Symbol from the past important for the future

One-thousand cranes—a story to remember

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes regularly to the Chico News & Review.

Sometimes fate allows us to live a poignant moment that reminds us of the power of friendship.

My Advanced Reporting class staged such a moment at the end of spring semester 1983 for a graduating student named Russ—a quiet, easygoing Vietnam veteran who was 20-plus years older than his classmates but looked much older. Already a journalist, he just needed a degree. He became a mentor and sort of second father to the J majors, thus gaining their trust and affection. Russ had a Purple Heart and had to have his blood changed at a Bay Area veterans’ hospital because he had been sprayed with a toxic jungle defoliant called Agent Orange that often caused leukemia.

A Japanese-American student named Tim, who was closest to Russ, came up with the idea of a surprise party gift of 1,000 paper origami cranes, such cranes being a Japanese symbol of good luck and good fortune. Legend has it that a young girl, dying from radiation suffered in the Hiroshima bombing, was told she might live if she folded 1,000 cranes. She tried but failed.

Alive to the idea, the class secretly worked several nights and a couple Saturdays under Tim’s tutelage folding the cranes from paper Tim bought—all chipped in—and joining them with fishing line in strings of 100. Folding each three-inch crane averaged 25 minutes—five minutes for Tim—so it was no easy job.

Russ planned to leave town for the hospital right after the final exam, but we steered him to a local student’s house by giving the exam there followed by a class party. With the festivities well under way, Tim and three other students opened the driveway gates, brought in the cranes, and draped them over Russ’ shoulders.

He was surprised but knew what they meant and was visibly moved. It was very special. Russ left that afternoon, and he stayed in touch only with Tim.

It’s well known we didn’t treat our Vietnam veterans well. Now we read much about broken promises to our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, some 50,000 of whom have limped away from the wars with lost limbs and/or damaged minds. The claims system is so mismanaged and inefficient they can wait as much as five years for help, and more than 1,000 of them under VA care attempt suicide each month.

It’s almost as if they’re seen as collateral damage.

Sometimes I think of Russ and wonder what he thinks of these wars. I believe one thing: If still alive, he hopes each suffering vet has a close friend like Tim and a support group like the reporting class.