August 2016—Vet to Vet participant Howard Rennie loves a good story. He tells how he once got trapped in the psychiatric ward of a New Jersey base hospital during the Korean War. He and three other soldiers had been assigned to wash floors in the ward while “recuperating” from hernia surgery. At noontime, Rennie and his fellow soldiers told the guard on duty they were leaving for lunch at the mess hall— except that the sergeant blocked their way. It took quite a bit of talking to convince the determined guard that they were not psychiatric patients and they were not using lunch as an excuse to escape.
Rennie recounts the anecdote and many others in his newly published All the Years Are Golden, a memoir of his joyous and eventful life. He began the project many months ago after his son’s friend suggested he collect his many stories into a book. The book languished until Rennie’s Vet to Vet volunteer, Rob Sanford, a professor at the University of Southern Maine (USM), took on the role of agent, cheerleader, and organizer.
At Sanford’s suggestion, Rennie contacted Wanda Whitten, an editor who had worked with Sanford at USM. She took Rennie’s handwritten stories and began to fashion them into a book. Sanford encouraged Rennie to tell his stories during the lunches the two shared— even if he’d heard them before—because with each telling more details emerged. After their meal, Rennie told Whitten of the new additions or wrote them himself.
As the project gained momentum, Rennie contacted friends in his home state of Vermont for their recollections and old photographs. The memoir begins with Rennie’s childhood in Montpelier in the 1930s. Photographs of family and friends are interspersed throughout the book, which ends with a collection of images taken during the worldwide travels of Rennie and his wife, Elizabeth, from Europe to Australia to China and Tibet.
The cover photograph reflects one of Rennie’s proudest moments— when, as boys’ basketball captain, he accepted the 1949 Division I state championship trophy for his Montpelier, Vermont, team. After that, Rennie writes, “we had no trouble at all picking up partners at dances.”
Once the text and photographs had been collected and arranged, Sanford undertook the job of finding a publisher. Books-a-Million produced the finished book. Rennie dedicated the book to his mother, Evelyn Rennie, and to his wife of 42 years.
The book, which is available through Rennie and at Longfellow Books in Portland, has received rave reviews from Rennie’s friends and former classmates. One woman, a neighbor during his childhood whom he hadn’t heard from in at least 40 years, wrote him an eight-page letter.
Sanford said the book is a nice collection of “little stories linked together,” connected by Rennie’s “underlying humor and appreciation for life.” He recommends the memoir writing project to his fellow Vet to Vet volunteers and others working
with older people, especially those who experience memory loss. Telling a story over and over enriches the end result, he said. In addition, preserving memories in print—creating a “portable hardcopy of what heretofore has just been in a person’s head”—can be reassuring to someone whose memory is failing.
Elizabeth Rennie said that writing the book “brought back so many memories.” Her husband and Whitten, she said, “laughed and laughed; it was a great collaboration.” Rennie himself is pleased with the book and the fact that he can pass along his stories to his children and grandchildren.
The Rennies agreed that the book never would have been finished without Sanford’s help. “He really encouraged Howard, really pushed him,” said Elizabeth. She added that SMAA’s Vet to Vet program “is amazing. Rob has helped Howard so much. He looks forward to seeing Rob, and they have so much fun. It’s really uplifting.”