Walking into the Clovis Veterans Memorial District’s Veterans Room on a recent Monday morning, I’m greeted by a roomful of history.
There isn’t a textbook in sight, nor a video, nor historical artifacts. Instead, there are more than 50 living, breathing vessels chock-full of American history — they are the veterans of the United States Armed Forces.
Each has a story to tell, and they gather each week for Stories of Service to do just that.
“This is the best kept secret ever, but we don’t want it to be a secret anymore. We’re going to let it out,” says Janice Stevens, the class’s teacher, whom the veterans affectionately refer to as their “fearless leader.”
The veterans bring an occasional guest, but not many people come to the class just to sit in and listen, Stevens tells me after the two-hour meeting.
As I sit listening to personal accounts of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, I can’t help but think of what a shame it is that more people aren’t here, listening to these interesting tidbits.
Each veteran who speaks paints a picture in my mind of what was going on at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I learn where they were stationed, what they were doing and what they were thinking and feeling.
This is hands-down the best way to learn about wars and conflicts that our country has been involved in.
Stevens sparks the Cold War conversation by mentioning a Steven Spielberg film she saw in theaters over the weekend: “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks. Hanks plays an American lawyer recruited during the Cold War to first defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for a Soviet-captured American pilot.
“Who would like to share their memories of the Cold War?” Stevens asks.
Within minutes I’ve learned more about the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis than I ever learned in U.S. History class in high school.
I chuckle at the way Bill Helton — a Korean War, Vietnam War and Cold War veteran who served in the Marine Corps — tells a story about spending “90 days in GTMO (pronounced gitmo, referring to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) dug into the rifle range with the dogs.”
His animated way of speaking ensures a rapt audience. White-haired men in jeans, button-up shirts and their signature veterans caps chuckle.
Why weren’t my high school textbooks this entertaining?
Army veteran Andy Wulf remarks that the event was traumatic for people on the East Coast, but those in California weren’t as concerned about the newspaper headlines.
But Navy and Army veteran Don Vanderheyden counters that he was stationed in Camp Pendleton near San Diego for medical training when his unit was told to fill ships with supplies for the troops involved.
Navy veteran Anthony Guerrero recalls being on a supply ship when his lieutenant said his unit had been put on alert.
“We said ‘where?’ He said ‘Cuba.’ I thought, we have no guns on this ship and we’re going to go to Cuba? What are we going to do, throw potatoes at them?” Guerrero describes with a look of disbelief. “But we got taken off of alert a day later.”
Nancy Huey, one of the few non-veterans in the room (her husband is an Air Force veteran), recalls being shocked when her father came home one day with a new pickup truck during the crisis.
“It did affect us in California,” she explains. “My father couldn’t buy a pickup truck during World War II… so he was prepared this time. He thought we were going to war.”
Army Air Corps veteran John Durant recalls Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc being on full alert during the crisis.
“We were so close (to war) it scares me today,” he says. If his words don’t tell the whole story of what happened more than six decades ago, the look in his eyes does.
The microphone continues to make its way around the room. The veterans’ words resurrect people, ships and events from wars and conflicts of their youth.
“It’s rarely hard to get them to talk,” Stevens tells me after class.
I’m grateful to be here listening to these pieces of the past “from the horse’s mouth.”
I’m also saddened to hear that several of the veterans who have been involved in the group have passed away, taking their part of America’s rich history to the grave.
The class began in 2002 when the chairman of the CVMD board of directors Tom Wright asked Stevens, who at the time was a Clovis Adult School instructor, to collect stories from veterans with the hope of publishing them.
“We started with [four] veterans; one of them was George Kastner of Kastner school,” Stevens said. “Now we average 65 (veterans each week).”
The meetings continue year-round and have resulted in two published books: “Stories of Service: Valley Veterans Remember WWII” and “Valley Veterans Remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.”
Several of the veterans have also joined Stevens’ Writing For Publication class and have compiled their memoirs into their own books.
Stevens encourages anyone, veterans and civilians alike, to show up Mondays at 9 a.m. to listen in on Clovis’s best kept secret.
“We have open entry and exit, people can come at any time,” Stevens said. “Some come back every week, and we have some who come in, share their story once and don’t come back again. That’s just what they needed to do.”
The veterans in the Stories of Service group will bring their personal military memorabilia for display in the Veterans Room on Veterans Day, which attendees can browse throughout CVMD’s jam-packed schedule of events.
Following a pancake breakfast by Clovis’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3225, the city will rename Hughes Avenue to Veterans Parkway at 9:30 a.m. A book signing by local veteran authors will be held from 1 to 4 p.m.
Army veteran Jim Anderson hopes to spark more interest in veterans groups.
“We need your support,” he said. “Those of you who are on the sidelines, join something, whether it’s VFW, American Legion, Amvets or other veterans organizations.”
And if you’re free on a Monday morning, stop in to CVMD, 808 4th St., and follow signs indoors for Veterans Class.
These veterans more than deserve your attention.
Stories of Service is held in the Veterans Room in the Clovis Veterans Memorial District, 808 4th St., every Monday at 9:30 a.m. Refreshments are served prior to class at 9 a.m. It is free to attend.
“Stories of Service: Valley Veterans Remember WWII” and “Valley Veterans Remember WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War” can be purchased on Amazon.com.