TOO YOUNG TO UNDERSTAND

TOO YOUNG TO UNDERSTAND

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Too Young to Understand

I sighed and set aside my pen. Writing a letter to a Marine stationed in Cambodia was the last thing I wanted to be doing. Why was Grandma insisting that I be his pen pal?

Posters of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy adorned the walls of my room, where I was working; my bed behind me was covered with a pink spread. I loved the Partridge Family and stuffed animals—in short, I was a typical, self-absorbed thirteen-year-old American girl. The Vietnam conflict was something my parents and other grown-ups fretted about. I was too young to understand that stuff.

“Dear Corporal Stephen Conboy,” I wrote reluctantly. I don’t even know this guy, I thought. He won’t write back!

I was wrong. Corporal Conboy not only wrote back, but he sent me letters almost every day. Before long, I was hurrying home from school in the afternoons, searching through the mail for an envelope addressed to me in Steve’s bold handwriting. When one was there, I’d flush with excitement, tearing open the letter as if there were a million dollars inside. There was no money; it was his words that were worth so much to me.

Opening each of his letters was like opening a window to gaze into a world I never knew existed. Steve described a war-torn Southeast Asia, completely unlike the safe and sleepy upstate New York town I called home. He told me about his duties there, his friends, his hopes, his concerns. But always, inevitably, Steve’s letters turned to the children.

The fierce fighting in Cambodian jungles had orphaned many children, leaving them desperately in need of care. Steve spent much of his free time volunteering at an orphanage run by a group of French nuns, performing various chores and playing with the children. His kindness stirred my awakening conscience.

I filled boxes with chocolate bars and homemade cookies and shipped them to Steve to hand out in the orphanages. (I was only thirteen and a little vague on the nutritional benefits of the care packages I was sending.) But I was sincere. Like Steve, I felt that something about the orphans compelled me to do something—anything— to help.

“Tell me more about the orphans and how they got there,” I would beg him in my letters, but no matter how many times I asked, Steve would never write about that.

When his tour of duty ended, Steve was reassigned to another part of the world, and his letters became less frequent, then discontinued altogether. His influence on me, though, had just begun.

Eventually, I abandoned David Cassidy, my pink bedspread and even my stuffed animals. I grew up, married and planned for a family. When, after several years, no children came, my husband and I discussed adoption. Memories of Steve’s letters came to my mind. “Let’s adopt from overseas,” I urged my husband, and so we made a trip to Romania to visit the orphanages. Then I discovered why Steve Conboy had been so drawn to the Cambodian war orphans—and why he was never able to write about their stories.

As we walked through the orphanages, it crushed my spirit to see the neglected children. During our two trips there, we saw them freezing in their cribs in the harsh winters and sweltering in the scorching summers. Many of them were hanging on to life by a thread, with little hope. Their plight moved me beyond words.

Though my husband and I successfully adopted two of the orphans and brought them home to live in comfort and security, far from the neglect they would have known, I was haunted by the innocent, starving orphans who were still over there. I wanted to do something for them.

I began collecting items for care packages to send to the Romanian orphanages. No chocolate bars this time, but crate after crate of formula, medicine and toys. Our basement began to look like a mini-warehouse for a rescue mission.

One day, while I was labeling another care package to send, my mind drifted to thoughts of the young corporal who had been my pen pal twenty-five years before. I wondered if I could reach him now.

After some investigation, I found his current address. I contemplated the best way to contact him and decided I would rely on the connection we’d already established so many years earlier. Eagerly, I sat down to write him a letter.

I glanced at the pictures on my desk of our two smiling, healthy children. Then I picked up my pen. “I am regularly sending care packages to orphans in Romania,” I began. “I don’t have to describe to you their situation or how it touches my heart; I know you will remember from your own days in Cambodia.” I paused, wondering what to say next. I wanted him to know that he had planted a seed that changed the course of my life. “I do want to tell you what your letters did to open my eyes to the world when I was a little girl,” I continued. Then I told him about my children and asked him to write back.

When I received a letter addressed to me in his familiar bold handwriting, I ripped it open eagerly. Steve wrote that he was still a Marine and traveled all over the world. In fact, he had been surprised about my Romanian connection, since not long before he’d received my letter, he had requested an assignment in Romania!

Soon after, Steve accepted my invitation to meet our family. I was nervous, but when I finally saw the man who had given my fledgling conscience wings, something in me felt complete.

Since then, Steve and I have continued our friendship through letters, e-mail and the occasional phone call. I have shared my children’s growth and progress with him, for in a very real way, they are his children, too—born of the dream he inspired in me when I was too young to understand but old enough to care.

Barbara Sue Canale

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