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Otto Nelson of Champlin is a World War II veteran who shared his experience with Champlin Park High School students in 2008. Stories and storytelling lie at the heart of human experience. They make us who we are, preserve our memories, shape our perceptions and some even believe they heal us.  Currently in the midst of a vibrant and exciting revival, storytelling is being applied in performances, mainstream writings—and through oral history projects, such as was recently offered to Champlin Park High School’s (CPHS) Honors Block students.

Champlin Park High School Honors Block students meet World War II veterans
Champlin Park High School Honors Block course, which pairs required history and English courses, studied World War II history recently, and as part of their studies, they took a field trip to Champlin Shores retirement home to speak with World War II (WWII) veterans. 

Paul Darda, CPHS social studies teacher, said the trip provided students with an opportunity to speak to some U.S. veterans of WWII after studying the conflict. “Unfortunately, future students will not have this opportunity,” said Darda. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1,056 veterans of the war are dying each day, and that’s why students also videotaped the interviews—to save these stories for future students.

Another purpose was for students to hear eyewitness descriptions of history and contrast it with what they have read in their history books. 

Since the class has more than 60 students, the tour was split into five groups. CPHS 10th grader Caleb Hamilton met with Otto Nelson, who at 89 years old is one of five WWII veterans now residing at Champlin Shores. Hamilton’s step-dad Laurence Johnson tagged along.

“I’ve watched many WWII shows on the History Channel; however, this was a little different. Instead of listening to the stories of war heroes from past generations on TV, I was lucky enough to be in the audience of the real thing-face-to-face with an actual veteran of the war in the Pacific,” said Johnson. 

Story patterns and characters intertwine with the hard-to-perceive forces that shape our lives. And, the most important stories may be those we share with family and friends, but all help preserve memory, explain our present, and imagine our future.

Otto Nelson: World War II Veteran, and Paratrooper 
Otto Nelson sat at the head of the table with his daughter and gave an oral account of his World War II experiences, beginning with the Great Depression to his military enlistment and to the end of the war in the Pacific in 1945.  

“I was particularly impressed with his sense of humor, considering what he had been through, and the terrible things he had witnessed. Some of his stories really brought home to everyone the realities of war, yet he always seemed to end each war story on a high note,” said Johnson. 

Paratrooping and Negros Island
Nelson was drafted into the military and shipped from Northern Minnesota to California for basic training. It was there he was offered the chance to become a paratrooper. Being a Parachute Infantry Regiment (PRI) offered better pay, and more prestige, so many of the General Inductees (GIs) signed up, that is, until they saw a movie on what to expect. “You better cross your name off that list,” Nelson recalls another GI telling him. “Not me.” Otto left his name on the list, joined the PIR, and landed in Negros Island in the Philippines. 

The island, like most of the other islands in the Pacific, was volcanic and desert-like, and therefore, water was at a premium. When water finally arrived, soldiers were told to sip it slowly, or they would get sick. “Not me,” said Nelson. “I must have drunk a gallon right there and then!” 

Losing his buddies to war
A lot of his stories involved his lost friends—his buddies; it’s something that veterans mention in many stories. The brutality of war seems to foster the sense of belonging and companionship between soldiers. 

After days of constant battle, Nelson said they would be filthy from sweat and the dirt from living outside. Some of his fellow soldiers decided to bathe in a nearby river. Nelson knew this was a bad idea because there were still many “Japs” inhabiting the area. “Take a guard along, at least,” is what he told them. They didn’t listen, and not long after, Nelson heard gun shots. He and a few other soldiers found all the GIs were shot dead.

Many psychoanalysts argue that just as stories have the power to enrich our lives, shape the way we perceive and interact with the world, and reveal the wonders of the human spirit, they can play an important role helping people develop the skills to cope with and survive myriad life situations (Burns). Nelson didn’t glamorize the war stories. “With such a young audience present, you would imagine he might tone down the stories a little,” said Johnson. “Well he didn’t. He told it how it was, and made a point of letting everyone know of war and its terror.” Nelson wanted the students to know war is hell.

Nelson recounted a day when he went to the beach to see some of his wounded men. One of the men looked up at Nelson, his leg blown off, and asked: “Am I going to be okay?” Nelson noticed the man’s leg wasn’t bleeding, which is unusual for this type of injury, so he rolled the guy over to check his backside. The man had no skin from the base of his back to the top of his head. The medic arrived to take the injured man to get help, but he died only a few yards away as they walked down the beach.

The Greatest Generation: Share your stories
“WWII veterans are often referred to as the Greatest Generation—and for good reason. We owe so much to the men and women who sacrificed so much in order for us to enjoy our ‘freedom,'” said Johnson. “It would be a travesty for us not to appreciate and remember what they sacrificed.”

Please share your stories, particularly about WWII, in the comments section—whether it is your own story or someone else’s.

Resources

 NOTE: A special thank you to Otto Nelson and his daughter for sharing their stories, and for spending time with Laurence Johnson after the meeting with the students.  

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Pay it Forward is a movie, based on a novel, with a concept I’ll never forget. A young boy named Trevor is assigned a social studies project to come up with a plan to change the world through direct action. Trevor’s plan is to “pay it forward” by doing a good deed for Cairbou Coffee in Champlin, MNthree people who must in turn each do good deeds for three other people. It’s a great concept, one you hope to continue from the big screen to the community. And, in small ways, it happens—even at Caribou Coffee in Champlin.

One day it might happen to you.

You place your order at the drive-through window, “I’ll have a medium, skim cappuccino with half a shot of Irish cream, please.” It’s $3.55. You drive up to the window with cash in hand, and the cashier says with a big smile, “Put your money away. The person in front of you paid for your drink, and told me to tell you to have a nice day.”  

Is it just a fluke. Is it someone you know? People don’t just buy a stranger a coffee at a drive-through? They do in Champlin. It has happened to me three times, paid for by three anonymous people.

The cashier tells me it’s a concept related to paying it forward. People buy a drink for the person behind them, and they do the same for someone else. It is a chain reaction.  She isn’t sure when it started at the drive through, but the idea has caught on. “It happens once, and then suddenly everyone is paying for each other’s drinks for about a week.”

Let’s get real. Buying someone’s coffee won’t change the world; in fact, one could say it’s contributing to a caffeine addiction. What is real:  Small, random acts of kindness that create a ripple effect, a motion of doing something positive for someone else that continues. And, it’s happening in our community.

And, the answer is yes, I’ve paid it backward too. Perhaps I bought your drink yesterday. 

Acts of kindness

Other than paying for someone’s coffee, there are many more ways to give back to our community. Below are a few ideas:

Donate 1% of your Target purchases
If you use your Target REDcard Visa to make purchases, Target will donate 1% of purchases to your school of choice. Donate yours to Champlin schools.

As of September 2007, Target reports it has donated:

  • $92,652.66 to Champlin Park High School (1785 designated it)

  • $22,819.35 to Jackson Middle School (376 designated it)

  • $29,624.91 to Oxbow Elementary (419 designated it)

  • $25848.22 to Champlin Elementary (379 designated it)

Pick up garbage
When you are at Andrew’s Park watching your child at a sporting event, walking through Elm Creek or riding bike, pick up garbage you see on the ground and throw it away. And make sure you always throw your own garbage in a trash or recycle bin.

Stop for pedestrians
If you see someone waiting to cross the street, don’t just drive by. Stop and let them cross, and wave hello (you must always stop at crosswalks if someone is waiting).

Volunteer at Champlin Shores
Contact Janet Eide by calling (763) 712-0118. You’ll need to fill out an application. Some volunteer activities include calling out Bingo numbers, playing cards, helping at resident events, and the list goes on!

What are other ways we can pay it forward (or backward) in Champlin, and make our community an even better place to live? Post your ideas in the comments section.

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