Amid the Chaos of War, Gifts of Music

Steve Baker, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Barb, run Operation Happy Note, which has sent hundreds of musical instruments to troops.
Steve Baker, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Barb, run Operation Happy Note, which has sent hundreds of musical instruments to troops. (By Colburn Hvidston Iii For The Washington Post)

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. -- The e-mail from Iraq started this way:

"So, a friend in my battalion received a Fender Stratocaster from you guys. It was amazing! . . . It's been about 6 months since I have played and it was so awesome playing the guitar my friend got. He told me about you guys, so I thought I would see if maybe I can get my own guitar."

And that is how Sgt. Jason Low received an acoustic guitar from Steve Baker, a Vietnam veteran of modest means and powerful purpose. Baker and his wife, Barb, run Fergus Music, a shop here in a rural patch of Minnesota not far from the North Dakota line. Together, they have shipped more than 300 guitars, mandolins, harmonicas, drums and wind instruments to Iraq to ease the strain of the soldiering life.

Fifty more will soon be on the way, thanks to $800 raised at an Elks club spaghetti dinner and $1,500 chipped in by two local businesses. In response, the Bakers receive notes such as this one, sent April 17 by Luis Rivera:

"Yahooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! I have something to look forward to. Thank you very much."

Steve Baker served as an Army Ranger in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. Wiry and mustachioed at 62, and tending toward T-shirts and jeans, he moves between the music shop and the crowded back room where he keeps guitar-ready cardboard boxes and his computer, which seems constantly abuzz with e-mails from Iraq.

"This started as a fluke," Baker said.

In 2004, his stepson, a soldier in Iraq, requested a guitar, so he sent one. The stepson's friend wanted one, so he dispatched another. Pretty soon, the requests were coming faster than the newly christened Operation Happy Note could respond. The waiting list is now more than 150 names long.

The store does not generate enough income to do all the things the Bakers would like to do, but they manage. Steve Baker, who says he previously owned a music store before losing it in a divorce, had been repairing commercial refrigerators before he bought Fergus Music in 2003.

"I didn't realize how much of a going concern this wasn't," he says now. And that was before Happy Note.

"When you do something like this, you're not making money, you're losing it," Baker said of the volunteer project. He added, "I don't care."

The operation to send free instruments has benefited from the generosity of others, such as a woman in Elbow Lake who printed posters, no charge. Then there was the lucky moment when Barb Baker spotted a garage door company giving away bubble wrap. She filled their Jeep with it. In March 2005, the Bakers held their first fundraiser, and have brought in about $13,000 since.


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