BEMIDJI - This afternoon, when author Wendell Affield begins to talk about his book, "Muddy Jungle Rivers," many in the audience will sympathize with his early efforts at writing that were trounced by a school counselor who did not have the time to listen to the yearnings of a ninth-grader from Nebish School.
Bemidji Community Arts Center will host Affield as an author in its Spoken Word Series starting at 4:30 p.m. today at Headwaters School of Music and the Arts, 519 Minnesota Ave. NW.
It has taken Affield, a gentle, quiet man, more than 50 years to return to that passion for drama, debate and writing. After his retirement in 2001, he began taking classes at Bemidji State University with Dan O'Brien and other writing professors. Affield cites Mark Christensen, "who empathized with my passion to tell my stories and his non-judgmental critiques."
Affield attended the Northwoods Writers Conferences and meets weekly with five local authors to discuss and share their work.
In his artist statement, Affield tells of the school counselor who crossed out the electives he chose for his first year at Bemidji High School and assigned him woodworking and automotive classes. He was so discouraged that he dropped out of school after two years, primarily because, he said, they wanted to train him to be a farmer, something for which he had no desire or interest.
Affield ran away from home in 1964 and rode the rails until he returned and his mother signed him up for the U.S. Navy.
"In the spring of 1966, when my class graduated from Bemidji High School, I was a Navy pilot rescue swimmer aboard a destroyer, off the coast of North Vietnam."
Affield is quick to say that his book does not glorify war; it explores the misery, terror and rage of soldiers.
During a recent interview, Affield told of the time when a professor at Bemidji State University questioned his re-telling of a story that dealt with a return to the States and transfer to a hospital for rehabilitation.
"It was August 29, 1968, one of the most violent days in the Grant Park anti-war demonstrations during the Democrat Convention. We wounded had just arrived by plane at the Great Lakes Naval Air Station and were transferred to buses that would take us to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital," Affield said. "We boarded the buses; the windows were shaded, so the protestors could not see that they were pounding on the sides of a bus carrying wounded men. My instructor said that could not possibly have happened to us."
Affield said that he could not believe a college professor would be so unaware of the public outcry against the Vietnam War. Consequently, Affield went to verify his memory at the history center at the Naval Base, where he read newspaper articles and spoke with other veterans who all agreed with his recollection.
This and other occasions like talking to World War II veterans only served to strengthen Affield's resolve to tell his story, because he feels a deep affinity for those veterans who are returning home today from a war burdened with the age-old problem of reintegration into society after living through unspeakable horrors.
In the end, teachers became the ones who gave Affield the encouragement he needed so desperately years ago.
"Writing about my experiences in Vietnam has been cathartic, for me and for others," he said. "In response to a piece I asked Susan Carol Hauser to edit recently, she said, 'This is fine writing. It is clear and convincing. I wept frequently as I read, my own sorrows from that time rising fully (and surprisingly) to surface. The writing is so powerful, so poignant, so accepting.'"
For his self-published memoir, Affield has had the support of his former employer, Joe Lueken, who recently held a book release and signing event at Lueken's Village Foods North. Affield said that he was surprised to see how many people had already purchased the volume at Lueken's and then brought it back for him to sign. Joe Lueken gave Affield a check to deliver to the Bemidji Food Shelf; $5 from every book sold by Lueken's is donated to the Bemidji Community Food Shelf.
Affield was so touched that he is going to donate $5 for every book sold during the Author Fair on Friday and at today's event. In addition, the George W. Neilson Foundation will match at 100 percent all donations made to the food shelf.
This event is sponsored, in part, by the Bemidji Library Book Festival and is a part of the Bemidji Legacy Destination Weekend.