“Vietnam Coffee Cans” and Other Childhood Memories

I was born in Minneapolis in 1963, when the tallest building in Minnesota was still the Foshay Tower; Harmon Killebrew and the Twins, and Fran Tarkenton and the Vikings played ball at Metropolitan Stadium; the Guthrie Theater opened; and Hubert Humphrey was a senator.

Several famous people share my birth year: Johnny Depp, Tori Amos, John Stamos, Mike Meyers, Brad Pitt, Coolio, Quentin Tarantino, Larry the Cable Guy, and Charles Barkley. We were born at the apex of the Baby Boom and Gen X, in the age of Mad Men, “Duck and Cover,” and the space race. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech two weeks after I was born, and JFK was assassinated in November.

My family at the time – Dad, Mom, Marty, sister Debbie, and me – lived in the then-burgeoning suburb of Bloomington. In 1966, my brother Matthew was born.

We lived on the west side on a street of newly built houses with enough structural variety that they didn’t all look the same. We lived there until I was 8, so my memories are mostly of a Leave it to Beaver, homogenized neighborhood, where husbands went to work in the morning and wives stayed home to take care of the kids. Neighbors held Fourth of July parades, backyard carnivals, and picnics in the summers, and in the winter, there was ice skating and hockey at the rink near the grade school. Mom made us put bread bags over our socks so we could pull on our boots more easily.

I didn’t know until I was much older that a pedophile lived among us, as did a drug dealer and murderer. My only bad memory of Bloomington was when I nearly drowned in a neighbor’s pool when I was 5.

I had asked my mom if I could go swimming in “Tyler’s pool.” Tyler was a little boy about a year younger than me. She thought I meant his plastic wading pool and I didn’t correct her. My plan was to go in the big pool with the slide.

Tyler’s parents were at the same backyard picnic as my parents, so there was no supervision. I don’t know if I thought it just came naturally, but I had no idea how to swim. There were a few other kids there, swimming and playing Marco Polo. I stepped carefully down the ladder, but being less than four feet tall, I didn’t clear the shallow end by much. As I floated into the deep end, I struggled to stay afloat and started gasping for air. I don’t know if it was grace, luck, or a guardian angel directive, but when I was no longer able to keep my head above water, an arm reached down and pulled me out. It was Mr. Hoard and he saved my life. (Mr. Hoard, from Little Avenue, if you read this, thank you!) He wrapped me in a towel and brought me to my mom, who offered a little sympathy, but mostly a good tongue lashing.

I took swimming lessons a few years later, but I never conquered my fear of water. I still need to be able to touch the bottom whenever I’m in a pool, a lake, or the ocean.

In 1970-71, Vietnam was still abstruse to me, but not to the women in the neighborhood or my older sister. I recently asked my sister and mom (who will be 87 on Sunday) to fill me in on what I remember as “The Vietnam Coffee Cans” days.

Debbie: I do not recall whose idea it was to do this, but the women named the group “Little Avenue Neighbors.” Little Avenue was just a few blocks from our house. We got the names and addresses from neighbors, churches, etc. When dates were settled on when the cans would be filled, the families would start saving coffee cans of all sizes. The women would visit local businesses – usually drug stores – for donations of toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, mirrors, sweets, writing paper, pens, air mail envelopes, etc.  

Mom: A neighbor on Little Avenue had the idea of sending packages to our service men and women in Vietnam. I am not sure how she got the names and addresses, but she ended up with many of them. She would go to grocery stores, drug stores and any other stores she could and got them to donate products to be sent.

Debbie: I only recall this event being held at our house, but I could be wrong. The evening before or the morning of, Dad would move the furniture in the family room against the wall and put in a few saw horses and some plywood for our work space. We circled the tables with folding chairs.  

Mom: We met at her home to pack the coffee cans, also donated by businesses and
neighbors. She didn’t have much room at her house. We had added on the family room, so I
volunteered our house and that worked out well. All the products were brought to our house the night before, so our living room was quite full.

Debbie: I would help make simple sandwiches for everyone in the morning for our lunch. Probably also had some chips, coffee and iced tea. All the ladies brought their non-school kids, so it was quite chaotic! We wanted to get the whole job done by the time the school age kids got home and in time for the ladies to make dinner, I’m sure!  

Mom: Even the kids helped when they had a day off from school. Also, some women brought their little kids with them, so we made sure they had things to play with. The women would bring food for lunch and treats for coffee. Being I furnished the house, I just had the coffee and Kool-Aid for everyone.

Debbie: We filled the cans assembly-line style, so we put all of the goodies in piles and moved the cans down the line. Everyone would fill out a recipe card with their name and address in case the guys wanted to write to us. This would go at the very top of the can before closing it. The lid would be taped down with masking tape, then we would wrap the can in brown paper and label it. All the cans went into large boxes and one of the men would drive the cans to the post office. Everyone pitched in for the postage.

Mom: All the things we were sending had to be put into individual piles. We had bar soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shaving cream, razors, candy, peanuts, you name it. We were not to pack cookies or anything that would crumble in the cans. We would write notes to them and change off jobs packing, typing addresses, etc. We worked all day and then some would pack up the cans and take them to the post office. The postal workers did not like to see them come in with all of the cans!

Debbie: I think our dinner those nights were very simple or take out! The whole experience was exhausting, to say the least.

Mom: It was a lot of work and we were all tired at the end of the day, but it was a good tired. We had a good time. I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything in the world. I do believe the families of all of the women knew they would have to take care of themselves for supper. We were all pooped! Your dad (now age 88) reminded me that we would have Chinese takeout with extra rice and extra noodles.

Debbie: I just looked at my letters. I have one from a guy from January 1971 and three from another guy in August, September, and October 1970.  I have two photos from the guy who wrote three times.  

Mom: Forgot one story. We found out that there was one woman we sent to. Her name sounded more for a man. Anyway, she wrote us thanking for everything, she used the shaving cream for hand lotion, said it worked great. The next can we packed for her we made sure she had all the right things.

Thanks for having me relive that time in my life.

I’ve been thinking more lately about my childhood, namely because all four of my grandchildren are old enough to remember things, and their kind, loving, grandmother (and my compatriot in grandparenting) Julia passed away in February. There are bits and pieces that 6-year-old Audrey will remember, and more than bits and pieces that 11-year-old Claire will remember from these days and beyond, and I hope I have the good fortune of being able to fill in any missing pieces of their childhoods, should they ask me when they are my age.

It’s their last day of school today. Audrey, Luca (10), Mae (8) and Claire.

gkids

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1 thought on ““Vietnam Coffee Cans” and Other Childhood Memories

  1. Shelley B

    That is such an interesting story and the coffee cans as containers, what a good idea! Of course that would be hard to do now what with all of the bagged coffee and pods. But I liked that peek into the past that both you and I (1963, baby!) were really too young to understand at the time.

    Reply

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