FRESH YARN presents:

All Politics Aside
By Elisabeth R. Finch

Dear Sgt. Joseph Callahan -- I don't know you, you don't know me. But, man, everyone knows Bob Dylan. Here are a couple photos of him. Get home safe.

Hi, Sgt. Callahan. I really don't know what a 16-year-old teenager could say that would interest a soldier fighting for our country...

Dear Joe - Rumor has it you look like my husband Steve, so I know you must be a hunkasaurus. Here's a Minnesota moose to make you smile.

Joe, I don't know you. But come home…

I was sitting in Film Analysis at USC, watching Bridge on the River Kwaii for the second time in a row, when I missed Joe's phone call. During a class break, the flat screen TV in the lobby blared CNN images of fatigue-clad troops marching in one direction. Off to Kuwait tomorrow, Joe said into my voice mail, and Iraq a few days after that. Goodbye, Elisabeth. Everything went silent.

The first words Joe had ever said to me were in a dimly lit hole-in-the-wall bar in Wichita, Kansas, after he had starred in the first play I ever wrote: "So, Elisabeth, what did you think?" I answered as all Jews from the East Coast do -- even when they're stuck in Kansas -- with another question. "What did you think?" Joe laughed. We ordered another drink. From that moment on, it was as if we'd lived next door to each other our whole lives -- one steady stream of questions hanging between us for too many hours, over too many pitchers of Hefeweizen.

Neither of us knew if we'd see each other again. But that first conversation never stopped.

This wasn't the beginning of a romance. There is nothing romantic about getting to know someone over five years through time zones and weekly instant messages. No romance in that day he told me he craved structure, purpose. And the Army was going to help him find it in Ft. Campbell, KY, where he trained in 100-degree heat and talked about grenades and the Mucus Chamber. And there was certainly nothing romantic about the day before he left for Iraq.

By then, writing letters wasn't new to us. Yet the moment the voice mail went dead, I went blank. I ran to the computer lab and printed a dozen stories from the Internet -- excerpts from The Onion, gossip blogs, Entertainment Weekly movie reviews, and TV Guide listings of shows he wouldn't be watching anytime soon. I threw them in an envelope with just my signature. I overnighted them to Callahan, Joe D., 101st Airborne Division. I was left to imagine they arrived before he left.

A month went by. For the first time in five years, there was a lull in the conversation.

But every time I sat down to write, I panicked. Everything I said sounded insipid and small. I flashed back to Mail Day at camp, and that pathetic loneliness when they called everyone else's name but mine, and I had stared at my plaid Chuck Taylors, kicking dirt, pretending I'd rather be doing just that than open a stupid letter from someone -- anyone. And, hell, if that stunk, imagine being in the Iraqi desert. I became consumed, obsessed with Joe getting something every single Mail Day.

An idea came to me. There were an infinite number of people my age just like me, working assistant jobs in Los Angeles, feeling utterly and completely ineffectual. And I knew a helluva lot of 'em. Joe was as lowly a grunt as we were. But in his world, that meant on any given day he was halfway around the world, armed with a fighting knife, throwing knife, bayonet, three hand grenades, a 17-pound anti-tank rocket launcher, and a rifle with 300 rounds of ammunition. Surely, if I could dream up a project that my friends could master while answering phones for malcontent industry moguls, they'd be game.

Friends... Turkey Day is over. ChristmaHanuKwanzaa is around the corner. And one of my closest friends, Joe, got on a plane last month to Iraq. This isn't a chain letter hoax. Write him. Tell him you know me, or pretend you know him. Get as creative as you want. All politics aside, it's a small thing that would make a BIG difference to a 22-year-old soldier as he spends the next year in a lonely/scary place. Here's his address. One stamp will do the trick…

I crossed my fingers that some friends would write or pass it on. I just hoped something would come of it for him.

And then the replies started flooding in.

Cool! Will do! And I'm sending it off to everyone I know!

My students need practice for Monday's vocab quiz, so I'll have them write, using their words. It'll be a great warm-up for today -- thanks!


Yes, absolutely, but can I flirt with him?

Three months went by: one phone call from his mother relaying he was still alive, a pencil-scrawled letter from a far corner in Tikrit, but mostly, still, silence for me. Joe's world, on the other hand, was getting pretty damn noisy.

Dear Joe, You don't know me at all, but I think that's what makes this letter extremely special...

Government aside, I decided to write you. I'm 16, from Colorado…

Sometimes I feel I can relate to a person based on their favorite part in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. What's yours?

I always wanted to just write to a soldier saying thank you, but I never knew how or where to send my letters to...

Almost four months into Joe's tour in Iraq, an email finally arrived:

Elisabeth -- I've received a postcard from Holland boasting "Hookers for Weed," Mardi Gras cards, movie ticket stubs with reviews written on the back, does Santorini really look like that? Did I spell Santorini right? Damn, I need a dictionary! Our library here is made of discarded Michael Crichton and John Grisham novels. Then there was the Lascivious Andrea Stone and her headshot. People were always asking me in Hillah, "Hey, Callahan show me that chick licking her lips again." I have the sneaking suspicion you had something to do with this... I think the generator is going to go out so I'll send this quickly. But I'm okay. I wanted you to know that. Take Care. Joe.

By the time I emailed back, he was offline.

Weeks later I was shocked to find Joe on an ancient version of Instant Messenger. His computer kept freezing. After two hours of false starts, I asked him one question: "Can you tell me something that would shock me?" He wrote back: "They want us here."

November, 2003, President Bush announced a serious "step back" in the number of troops deployed. Conflicts and serious combat quieted down on the news. Like most people I knew, I took my denial wherever I could get it, turned off CSPAN, tuned back into The West Wing and pretended Martin Sheen really did have everything under control. (If nothing else, at least we knew he was watching soldiers' caskets flown home in the middle of the night.) It seemed -- almost -- like there may be an end in sight. I kept sending postcards but secretly planned on Joe being home by Fall.

November 19, 2003 -- Elisabeth, I am back at the airfield because I am trying to pass a kidney stone. Aren't you proud? It's bad enough I'm in the desert.... If there is a God he/she is a sadist with a great sense of humor.

They got Saddam's two sons. That is progress. My brigade lost three soldiers a couple of days ago to an ambush on a road not too far from where I'm at right now. They did not catch the Iraqis that did it. I have not been able to find out the casualties' names. Whether I know them or not they are still members of 327th getting killed. We are up on our guard right now. I don't know what the repercussions will be for the death of Saddam's Sons but the Iraqis are growing some balls. They attacked another one of 327's installations with mortar fire a few days ago as well. It is still war, that is for sure. I don't tell you these things to scare you. It's stuff I can't tell most people with a clear conscience, but I can tell you. Elisabeth, take care of yourself, Joe

My Jewish Mother instinct was to hop on a plane with cheesy '80s movies and chocolate-coated anything to make it better. But I couldn't. Instead, I gathered my own troops.

Since the day the War in Iraq began, my five-foot tall TV production coordinator friend, Sara Weir, forwarded information about anti-war rallies, and diligently created snarky poster slogans for protests she attended, proudly wearing her "Bush or Chimp" t-shirt. But after learning how thrilled Joe was to hear from everyone, she rallied in a different way:

It looks like Elisabeth's friend, Joe Callahan, will be in Iraq until at least next February, so keep them coming if you can -- show fliers, headshot postcards (very popular -- our dear friend Andrea Stone now has several fans in the 327th), cereal box cutouts, recipe cards -- whatever. In a world gone mad, sometimes I feel like human connections are all we have. Sara.

Sara was certainly not the only person who objected to the war. But no one let that stand in the way of reaching out to Joe, offering to send just about anything: girlie magazines, footballs, themselves...

I would mail you a cake but I haven't the means to do so. Also, I don't know if you like chocolate or vanilla…

I heard soldiers can give out kids' clothes to Iraqi children, so I'm sending you some boxes. Had the van packed to take them to Goodwill, but am so happy to send them to Balad instead!

Hello from Moorestown, New Jersey! My sophomores just finished reading To Kill A Mockingbird where Atticus Finch advises his daughter Scout to practice empathy by climbing into another person's skin and seeing things from his/her point of view. I asked my students to put themselves into your shoes for a few minutes…

No one ever heard back from Joe. No one expected to. And most of them didn't need to. They didn't know him or miss him the way I did; they didn't mind the one-sided conversation. But it didn't stop them from feeling connected to Joe in some way.

After a while, politics and emotions crept to the surface.

People say they don't want war, but they support the troops. I support the war and most of all, I support the troops. Come home ASAP.

I think, perhaps somewhat naively, that this war is only about oil, and I'd switch to a fucking bicycle if I thought it'd bring you guys home. Compared to you, I'm sure my head is just way up my own ass. I hope you guys are safe and warm and not too fucking bored.

I'm feeling woefully inadequate to affect the change I know is possible, so I'm writing local politicians, the Red Cross...

Dear Sgt. Callahan, three of my friends' dads went to Iraq and I don't see the purpose of why we are over there...

For the next eight months, every single day, someone had something for Joe on Mail Day. Postcards of Don Shula. Newspapers from the Dean of Stephens College. Twelve boxes of children's clothing. And over 20 DVD box sets sent from an HBO executive. Anything we could give to remind Joe of home -- until he was home.

Christmas morning, while everyone else I knew was surrounded by family, opening elaborate presents under a tree, I was glued to my computer, hoping to hear something from Joe. Just as I was ready to give up, an email popped up in my inbox.

December 25th, 2003 -- Elisabeth, Your mom sent me two books from Amazon, tell her thank you. And you got me a dictionary! My favorite book in the world! Your friend Nancy sent me boxes of clothing and supplies for families in desperate need. I've come up with at least three different manners of transfer without the remote possibility we'd be doing anything wrong. Code name to date: "Operation Osh Kosh Begosh"… Some of my guys got hit today. No word on casualties. But we got fragmented and they went further north into Bagdhad without me. We're crossing our fingers, but it'll be a few hours or maybe a day before we get news. If we get sent on a recovery mission, I can't promise I'll write for a while… Joe.

After a year of near-silences and near-misses, on January 6th, 2004, Joe picked up the phone and dialed my number from the well-lit kitchen of his parents' Kansas City home. I was stuck in a clustered Los Angeles mini-mall, buying another pair of shoes I didn't need, when his voice stopped me in my tracks. I put the shoes down, walked outside, and sat cross-legged on the ground amidst a dozen harried shoppers. I couldn't say a word. Three times he checked if I was still on the other end of the line, his accent thicker than I remembered it. A year's worth of questions were in my head, but I just wanted to hear his voice. Something wasn't quite right.

The VA. The strain on his parents and friends who couldn't wait for him to come home, but assumed when he came back, everything would be the same. But it wasn't. I felt foolish for ever thinking it could be. Joe started taking sedatives at night to stop him from recalling intimate details of firefights. I would wake up to my inbox filled with five-page emails from him, often incoherent, written under a Trazadone-induced fog…

February 14th, 2004: You fight every day to survive because you're convinced that happiness has something to do with geography. You tell yourself, "if I can live through this hell and get home to America I'll never be unhappy again." Well, I'm home. And not only is that not the case, it's the opposite. I'm used to being around guys who you might not even like but you know would run into gunfire to drag you to safety. Now I work with people I wouldn't trust to walk my grandmother's dog. Joe.

March 1st, 2004: I read today that over a hundred Iraqi vets as of January reported to homeless shelters. That's inside twelve months of the first shots fired in this war. A soldier I knew disappeared a few weeks ago. Had problems with drinking and drugs after he got out. One day he was talking to his mom about getting a job. And the next, he wasn't there anymore. No one knows where this kid is. He was 21.

The postcards to Joe stopped. All conversation stopped. Once he was home, no one seemed to have anything left to say.

Joe couldn't sleep through the night, or hold his niece, or steer clear of the drugs that kept his balance. He got a job he went to from time to time. He booked two flights to visit friends. He couldn't get himself on either one. It would be months before he could tolerate anti-war sentiments in any form.

July 6th, 2004: It is impossible to be against the war but for the soldier. The war is in the soldiers who fight it. Joe.

Joe still had several months of service left, but his tour in Iraq was complete. He wouldn't ever have to go back.

July 8th 2004: I'm pro this war, but against almost everything else Bush stands for: his position on stem cell research, gay marriage, the list goes on. Kansas City is now setting records for mercury-related birth defects and brain damage. We can't fish in our streams. I'm not a Republican. But every time I see marines or soldiers on patrol on television, I feel as though I need to be there. I can do that job. I could make a difference in combat.

A year to the day that he returned home, on a Tuesday afternoon, I received an email from Joe telling me he'd been transferred to a California base for the week. I asked for his address, begged my boss for the day off work, and drove 130 miles deep in the nowhere desert.

After six years apart, we sat face to face again, an endless stream of questions and answers over one shared Hefeweizen. He showed me Blackhawks and tanks and joked about how the desolate army base was just like Disneyland, only cheaper.

It was only at the end of the day, when he took me back to his barracks, that I saw a line of duffel bags packed to leave in the morning. It's only a year, he told me. When I'm back from Iraq… He didn't finish the sentence.

I watched him reach into his uniform pocket and hand me the worn pages of The Onion excerpts and TV Guide listings I'd sent him years ago, barely legible. He saved everything, he said, and seemed relieved I didn't draw attention to his hands that shook when he said the "Postcard Campaign" was one of the coolest things that ever happened to him. He asked me, for the first time since the day we met, what I was thinking.

I didn't tell him I wanted him to stay. I didn't tell him I was terrified that the one thing I did to give him a reason to come home just might be a reason he was going back. Instead, I looked at him and asked, "What are you thinking?" He handed me his army jacket, hugged me twice, and said goodbye.


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