Radio producers dream of getting calls like Lisa Lehrer's that start, "I have these old tapes..."
Lehrer called into a Midday show about recording family histories in November 2007, saying she had hung onto some tapes her brother had recorded while he was a soldier in Vietnam, and she asked what she could do with them. I had to hear them.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of audio letters recorded during the Vietnam war is The Vietnam Tapes of Michael A. Baronowski, an incredible piece produced by Christina Egloff with Jay Allison in 2000.
Baronowski was a 20-year-old Marine who also had recorded letters home. But every word he says is underscored by the poignancy of knowing he won't make it out alive. Baronowski was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967.
Dan Kleven's tapes are different. He made it home. We could ask him questions and see how he reflected on the experience almost 40 years later.
Lisa Lehrer drove the tapes up to St. Paul. As soon as I put Dan's first tape in the cassette player, I knew we had struck gold.
Dan was sitting alone on guard duty, describing the daily life of a "grunt." Over the bursts of friendly fire in the background, Dan described to his family how guard duty was so much better than "stupid bushmasters" -- setting up ambushes for days on end and sleeping in the field, usually soaking wet, eating c-rations and jumping in bomb craters filled with water to beat the heat.
Dan transports us to the hot, noisy scenes of combat in 1970 Vietnam. He's entertaining and boyish in his descriptions, for example: The cobra choppers. "Those babies can really bring smoke!" He records a "Mad Minute" so his family can hear the nightly blast of ammunition to intimidate the enemy.
Dan reveals his feelings about the war -- his buddies wear Mickey Mouse watches sent by one of the mothers as "a silent protest against the war."
And his homesickness. He wonders whether the snow has melted back home, how his dad is doing with the cows on the dairy farm, and he advises his kid sister not to go to junior college. Kleven sends repeated greetings to his grandma and expresses appreciation for the food that arrives in care packages.
Tapes like these take us inside history. American RadioWorks' approach to Living History is to seek out voices of ordinary people who have lived through extraordinary circumstances. Having tape unfolding in the moment, like Kleven's night patrol, is extraordinary.
Kleven's tapes also give us a 360-degree perspective on his experience. We hear abundant voices from the homefront. A cousin at the University of Minnesota fills him in on the student anti-war movement.
We eavesdrop on Kleven family dinners, and learn Dan's tapes were played over and over for any company that came to call -- and they send back greetings and well wishes. A buddy takes the tape deck for a ride in his Oldsmobile, and sings along to the hits on the radio so Dan can feel like he's been out cruising his home town again.
The cassette tapes recorded back on the Kleven dairy farm capture a tight-knit community, filled with relatives and neighbors stopping by for meals and coffee. Dan's mother, Nellie Kleven, gives her son a detailed account of the daily routines of the farm, the social life, and the activities of his three younger sisters.
The banter between Nellie and her husband Wally are the classic "mother knows best," as she writes up lists of things for her laconic husband to say to their son. She's already filled in most of the details herself.
Kleven's most prolific pen pal is his lifelong friend Larry Anderson, who's wrapping up the semester at Mankato State University. Anderson reports Mankato State is closing early, in the wake of the violence that has just exploded on the Kent State campus in Ohio, claiming six lives.
One of the most emotional moments on the tapes comes from Anderson when he breaks down, confiding to Dan that he's received his draft notice and doesn't want to go. He begs Kleven not to say anything to his folks, because he wants to figure out a way to "get my ass out of this jam."
Anderson tries to change the topic many times on the tapes, but his mind keeps drifting back to his predicament. His despair is palpable.
Some of what's interesting about the tapes is what's not on them. Kleven told MPR he did "sanitize" the experience for his family. He makes it sound more like a camping trip than combat.
He doesn't describe any gore to his family, only telling them once, after the fact, that he was glad he didn't have to return to a place where American soldiers had been ambushed. Larry Anderson makes reference to Dan's description of a violent death of a buddy, so we know Kleven was more graphic with his peers about what he was seeing.
Kleven's three tapes are bunched early on in his deployment. But even in a few months, his tone changes from wide-eyed, horsing around with his buddies about why they don't want to go into Cambodia, to a drained and tired-sounding Dan recounting the tough time in Cambodia.
Kleven told me he was "hardened in combat and not real interested in communicating." He goes quiet.
Luckily, Dan can fill us in now about what he was thinking, and how things turned out for him. We appreciate that he was willing to share these recordings with our audience, and that his sister had the foresight to know a bunch of cassettes jammed in a kitchen drawer would interest a whole lot of people.
If you have audio letters you would be willing to share with Minnesota Public Radio, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-290-1473.