Interview with the Calaveras Enterprise, California July 2011
In the spring of 1967, James Piper told his wife he loved her for the last time.
“I thank God each night for my wife and my life and also enjoy every breath that I take and praise every morning I wake up ...” the Army private wrote from Vietnam on April 9, 1967. “It means another day gone, another day I’m alive, and another day closer to being home with my wife forever.”
Piper never made it home to his young wife, Micki. He died from small-arms fire just two days after writing that letter. The couple, who married June 18, 1966, planned to vacation in Hawaii and try to start a family when he was scheduled to return home to San Lorenzo later that summer.
On April 4, 2011, Copperopolis resident Micki Phillips took the letters out of storage, deciding it was time to share her late husband’s story and the stories of other Vietnam veterans.
“I picked that letter up – first two words into it and I already knew which one it was,” she said, even though she hadn’t seen it in nearly half a century.
Phillips, who co-owns Micki and Larry’s Sports Pub in Copperopolis, decided friend and author Charity Maness was the perfect person to pen the story.
Without reading any more, Phillips handed the letters over to her friend.
“They were so musty and old, I felt like I was holding history,” Maness said.
Maness, a Copperopolis resident who has written romantic novels including “Hopefully” and “Faithfully” and compiled humor columns in “Welcome to the Country,” admits this new project took her in a challenging direction.
“Initially, (I) thought it was out of my league,” Maness said, but she couldn’t resist when she found out Micki’s late husband was the author of the letters. In her author’s blog online, Maness says she hopes the book will serve “... to honor, not only (Micki’s) husband’s memory, but the memory of all the servicemen that never made it home to hold their wives, their daughters, their sisters, their mothers.”
She quickly got to work sifting through the letters – reading each one and putting them in chronological order. She said Piper had written to Micki almost every day, to the point where it became a joke to the other soldiers until they saw a picture of the young beauty.
Maness said her book, “It’s Lonely Here in Hell: Love Letters from Nam,” will correlate the dates of the letters – about 80 of them – to what was actually happening in Vietnam on that day.
She has completed entering excerpts of the letters into the book and has moved onto research, currently looking through declassified CIA documents for the historical element of her book.
Reading the letters, Maness said she felt like she got to know Piper, and grew to really care for him.
“I like him,” she said, “I find him endearing, and I wouldn’t mind having him be part of my family.”
Piper died he was only 19 years old and Phillips was left with only memories of her first husband, which can now share with fondness and laughter. She remembers eyeing him at a Hawaiian club in Oakland, where he was playing drums with his band, “The Galaxies.” She remembers him coming home for leave and chasing a mouse around her parents’ San Lorenzo home “because I wouldn’t go to bed until he got it,” she said, laughing.
When movies like “Platoon” first came out, she said she didn’t want to watch them. But as time has passed, much of the hurt has gone with it and she has lived happily and in love with her husband, Larry, also a Vietnam veteran, since they were married 23 years ago.
“The Lord gave me a second chance to have another true love,” Micki said, sitting inside the couple’s Copperopolis bar.
Maness said it was hard to continue reading the letters Piper wrote after he got back from leave in December 1966.
“I started to really like this young man and I knew what happened. I didn’t want to keep reading.”
She said if she could, she would change the ending to the story.
“The most difficult part was watching this young boy turn into a soldier and knowing the final outcome,” she said, adding that the letters he wrote to Micki seemed to be his way of escape.
“He was fighting to try to stay positive in those letters, but I think the atmosphere was winning.”
For updates on “It’s Lonely Here in Hell: Love Letters from Nam” visit charitymaness.blogspot.com.
By, Kate Gonzales at email@example.com.
Interview '09 in the Estill County News, Kentucky