Here is a line of correspondence from the past year that we felt would be of some occasional interest.
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Feb 25th, 2004
From: Miss J. Thurston
To: Mr J. Dueck · RE: Important Question
Hey, Joel, the other day I was sitting around with a couple of the families, & the subject came up about a certain Mr. Potato Head.
You see, there are rumors that the construction unit brought this dear Mr. Potato Head with them on all their deployments, but no one that we’ve asked knows anything about it. Where did it come from? Did it really go on all the deployments? Did only constructive [sic] use it? What unit did it originate from??
SO, can you give me the story? All us curious souls would be greatly appreciative.
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Feb 25th, 2004
From: Mr J. Dueck
To: Miss J. Thurston · RE: Important Question
I am glad you asked. I had heard of this discovery while at the recent reunion, and am fully willing to put your uncertanties in this matter to rest. What follows is all I know of Mr. Potato Head’s sordid history.
It is undoubtedly true that the Mr. P. was the property of the construction unit. I found out about him soon after I joined in August 2001. His presence was known to all in the unit but not celebrated or “held forth” in any way. He was rarely discussed within the unit and never with anyone outside the unit. I didn’t get the sense that it was a big secret or anything; Mr. P was simply a fact of life, a feature of the landscape.
I am not sure who started the tradition. It may have been one of the [Unit 22] men, but it might very well have been earlier than that. If I recall correctly, it was during my time that the tradition started of markering (upon his eminent posterior) deployments and signatures of those who graduated. Or perhaps it was on the box. I can’t recall; which ought to be an indication of how rarely anyone bothered about him.
We kept him inside a nondescript wooden box, so as to preserve the sight of him from curious eyes, and to protect & contain his numerous detachable body parts. I seem to remember that Lt. Rankin had owned or made the box for one of his own tools, possibly a router. He went on every single deployment while I was in construction: Flint, Northwoods, El Reno, Holland…In fact, in every town where opportunity afforded, we would shop around for construction-type accessories for him to wear, but we never did find any.
On one occasion, Adam Fischer and I were sent, without any officer oversight, to the Dallas Training Center to help renovate some rooms for an interior decorating class. Although space was tight, we managed to bring Mr. P along in his wooden box. A couple of people asked what the box was for, and we mumbled something along the lines of “construction stuff” or “tools” …thankfully, no one ever found out. There were some close calls. Especially when we had to pack all of our luggage, tools and guitars into Danielle Weed’s little four-door car for the return trip. Space was really tight then (Danielle and Beth Pendergast both had luggage as well), and I know some on the staff were looking hard at that box and wondering what was in it that was so important. I don’t want to think what would have happened if they had opened it. We were very careful.
When on deployment, his box was stored under one of the benches in the van. When on campus, he took up his customary position in some honoured unit-member’s closet, where he remained in inviolate darkness. I do hope he is still kept in the box.
Mr. Potato Head’s self-anointed high priest was Marv Walker, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who knew him. At the mention of Mr. Potato Head his eyes would light up and he would assume an almost messianic assertiveness. I remember him admonishing me to uphold the tradition. I was not sure whether to feel honoured or burdened, but as I said, I did my duty by Mr. P., and kept him at our side through more inconveniences than most would have.
Alas, however, I cannot in all conscience claim full fidelity in this matter. It is true that Adam Fischer became first sergeant, not me, but in fact the 1st sgt has never traditionally held the responsibility for the box, so in fact no blame can be attached to him. It was my duty to see that either he was passed on to some worthy successor, or that a fitting end would be made of him, commensurate with his history and secret lineage. The fact that he has been found in a corner somewhere, and is probably now a plaything for staff kids, is an evil development for which I feel no small guilt.
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Feb 29th, 2004
From: Mr J. Dueck
To: Miss J. Thurston · RE: Important Question
Attached below is the expected communication from Erick van Til on the subject of Mr. Potato Head. It should prove enlightening, outlining as it does the origins of the whole business. In the area of Mr P’s supposed secrecy, the letter makes it clear that he was never in fact a guarded secret, but by my time, the excitement surrounding his introduction to the unit had faded into routine understanding – thus my observation that he was rarely discussed.
In light of his gentle and subtle remarks on the matter of Mr. Potato Head’s continuance within the unit, I willingly defer to Sgt. van Til’s obvious desire that Mr. P be allowed to continue as a mascot for the ALERT construction unit. I would only caution that he be treated in the original spirit of his joining with us; from what I hear, the unit seems to have missed the “incognito” aspect of his original contract, which Sgt. van Til describes below. Otherwise, having Sgt. van Til’s approval, I find the idea of Mr. P’s continued mascot-hood through the ages a pleasing prospect.
From Sgt. Erick van Til, Feb 28th, 2004
To: J. Dueck, re:Remember Mr. Potato Head
“Thanks for the e-mail about Mr. P. It was very entertaining and I must admit that I had failed to recognize that Mr. P was still in circulation after I left.
“I will tell you mostly the beginning of the P story since it is that part of his life that I actually had a part and hopefully it will do to fill in any holes in your collection of info on the P case.
“Mr. P joined the construction unit during a routine Saturday town trip to Longview in February 2001. We (we being members of units 19,20, and 21) were at the Salvation army amusing ourselves with the usual plethora of do-dads that one would find in an establishment of its nature. One of the unit’s members, a Mr. Fields, was pleased to discover a Mr. Potato Head complete with all body parts and a box. Right there in the store, Mr. P became the newest member of the construction unit. The details of his contract were discussed during the subsequent van ride and from there on it, he was one of us.
“Mr. P was to be housed in the room of whichever pair of roommates had the cleanest room during Saturday inspections. He was also to be taken on every deployment that the construction men were a part of, carried incognito in his nondescript wooden box. These stipulations were carried out and Mr. Potato Head enjoyed a safe and most welcome stay during my tour of duty as 1st Sgt. of the unit. Apparently from the things you have told me, this tradition continued when Mr. Fischer took my post and I do hope this has become a pattern to this day, though I must say I suppose it may not have. All the same, for the time that he was with us, Mr. Potato was a noble and worthy mascot for our unit and his lifestyle reflected the morals we held dear: endurance, stalwartness, and, above all, stability. It was an honor to have him with us.
“Allow me to humor you with two more P stories before I go my way.
“The first was more of a short travesty than a story. During a certain week early during the P era, Mr. P was staying in the room of the aforementioned Mr. Fields and a certain man named Pings. By all signs he was having an enjoyable stay. This was my thought until I stopped by the room by chance and found Mr. P not quite himself with his feet where his eyes should have been and his feet where his arms normally found their place. He looked a mess. Apparently a member of another unit found Mr. P during a vulnerable moment and sought to ‘rearrange his face.’ Mr. P, being a man of peace, chose to take his disgrace rather than to lift a (now missing) finger against his malefactor. After reprimanding his unfaithful guardians, I saw that Mr. P was returned to his original state and replaced in his box. This was the first and only attack on Mr. P during my watch over him.
“The second story takes place during the annual March Madness basketball tournament held at ALERT. During the 2001 event, the construction unit’s team had found themselves in the final game. The gym had been set up in its full glory and the game became the Saturday night event. There was even an announcer. The game began with introductions of the team’s lineups. Everything seemed to be going as basketball introductions normally go until the crowd heard the announcer, a Mr. Nathan Crouch, say this: ‘Weighing in at 16 ounces, standing 11 inches tall, all the way from the Playskool factory, it’s…’ and you know the rest.
“I hope this info lays to rest your questions about our little man. Thank you for your interest in the matter. I must say that it has brought back a great deal of good memories. I am obliged.
Erick van Til”
That Spc. James Fields of Unit 21 was the originator of this tradition came as a shock to me, like the surprise twist at the end of a novel. While he is undoubtedly intelligent and sensible, I did not think of him as capable of anything really zany beyond the occasional pair of mismatched socks. It just goes to show how hard it is to really judge a person’s character, even after prolonged and harsh exposure.
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
— George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)