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Cold Letter, Warm Response

In junior high English class, one of our assignments was to write letters to a family member or friend who was serving in the military at the time. If we didn't have a family member or friend in the military, we could write to a classmate's family member or friend. This assignment made our learning of letter-writing skills much more practical.

It was in the early years of the Vietnam War, so just about everyone knew someone in the military, so finding someone to whom we could write wasn't a problem. But writing to someone who was actually in the war, as was my friend Paul's brother in Da Nang, was more exciting. I didn't have a family member in the war, but I did have one serving elsewhere.

My father suggested that I write to Anthony Masters, a distant cousin who was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska. Although Alaska had been a state for less than a decade at the time, it was no longer exotic news whereas everyone heard about the events of the Vietnam War daily. My announcement of who I would be writing was met with a yawn.

Although Anthony and I had grown up only a half mile apart, he was much older and I had seen him only rarely, so we were virtual strangers. And one couldn't serve any farther from "the action" than Alaska. While countless others were battling the North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong guerrillas in the steamy, snake-infested jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, Anthony was shivering, bundled in a heavy, hooded parka in the icy waters of the barren, snow-and-ice-covered wastelands of America's forty-ninth state.

Anthony replied to my letter quickly. I can't remember what he said, and I have long since lost his letter. But I'm sure he set me straight, without actually saying anything specific, that his job was dangerous, too--in some ways more dangerous than many jobs in war-torn Vietnam. Today, I can only imagine the dangers involved in sea rescues conducted in high seas and with cold, heavy winds or wilderness rescues in windy, snow-swept remote areas where the temperatures are below zero and wind chills even lower.

Even at that early point in life, I had a growing affinity for writing, and I was really "into" this assignment. I decided to go beyond the basic assignment and write to a second person. My mother suggested I write to her brother-in-law, my uncle. He was serving in a place that was even colder and farther away than Alaska.

Many of my classmates never received replies to their letters (at least not in time to share with the class) or got only brief responses. But I received answers to both of my letters. The response I received from my second letter blew away both me and the rest of the class.

I knew Uncle J. N. Standifer about as well as I knew Anthony. He and Aunt Jean and family lived in first New York and later Virginia, and we had visited them once in each location. Otherwise, we rarely saw them, although whenever they came for a visit, the whole extended family gathered to see them. I played with his children, my cousins Gary (about the same age as me) and Katrina (younger).

Uncle J. N. had been in the Marine Corps, and at the time I wrote him, he was serving as a cartographer with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Not very exciting, one might at first think. How could a mapmaker's job be more interesting than that of a soldier, sailor, airman, or even a Coast Guardsman in Alaska?

It wasn't so much Uncle J. N.'s job title that captured everyone's attention as his duty station. He was serving where no one else's family member or friend would ever serve. He was at McMurdo Station, Antarctica! Even more exciting was the fact that he wrote a typed, multiple-page reply to me and asked me to share it with my classmates so they, too, could learn about the continent on which he was serving our country. The local Knoxville News-Sentinel newspaper had even published several stories about Uncle J. N. and his work. After all, he was a native of Knoxville, Tennessee.

The assignment of the USGS team, of which J. N. was one of the alternating leaders, was to explore the southernmost continent to determine which parts of it were land and which were ice. I think that most of us students were of the mistaken opinion that the whole continent was nothing more than one colossal ice cube. But Uncle J. N. helped us learn that it also had towering mountain ranges with high peaks that had no snow at all on them because the powerful winds kept them swept clean of snow.

Another job of his USGS team was to make the first maps of some of the most desolate sections of the continent in an area called Marie Byrd Land, which was named for the wife of Admiral William Byrd, one of the earliest explorers of the continent. One area that my uncle mapped ended up being named for him--Standifer Bluff.

As I read Uncle J. N.'s letter to the class and then shared newspaper clippings about his work with the USGS, my classmates attended to every word with awe and wonder. We all learned a lot about Antarctica from his letter. And I gained a greater respect for an uncle about whom I had known very little.

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