EDMORE, Mich. (AP) - There’s a kind, elderly man named Carm Drain who lives in the small town where he grew up and started a charming little museum about American history. Most of the exhibits are apple pie and quaint nostalgia and sunny patriotism.
But it was born from a hatred that burned inside him for years.
Carm was a rifleman in the Korean War. Something very bad happened to him over there. And the memory of it gnawed at him.
For years he wouldn’t say anything about the war, other than talking sometimes about the young draftees who were killed as he struggled to save them. He couldn’t stop wondering what they died for, so far from home.
“I was searching for the reason that conflict happened,” said the 86-year-old. “For a while, it was a mystery to me. I know what the government tells you, but we were young soldiers while we were over there. They said we died for the nation. We would spend a lot of time trying to find out what that had to do with our nation. We really didn’t understand why. They said we were fighting for our way of life, that’s what they kept saying.”
The Detroit Free Press (https://on.freep.com/2jCJ9Wx ) reports that Carm is slight, frail and gentle. He can talk warmly about his Old Fence Rider Museum for hours, telling stories that take long, meandering verbal journeys. But his tone becomes short and stern when he talks about the war.
“I’m still kind of bitter about those young men,” he said. “So many of them died not having lived the American Dream.”
So he set out to discover just what that American Dream was. He traveled the country, saw new places, and began collecting pieces of history, trying to put everything together into a coherent whole that would dispel his doubts and explain what was being fought for.
Toys from the 1950s. The front pages of newspapers on historic dates. A Civil War bass drum. An antique gas pump. Old calendars. Circus posters. Each item he found or bought was another piece of the puzzle to help fill in the picture, the outer manifestation of his internal struggle.
Political campaign buttons. A working miniature train set. A full-size Daniel Boone mannequin. A taxidermied coyote. An Indian headdress. A collection of dipping inks for writing.
His house became crowded with his collection, until it spilled over into a rented room above a downtown hall, until it outgrew that space too, and came to fill a whole museum built to house it.
War propaganda posters. Old country music record albums. An antique telephone switchboard. A collection of snake oil medicine bottles. Framed photos of famous cowboys. A diner booth from a soda fountain.
He put thousands of these things into his museum, carefully arranging them into exhibits based on different time periods. But the timeline is regularly interrupted by displays about war, the same way war punctuates history, over and over.
There’s an exhibit for the Civil War, for each of the two World Wars, for Korea and Vietnam, for the Cold War, for the invasion of Iraq the first time and again the second, and for Afghanistan. War after war, the dead piling up, and a troubled veteran trying to make sense of it all, driven by a single, burning motive.
“It was revenge,” he said.
Then he said he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
It’s hard to say what the Old Fence Rider Museum is, exactly.
“The museum is local, state and nationwide, worldwide items that maybe would be of interest,” tried Lon Leonard, president of the museum’s board of directors.
“It’s supposed to be historical,” said Art Schuitema, a board member.
Yes, it’s a museum of American history, certainly. But, more accurately, it’s a collection of Things That Carm Has Found. It’s one man’s impression of America, gathered as part of a lifelong pursuit of the truth.
Carmon Drain was a simple country kid, working at a grocery store in a small town that he’d rarely left before; so naïve he once got scolded on a vacation down South for unknowingly drinking out of a water fountain designated for “coloreds.” When he was barely an adult he was sent halfway around the world to be in a war.
It was an eye opener. His bunkmates were from Texas and spoke Spanish. There wasn’t anyone like that in Edmore. Nobody like the tough guys he met in the army, either.
“Coming out of this little town, we were isolated,” he said of his hometown. “My first real army buddy was a kid from Chicago, and he’d already been in street gangs. He’d been caught with a knife and held for three days in a basement.”
Carm served in Korea for nearly two years, fought in an infamous battle over a single hill, and came back to Edmore with a jacket full of medals - and with very little to say about how he earned them.
He tried to lose himself again in the routines of small-town life, like going to watch basketball games or playing fast-pitch softball. He got a job in construction.
But things weren’t right with him.
“We go back a few short years, I was not the happiest camper,” he offered, vaguely. Then he said he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
That’s how he was told to be. When he returned from Korea, he showed very obvious signs of what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as jumping under a bush if a car backfired in the street, and rambling about the Chinese enemy. His father and brother would drag him back into the house and yell at him.
“They didn’t know what to do with him because they didn’t talk about it back then. They came in and took him and put him to bed and said, ‘Nobody talks about this in the family,’” Shirley Drain said. “He was eating himself up. Something had to be done. He was a mere shadow of himself. He was skin and bones and absolutely afraid.”
He learned to keep it inside.
One thing became his refuge. He met a man who collected barbed wire, of all things, and Carm became hooked on the unusual hobby.
“I was intrigued by that,” Carm said, “because why in the world would a man collect barbed wire?”
It turned out there was a long history behind barbed wire, invented in 1867 in the Midwest as a cheap way to constrain cattle. Previously, far more expensive wood fences were used, and they weren’t very effective when faced with a determined cow. Each new twist on the original design earned a patent, and soon there were hundreds of kinds of barbed wire playing a big role in settling the American West.
Amid all the historical relics in his museum, Carm’s barbed wire collection is his proud centerpiece. He has 417 different kinds of it on display; segments that are exactly 18 inches long affixed to slabs of wood, evenly spaced, and identified in Carm’s careful handwriting, in which he notes the inventor, the patent date and each wire’s trade name, like Cleaveland’s Weave, Ross’s Four Point, the Baker Perfect, Brotherton Barb, and Merill’s 2-line 4-point.
“I just want to bring credit to some of the things we take for granted today that barbed wire improved and made possible,” he said.
For example? “Our steak that we enjoy, the quality today is superb because of barbed wire,” he enthused. “Barbed wire isolated cattle. It allowed the cattlemen to improve upon their herd, upon the quality of livestock, and therefore today we have the benefit of enjoying steak.”
“I could go on forever,” he admitted.
The barbed wire collection was for years a traveling exhibit, which he took to father-son banquets and school assemblies all over the country. During one school visit, some kid hollered “Hey, old fence rider,” the term for a ranch hand who fixes barbed wire fences. A local newspaper reporter who covered the event ran with it, and it stuck.
Things seemed to be going better for Carm. But the old fence rider was still carrying around a memory that poisoned him. And he still didn’t want to talk about it.
He managed to treat 15 of the wounded in the chaos and readied them for evacuation. But then he was confronted by a colonel who ordered him to leave the men behind. Carm refused. The colonel threatened court-martial and had Carm disarmed. But Carm still stayed with the men until they were evacuated. The whole experience was so brutal, such an overwhelming, horrifying, life-or-death moment for this simple country kid, that the army had him under suicide watch for a few days.
And in the end, the Chinese won the battle for that hill.
Carm’s bravery earned him the Bronze Star, a Combat Infantryman Badge, the Combat Medical Badge - even though he wasn’t really a medic - and even a ribbon from the South Korean army. He likely would’ve gotten a Purple Heart, too, if he’d reported his shrapnel wounds.
But he couldn’t shake the terror of that moment when he had to disobey the order to leave his men to die. The memory of that colonel haunted him for years. And fighting his specter was the motivation behind gathering all those things over the years - the revenge of which he darkly spoke.
“The revenge is against that man,” Shirley said.
“Because when he would talk to me he would cry. He would say ‘I hate that man! I hate that man! But I don’t want to hate anybody.’ He wanted to do something to benefit the men who he left up there and who would never have a life. And show that guy that his life and their lives were valuable, too. It’s absolutely a powerful story when you think about it.”
Years after the war, thanks to his wife’s persistent efforts, Carm finally found some peace.
“Not many years ago, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you about this,” he said. “It’s only because of my marriage. Shirley and I have been married 23 years. I have two outstanding stepdaughters and I’ve enjoyed every bit of my life from that period forward until now. Not many years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to discuss the Korean War. But now I can because I’ve found all the happiness.”
For those who served
“I don’t want to get morbid about my own personal experiences,” he’d say.
A life-altering moment
Everything changed when he met Shirley, a local widow. Before that he struggled, never married, tried to keep his suffering to himself. But it found ways of asserting itself.
“At that point, he wouldn’t mention a word of it,” she said. “But many nights he woke up yelling ‘Help!’ because he was on the hill. So we got to the point that I could joke him out if it - ‘Get off that hill, the Chinese went home a long time ago.’”
She took it on herself to become an amateur therapist and coaxed him to open up about what happened to him in the war; to get it all out, finally.
“I said to him, ‘You have got to talk this out of your system.’”
Finally, he started to talk about it.
“And we’d talk for hours,” Shirley remembered. “He’d throw up, he’d cry, but I’d make him talk and talk. I got him a tape recorder and said, ‘When I’m working, you talk in this tape recorder.’”
She eventually transcribed those tapes and made a grueling, book-length account of Carm’s time in the war.
He was 22 years old, part of the 2nd Infantry Division and fighting the Battle of Old Baldy - which was actually five battles over 10 months to gain control of a single hill. Hundreds of allied troops lost their lives over that hill.
On July 18, 1952, Carm’s army division was under attack by Chinese soldiers. The Americans and South Koreans took heavy casualties, including their medic, who stepped on a land mine and was blown to shreds. The only one with any basic first aid training was Carm, and now he was the medic, overwhelmed by the escalating body count and the screams of the wounded.
He rushed from one soldier to the other, trying to keep them alive while still under attack. All around him they yelled for him by name - “Carm! Carm!” Some of them died because they couldn’t get treated fast enough. A mortar landed in the midst of all this and got Carm with shrapnel in his back. Suddenly, he was another wounded soldier in need of help. But he kept it a secret and kept trying to treat the injured.
“He made another guy patch up his back and swore him to secrecy, because all his buddies were dying and nothing was going to stop him,” Shirley said.
The Old Fence Rider Museum, then, is a big middle finger - to that colonel, to the enemy, and to war itself. And it’s a tribute to those he couldn’t save on that hill.
“In my young life, I seen a lot,” Carm said. “I went through some tough experiences. I wanted to do something so those young men wouldn’t have died in vain. So that’s why it’s sort of a dedication to those that lost their lives, those young men in Korea. They missed a lot of American history because they didn’t live long enough to realize the American Dream. They missed so much.”
Carm retired long ago from his museum duties, but he’s still got a key to the place and he comes in occasionally to tinker with the exhibits while the board runs the day-to-day operations, including the difficult task of getting people to stop in. Like most small-town museums, the Old Fence Rider Museum struggles to get visitors. Most people in the village of about 1,200 have already been here, few tourists pass through town, and visits by busloads of school children happen only so often.
“Just something about it, people didn’t seem to get interested in it,” said Schuitema, 82, who for years was the museum’s vice president. “It’s kind of sitting off the busy area, and people just didn’t get involved.”
Some have, though. People heard what Carm was doing, saw his passion and donated their own historical items to bolster his little museum. One of the soldiers Carm treated, a man whose leg was amputated because of his wounds, called from Arizona not long ago and sent Carm a Civil War cavalry saddle in thanks for what his old medic had done.
“It’s quite a story,” Carm said. “He felt he owed his life to me. But it was just my duty.”
A World War II bomber pilot donated his cockpit tapes from his raids over Germany. A local charitable trust helps pay the utility bills. And volunteers donate their time to keep the doors open - even for a single visitor who calls for an appointment.
“There’s sometimes I think, ‘Jeez, I’ve got better things to do.’ But you just want to do it for Carm,” said Leonard, 68. “He’s just a nice fellow and that place means so much to him that you want to be a part of it, to help him build on it and keep it going.”
Carm stood alone in his museum, an old soldier surrounded by his lifelong tribute to the American Dream. A phone book. A model airplane. A soldier’s locker. Portraits of every American president. Hundreds of American flags. All sharing space with insistent reminders of war.
It helps to talk openly about these horrors instead of hiding them, he thinks. The same way it was helpful for him.
“We’re a very complicated nation,” said Carm. “We’ve gone through all of this turmoil, and a lot of turmoil and bloodshed and discontent, and yet we’re united. Perhaps the most united nation in the world. We’re the only nation that hangs our entire history out on the laundry lines. All of our laundry’s out there for the whole world to see, to read about. We do not cover or lose decades of history because it doesn’t compliment us.
“But we still put it out there because it’s part of our past and history. And maybe we’re a stronger nation because of that. It makes me proud to be an American.”
Information from: The Detroit News, https://detnews.com/
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