Worthington native publishes book of poetry about uncles' military service
Kathleen Patrick graduated from Worthington High School and Jr. College, and went on to teach English.
WORTHINGTON — It was nearly 40 years ago when Worthington native Kathleen Patrick first sat down with the letters written by her seven uncles who served in the U.S. military — five of them in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War — and began to tell their story in her favorite form, poetry.
For her, writing poetry helps to express the thoughts and feelings otherwise difficult to put into words.
Patrick was quite young when, one by one, seven of her mom’s brothers enlisted in the military. The two oldest enlisted prior to the start of the Vietnam War, with the remaining five enlisting as they were old enough to go off to war. Some had to get their parents’ permission due to limits on how many from one family could enlist.
Patrick’s mom was one of 10 siblings, and having so many of her brothers in harm’s way was a lot to endure. She kept a map of Vietnam on a kitchen wall and tracked her brothers with the use of stick pins and the airmailed letters she received with bits of information about where they were in southeast Asia.
That map, and the letters she penned to her uncles, had a profound effect on Kathleen, who was in the fourth grade when her uncles began serving in Vietnam.
“I spent a lot of time worrying about that map,” she wrote in an author’s note for her soon-to-be-published book, “Airmail: A story of war in poems,” due to release on Amazon later this month. “Looking back, I guess it is a bit unusual for a girl of nine or 10 to write letters to her uncles in Vietnam, in Thailand, in Cambodia.”
Patrick said the letters she wrote to her uncles consisted of “wide, awkward printing on little girl stationary,” filled with details about ice-skating in the park, school, basketball games, and the books she was reading.
Already, she knew words could make people feel better, and that was her goal in writing to her uncles. Her love for reading, particularly poetry by Longfellow and Whitman, dates back to her early childhood. At 4, her favorite poem was Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus”.
After graduating from Worthington High School, Patrick attended then-Worthington Jr. College and earned her teaching degree from St. Cloud State University. She spent much of her adult life teaching middle school English, along with speech and theater.
In between teaching roles, she and her husband, Bob Terhaar — also a Worthington native — raised two children. Patrick would also go on to earn her master's degree from the University of Minnesota in creative and professional writing.
“I have been writing poetry my whole life,” shared Patrick, who now lives in Minneapolis. “It’s how I make sense of the world.”
One of six children, Patrick is the second oldest. Her older brother, Mike, suffered a broken neck during a Worthington High School football game against Owatonna on Sept. 3, 1971. He was 16 years old at the time; she was 14.
Decades ago, one of Patrick’s uncles had written at the bottom of a Christmas card that he wanted to sit down with her and tell her what it was like to be a young man going off to war. She taped the note to her desk and began to imagine the story — their voices.
It prompted her to read the letters — hundreds of them written over many years to her mother and grandfather — that arrived in special Airmail envelopes.
Reading through the stash of letters prompted her to bring them to life — believing the words spoken by her uncles so many years ago are still relevant today.
With the help of grants from the Jerome Foundation and Loft McKnight awarded to her years ago, Patrick conducted research and visited each uncle, traveling to their homes in Mississippi, Alaska and South Dakota to interview them about their service.
“I recalled stories from my childhood and they filled in the details,” Patrick said. “Some preferred not to talk about it; others felt like it had released a great burden.”
The result of her interviews and research, as well as the letters, was a manuscript containing 45 of her original poems.
Manuscript on hiatus
Patrick finished the manuscript decades ago and shared it with all seven uncles, as well as her mother. The manuscript earned an award of distinction from Loft McKnight, but she was never successful in getting it published.
Getting a book of poetry published is “not that easy,” she shared.
“I let it go by the wayside and went back to teaching for 20 years,” she said. “I taught seventh grade in Minnetonka. I wrote a little, but I mostly taught English.”
The manuscript had all but been forgotten.
Then, last winter, Patrick was visiting California and enjoying retirement (she retired seven years ago) when she thought of that book of poetry she’d penned and wondered about getting it published as an audiobook for her uncles and their families.
“That got the ball rolling,” she said. “It picked up steam and I’m working with Amazon and Audible.”
The self-publishing route
“Airmail: A story of war in poems”, will be released in audio form first on Kindle, with a paperback version to be available in early July.
“It is a book about going off to war, a book about coming back home, and a book about those who are left behind,” Patrick said.
With four of her seven uncles still living, she is glad to finally see the results of her work come together in book form and audiobook.
“I really needed to get this out — for them, their family,” she said. “War is so present; it just seems like the right time.”
Patrick traveled to Maryland to record the audiobook, reading each of her poems and oftentimes choking up with emotion.
“I’m very attached to all of it — this is my family’s history,” she said.
One of the poems, Silk Dragons, was really the impetus for the book, shared Patrick. The poem is about her Uncle Charlie, who had served in the U.S. Marines and Army.
The first time she read it to him, he told her it was “God-damned right” and proceeded to fold up the poem and put it in his pocket.
Years later, when Charlie had died, that folded-up poem had been on a chair next to his bed with a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray.
“That meant that he carried it with him every day,” said Patrick. “If I never published another poem, this was all worth it — I felt like I understood him and honored him.”
But Patrick has written other poems — hundreds of them. She’s developed a name for herself in poetry circles, particularly in metro Minnesota. More than 100 of her poems have been published in anthologies. Her earliest work was published in the Worthington High School newspaper and college newspaper.
“I’ve had three different agents … but nothing has ever been published,” she said. Opting for the self-publishing route with Airmail has been fun, but she doesn’t know yet if she will pursue it with some of her other writings, she said.
By Kathleen Patrick
Brother Bill was getting off a plane —
just in from Nam and I was going out.
Kadena Air Force Base. Okinawa.
Kind of strange that we met there like that
on the tarmac, he in the Air Force and me the Navy —
two brothers in with hundreds, hell thousands,
of soldiers coming and going.
I was looking around, waiting in line,
you do that a lot in the service,
watching them unload aluminum coffins
off this big C141 cargo plane
and then I saw Bill.
I wasn't that worried about being shipped out.
I'd been in a long time already;
I thought I was invincible — you know?
But, then I saw Bill and I knew for the first time —
just one look at his face — what I was in for
over there. They kept pulling those coffins
off the plane on pallets stacked five high.
I mean there’s a hundred dead kids —
right there in one neat little pile;
they just shoved them out the back of that plane.
Two minutes, a hundred more and bam!
the plane’s empty and taxis away in a hurry.
Bill runs over to me,
sticks his fingers through the chain link,
his line of men going one way and mine going the other.
“Jesus Christ Bobby, it’s good to see you.”
And then there’s this long pause and his eyes
go right through me. “Just keep your head down little brother
and you’ll be all right, you hear me?
Keep your head god damn on the ground.”
Kind of funny, when you think about it.
Two farm boys a long way from home
standing at what could be the gates of hell —
touching each other’s fingers
to be sure we’re both alive.