the contents were readership studies from my former employer, the Star Tribune. A generation of readership studies, in fact, all done before the Internet was a gleam in anyone's eye.

All had assessed our audience's reading habits; all suggested ways to improve what we were doing, and all ended on hopeful notes - some so hopeful that they made me smile, given the changes the industry has been suffering through.

Something else in that box, though, gave me a sterner pause: A two-page typed letter of complaint from one of those readers. It had somehow been misfiled, and I couldn't tell when.

The letter was undated, and its angry tone was so familiar that it could have been written this year. Even the signature could have been contemporary - no name, just this line in all-capitals: AN EX-GI WHO IS STILL PROUD OF HIS COUNTRY.

The writer was complaining about "these kids today'' - another familiar theme that I hear a lot, whenever grandparents and parents of teens are discussing Tweets, texting, e-books and ever-smarter smart phones.

But the subject of the letter was far more serious. The ex-GI was talking about war and how wars keep recurring in almost every generation.

Wars are necessary, he said, "to make our Great Country safe. It hasn't worked out that way as yet ... but can these brilliant rebels think of a better way?''

He never named the war he was writing about, but one adjective told me the letter had been written nearly 40 years ago. The term was "long-haired,'' as in "these long-haired freaks.'' The writer was angry about the coverage the newspaper was giving to protesters of the Vietnam War.

From some of the things the ex-GI said, I wondered whether some of his own grandchildren might have been among those anti-war protesters.

"They will be running the country one of these days,'' he wrote. "Let's see how great a job they do. Let them have their children tell them what a mess they left.''

The framework of his life, it seemed, had been war and struggle. He had fought in the Pacific in World War I, and his brother had been killed in Germany. They had grown up in the Great Depression - something so awful, he said, that "these kids today'' weren't tough enough to endure.

He said he'd been eight years old when America entered World War I. That would make him about 100 years old, if he's even still alive.

I wondered what he'd think about how the country has changed - and not changed - in the four decades since he mailed that letter. I wondered which of the many sides of our many issues he'd be on today.

There's no way to know, of course. I do know that the message he sent 40 years ago isn't the same as the message I got now.

Yes, his letter brought back the gut-wrenching turmoil and searing heartbreak of the Vietnam years. But it also put our 21st-century troubles in perspective, and it brought a strange kind of comfort. What his words told me now was very simple: We made it through.