SHERMAN, Maine — Young. In a hostile, foreign land. A gun in his hand. Eighteen-year-old Errol Hunt of Sherman was cast into the trenches of Vietnam, not by choice. But, a guardian angel, a good luck charm of sorts, distanced him from the hostilities through her composed words on paper.
Cathie Pelletier, a 16-year-old, finishing high school in Maine was curious about a war which robbed young lives, brought others home maimed or disfigured, while others came home as they had went. But each one returned scarred.
“In 1969, the Vietnam War was raging,” recalled Pelletier.
In the Bangor Daily News, a roll call of soldiers was printed encouraging people to write to these young warriors.
Pelletier — by what can be called fate, destiny or divine intervention — chose Hunt.
“He was a paratrooper and lonely for home,” she explained. “I sent him a photograph of myself, actually a photographer’s proof.”
The mail correspondence between the two was slow moving, as only a few letters were exchanged.
“She wrote one letter and sent a card,” recounted Hunt. “As time went on, I answered her back.”
The returning letter from Pelletier let Hunt know she was surprised, but pleased he had written back to her.
“She didn’t expect an answer,” Hunt said. “In that letter she sent a picture of herself as a young girl. We probably exchanged a couple of more letters.”
In August, Hunt was sent home.
“I didn’t do a full tour,” he said, “… Nixon had started a troop withdrawal … I was serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, as I understand, they were the first combat infantry unit sent into Vietnam as a battalion. So, they were the first to be removed completely as a unit and sent home. Anyone in that unit, that had been ‘in country’ for six months or more, was part of the withdrawal. The others were assigned to another unit. That’s why I came home after eight months.”
As Hunt settled back into his home life, he and Pelletier stopped corresponding.
“I never searched for her,” he said.
But, that small gesture from home turned out to be a silent link that would connect two strangers.
“Years passed,” said Pelletier. “I occasionally remembered the young soldier I used to write letters to when he was in combat.”
Hunt added, “Through a couple of house fires, her picture and letters seemed to always get saved and come with me.”
Then, as a writer-in-residence in 2009 at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Pelletier was holding a reading at the Vault Restaurant on Main Street in Houlton. UMPI’s publicist received a phone call from a gentleman asking if he could meet Pelletier before the reading, recounting they were pen pals of a sort.
“I knew immediately who it was,” said Pelletier.
Forty years later, Pelletier and Hunt were introduced for the first time on a sidewalk in Houlton.
“I was very nervous,” Hunt said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But, she is a very down-to-earth lady. Instead of 40 years passing, it seemed a lot less. My only intention was to say ‘Hello’ and ‘thank you’ because at the time, she seemed interested in Vietnam veterans. She had a different aspect [of the war] when she talked.”
“What I didn’t know was that he [had] my photograph still,” Pelletier said. “It was a bit worn and a bit wrinkled, but there it was.”
Along with Pelletier’s youthful snapshot, which he kept at home with her letters, Hunt also carried a picture of himself jumping from an airplane.
“I knew the pictures would make the connection between us,” Hunt said.
Pelletier said, “He felt comfortable enough when we met then on the street in front of the restaurant to come inside and listen to me read.”
As they stood talking, Hunt and Pelletier revealed how time had erased their youthfulness, but had not rubbed out the bond of the past.
“The two of us had grown up,” Hunt said.
Pelletier recalled the impact the soldier’s letters had on her.
He “wrote about his experiences in combat — what happened to him in Vietnam that no human being should ever have had to go through,” she said. “They were horrendous experiences and yet he had told no one before. He’s lived with it, silently. I will always treasure those pages he sent me, horrific as the words are.”
Pelletier’s new novel “The One-Way Bridge” features a Vietnam vet.
“I realize that it’s because of friends like Erroll and others I knew who went to Vietnam that I subconsciously created a Vietnam vet to speak for them all,” she said.
Hunt and Pelletier caught up with each other on May 13 at her book signing at York’s Books of Houlton.
“I enjoyed all the letters I got from home,” said Hunt. “But, her letters intrigued me because she knew she was leaving Allagash and going to do something with her life. I would say she has accomplished her goal. I hope our paths cross again.”