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Recruit life on cardstock: Author tries to capture Marines’ local history before it slips away
By Arek Sarkissian II   - 06/26/2008

Bluffton Today

PORT ROYAL — There were many reasons Karen Montano wrote the book she simply called “Parris Island.” Some were the stories she heard from her dad — a “devil dog” himself, once upon atime. Another reason was the collection of 200 or so authentic postcards from the island, many of them featuring the pen-strokes of lonely recruits writing home during various points of American history.

Another was hearing rifle-range gunshots at all hours of the day from her home in Port Royal. “You hear that (and) you’re reminded that they’re there,” she said. “You either hear them in the morning or later at night. You think in terms of their life and wonder what they’re doing.”

Her new book is avisually driven depiction of life on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island (the second-oldest active USMC base) through postcards and images that Montano has collected throughout the years or that she picked up during her research.

The postcards give readers an intimate look at slices of special-to-the-Lowcountry American life. For instance, one postcard written in 1918 says only, “Well boy, I am going to teach you this when Icome back. Be agood boy and don’t say no to your mother.”

Or this one: “It’s not so bad here; maybe I’ll lose a few inches.” Using the cards as away to paint abrighter picture of military life on the historic military installation seemed a perfect fit, Montano said. She’s an avid collector of postcards — with more than 1,000 and counting — and also has agenerous supply depicting historic Beaufort.

Stephen R. Wise, the director of the Parris Island Museum, said a unique aspect of the postcards Montano used was that, in many cases, recruits could make their own. “You could have your photos mounted on postcard stock and they did that until World War II,” Wise said.

Wise said he also enjoyed the use of cartoons that have circulated around the island throughout the years, some of them drawn by local newspapers and others by the recruits themselves. Montano said one particular cartoon that stood out depicted a new recruit as shabby — until he stared at the statue of Iron Mike, the ideal leatherneck.

“Then he looks strong,” she said. That was another point of inspiration Montano said she had —taking in the majestic beauty of the statues, buildings and fields added to the island over the years. One story depicted in both her collected postcards and the stories from her dad, who served in the Korean War, were the island’s dreaded sand gnats.

“I would hear stories about how if you batted at the sand gnats that bit at your face, the drill instructor would get mad at you,” Montano said. “Recruits have been talking about sand gnats forever.”

Montano’s favorite section of the book is the third chapter on women Marines, particularly a pink-and-blue letter sent to potential recruits in 1956, which said, “P.S., Women marine uniforms are tailored by the outstanding fashion designer, Mainbocher.”

Montano added that the section sheds light on the female side of the few and the proud, about which relatively little has been written. All female enlisted Marines have trained on Parris Island. As she peered through piles of documents at the Parris Island Museum, Montano said she was confronted by other veterans who begged her to include apiece of their time on the island in her book.

“They actually want to show how it used to be for them when they were there,” she said. “Parris Island is growing and changing and we’re losing those people.” As her postcards accumulate, Montano said she’s unsure whether she’ll put together asecond edition someday.

On Tuesday, Montano moved from Port Royal to downtown Beaufort, so she won’t hear rifle practice as clearly anymore. But her passion for capturing the history of the island will live on, she said.

“Postcard History Series: Parris Island ” By Karen Montano $19.99 Arcadia Press Purchase the book at any major retailer or at www. arcadiapublishing. com A packet of 15 reproduced postcards is also available for $7.99.

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