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.
The Bakers have boxed up violins, clarinets, bongos, harmonicas and stringed instruments, along with picks, extra strings and teaching guides created by Steve, who gives lessons in Fergus Falls and has a weekly band gig. When someone asked for cymbals for a military chapel, he took an $800 pair from the shop's wall and packed them up.
A soldier wrote to say that his wife wanted to buy him a Bach Stradivarius trumpet as an anniversary present. The Bakers found one and shipped it off. The acoustic guitars come from the factory, six to a box, for $31 apiece. The Bakers repack them in individual cartons. Postage is $20.80 and travel time is seven to 15 days. Attempts to find a political sponsor to lobby for free postage have so far failed.
"If we didn't have so much postage," Steve Baker said, "we could send more instruments."
As for who receives them, all he knows is that they're American fighting men and women: "I don't care where they're from. They're wearing the uniform. They're protecting us."
Baker's passion for the project has its roots in his experience in the Vietnam War and the years that followed.
"When I was in, nobody cared. I mean, Vietnam, my God," he said, recalling how some Americans swore at troops. "All I got was hooting and hollering, and I remember that to this day. There's no way I'm going to allow that to happen to these kids."
Happy Note is hardly the sole provider of musical instruments. Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Covey, who asked the Bakers for help, explained in an e-mail that budget constraints have made it necessary for his 25th Infantry Division unit to appeal to private organizations for donations to support base recreation centers.
Between Baghdad and Tikrit, Covey said in response to e-mailed questions, soldiers have received about 100 acoustic guitars, "along with a couple of electric guitars, a bass and an old drum set. They were donated by Fender and the Charlie Daniels Band. (He is a big supporter of the Troops.)" Recent requests range from mandolins to a piano.
Camp Speicher, a military base north of Baghdad, holds informal jam sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays, Covey said, and the division band performs. He reported an increasing desire for electric guitars and keyboards, bass guitars and fiddles, and large amplifiers.
Alas, "these instruments are neither cheap nor easy to store," Covey wrote.
Robert Thierfelder filled one of the more unusual requests relayed to the Bakers. He sent to Iraq three practice chanters, similar to recorders, that bagpipers use to perfect their craft, along with instruction CDs and books. Thierfelder, who runs a bagpipe company, said, "It's the least I can do."
Army Spec. Nathan J.J. Hoskins sent word to the Bakers that two guitars had reached the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade at Camp Taji and were gratefully received. He told the Bakers they were doing "an awesome job. You bring joy to many troops that otherwise may be down in the dumps."
One glad recipient was Spec. Mark Gordon, who could hardly believe that a stranger thousands of miles away would send him a gleaming guitar just because he had asked. "Yet here I sit with mine," he wrote in an e-mail from Baghdad. To relieve stress, he said, he had played every day before he deployed -- so often that he felt it had become a way of life. But when he mobilized, carrying a guitar was out of the question.
After learning of Happy Note from an officer in his unit, he e-mailed the Bakers and quickly received an affirmative reply. He had to read it twice before it sank in. When the guitar arrived in a 3-foot-by-2-foot box, he considered it "satisfying and overwhelming that the kindness of the world has not diminished and people still care about us over here."
Now that he has the guitar, Gordon wrote, friends and battle buddies cram into his room to listen and play.
"The uplifting rhythm of all jazz and blues riffs calm my soul and warm my heart," he said. "It only takes one song to feel like I'm at home."