Monday, May 5, 2014

Longtime area resident shares experiences in letters - By Elizabeth Richards

Fred Collins, 88, has many stories to tell, and often shares them through letters to the editor in The Windham Eagle. Collins is committed to keeping history alive by sharing his recollections and insights.
Collins was born in 1926. When he was four years old, he was given up for adoption due to family health issues and financial concerns. He became a ward of the town, and lived with the Libby family on a small farm in Windham. Everyone was expected to work, and since there wasn’t much a small child of four could do, it became his job to keep the wood box for the old iron stove full. Collins said he likes to remember these times, to help keep everything in perspective. 

As a child, Collins attended the one-room Friends School and Church at the Friends Church. In 1938, when Collins was 12, he joined the Boy Scouts, an organization that would remain important to him throughout his life. Now in his 75th year in scouting, Collins has been a scoutmaster and was awarded the Silver Beaver Award for distinguished service to the Boy Scouts of America in December of 2000. 
Collins said that his involvement with Scouting has been a highlight in his life, bringing many benefits.
The skills he learned earning his swimming lifesaving merit badge were put to use when he was just 13. He was at a Sunday School picnic by the Pleasant River when a girl on the outing got swept to the other side of the river by the current. He went in after her, and after a tough start, was able to bring her to safety. He then saved another girl who had come in to try and assist him and also been caught up in the current. “That was a highlight of a life, saving somebody’s life,” said Collins. “You do a good turn, it will return to you,” he said. He said he uses that experience often when he talks with Scouts, to show that everything they do in Scouts will be useful someday.

Collins was just sixteen years old when he was drafted into the military during World War II. In moving from Westbrook to Windham as a young child, his records had been lost and when he went to school two years had been added to his age. He was sent to get a birth certificate from a gentleman in Westbrook, who asked him how old he was. When he said his records showed he was eighteen, the man asked him if he was sure he wanted to be 18. Collins said, “I could have changed it to 16 and finished high school, but I figured if they need me in the service, I’ll go.” 

Collins joined the Marines and was sent to Iwo Jima. His Scout training served him well once again, and he saved a man who had a gaping chest wound by using large safety pins from the machine gun bandoliers to pin the wound together, then carrying the man to the sick bay tents. As they moved to the tent, he said, he told the soldier in front not to change his stride. With each step they took, a bullet was going right between the legs of the man in front. Collins said telling these stories means a lot to the kids he speaks to. 

“You can hear all kinds of stories, but if you’ve got somebody that was there, it means a lot more,” he said. Collins is one of many WWII veterans featured in “Neighborhood Heroes: Life Lessons from Maine’s Greatest Generation,” by 18-year-old Westbrook High School student Morgan Rielly. The book will be released in early June.

After being discharged from the Marines in 1946, Collins returned to Windham and finished high school. He married his wife, Geneva, in 1949. In 1950, Collins was called back into military service to fight in the Korean War. When he returned, he briefly considered a restaurant career, but instead ended up at SD Warren paper mill, where he worked for 23 years.

At the same time, he began a home painting business, which he operated for 55 years. When his wife inherited some property in Westbrook, the Collins decided to open a small nursing facility. They put an addition onto the old farm, and opened Rocky Hill Manor, which they ran for 25 years. It was here that Collins was able to indulge his longtime interest in cooking. The residents became his family, since he didn’t really have any, he said. 

Collins had a memory from when he was very young of attending a party with a large group of people. He often wondered about that memory, he said, and when he was in his late 60s, he discovered the truth. He did indeed have some family, including a half brother he had never known about, and had gone to visit them as a young child. After the family located him, Collins attended a large reunion in Sanford, and continued to spend time with his half brother afterwards. “I found a family,” he said. “That was good.” 

Collins and his wife had a big family of their own. They raised six children, and have numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. After having five bypasses over 13 years ago, he said he is pleased that modern medicine has been able to give him these years to see his grandchildren and their accomplishments in life. Collins said he feels he’s been very fortunate in his life, despite the difficulties he faced. “I think I have an angel on my shoulder. I’ve had some close calls,” he said. “You can’t take all the time,” he added. “It doesn’t hurt to give. Sometimes it’s good.”

These days, Collins spends a lot of time at the desk in a little room in his house. He does his writing on a typewriter, and the walls are filled with photographs and mementos. “This is my life,” he said. He has filing cabinets full of writing, from poetry to stories and articles he’s written for the Iwo Jima Survivors Journal based in Connecticut. 

The room overlooks a large garden where he can watch the birds at birdfeeders. He said he also enjoys mowing the large lawn that surrounds the property. Collins said he doesn’t sleep much, thinking about what’s going on in the world. He leaves a pad of paper beside his bed to capture inspiration when it comes to him. “I have a great feeling for the constitution and trying to keep America on track. In a subtle way, I like to put that on paper,” Collins said.

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