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The Coast Guard Lady
Writing letters to more than 300 Coast Guard units can be a daunting task for even the most seasoned of writers, but for this 87-year-old WWII veteran, it's a task she takes on every day.
Sitting at a small table near the entrance of her home, she peers through her oversized glasses; the lenses making her eyes appear five times larger than they actually are. Delicately and slowly, the recent events of her life pour onto a small piece of paper with a lighthouse decor - her favorite stationary. Lighthouses of all shapes and sizes surround her in her modest Arkansas home while she meticulously handwrites each letter, and the lighthouses that surround her blend in among a sea of Coast Guard patches and hats, which hang throughout her home.
A child of the great depression, Lois Bouton joined the Coast Guard woman's reserve, known as the SPARS (a shortened version of the service's credo, Semper Paratus, Always Ready) during WWII in order to backfill the positions of the Coast Guard men who went overseas to join in the war. Her career, which spanned the years between 1943 and 1945, sent her on a journey that she memorializes in her home and in the letters she writes to Coast Guard units throughout the country. Her dedication to the service has earned her the respect of even the highest-ranking of Coast Guard admirals and garnered her the moniker as "The Coast Guard Lady."
During WWII, Bouton worked as a first-grade teacher in a one-room, Illinois schoolhouse. Wanting more from life, she enlisted in the Coast Guard and was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., for boot camp.
"We were at the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach," Bouton recalled. "They put six people to a room and took the doors off the rooms. Twenty-five years later at a reunion, the hotel still looked the same except they put the doors back on the rooms. We stayed on the fifth floor of the hotel and had to walk down the stairs whenever we went to the beach. There, we learned a lot of things like how to march. I wasn't very good because I am left-handed and often get my left and my right mixed up."
Bouton's first assignment after completing boot camp sent her packing her bags and moving - from the fifth floor of the Biltmore Hotel, to the seventh.
"After boot camp, I met with a classification officer," Bouton said. "She saw that I used to be a teacher and offered me a position as a boot-camp instructor. So I stayed there and taught organization. Of the three different courses [personnel, organization and activities] mine was the dullest of all of them."
When her tour as a boot-camp instructor was complete, Bouton served a short stint in San Francisco as a maintenance worker before transferring to Radioman school at Atlantic City, N.J.
"I wrote a woman over there that I knew because I wanted to know what it was like," Bouton said. "Stamps were rationed back then, but I took advantage of the government's correspondence method back then by writing the word ‘free' in place of the stamp. The lady I knew wrote me back saying, ‘Don't come here! It's horrible. The barracks are a firetrap, there isn't any heat, the meals are terrible and the hours are long, but there is one good thing, they have hot water. One of the girls got scolded when the hose broke off the washing machine.'"
"I didn't think it could be that bad, so I went to the school anyway," Bouton said. "I was wrong - it was much worse."
At school, Bouton learned the skills needed and became a certified radioman.
"I learned a lot there - Morse code and some other things," Bouton recalled. "I didn't know what it all meant at the time, but I learned it."
Now a Coast Guard radioman (or in her case, radiowoman) Bouton got stationed in Bethany Beach, Del., where she performed all the job functions her male counterpart had done before he went off to war.
"At the station, it was only me and another woman who ran the equipment," Bouton said. "We would send weather information, track the movement of boats and send coordinates to ships."
"Toward the end of the war, we were all waiting to hear the official word that the war had ended," Bouton said. "Our chief was sleeping one morning, and some of the people I worked with were bored and decided it would be a good time to wake up our chief. One of them got a metal pipe and started banging on a pan. Someone on the outside heard the racket and they started making noise themselves, and the noise carried on throughout the neighborhood. Soon, everyone in town was honking their car horn. Everyone thought the war was over! The official word eventually came out a few days later, but I am sure everyone there thought the Coast Guard had some inside information."
With the war now over, Bouton moved back to Illinois and continued with her career as a first-grade teacher.
"Every now and then, I would have my students write cards to the injured war veterans," Bouton said.
Afterwards, she would take the cards the children had written and deliver them to a local veteran's hospital along with a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies.
On one such trip, a member of the Coast Guard was at the hospital recuperating from some injuries he sustained during the war. He and Bouton became instant friends. From that moment on, she would always visit the Coast Guard members first and would forever be known as "The Coast Guard Lady" - a much more personalized nickname from her previous "Chocolate Chip Lady," because of the cookies she baked.
Bouton continued her exploits at the veteran's hospital for years to come until the day came when she decided to retire to the warmer climate of Rogers, Ark.
"I still wanted to keep in touch with the Coast Guard, and without a veteran's hospital to visit, I started writing my letters," Bouton said. "I called up someone in the Coast Guard, I still can't remember who it was, and I asked them for the address of an isolated [navigation] unit in Alaska. I got the address and wrote them a letter. A few weeks later, I got a response back. It felt so good that I wrote more letters. Somewhere along the way, I got a hold of a [Coast Guard address book] and wrote to more units."
Today, Bouton has three index card boxes full of address that she writes to throughout the year, and she receives cards and letters from people throughout the Coast Guard, including the commandant.
It's early December 2006, and Bouton ventures out into the cold, blustery Arkansas air and approaches her mailbox like she does any other day. She retrieves her mail and returns to the inviting warmth of her home. She becomes elated as she opens the oversized envelope and pulls out a card and small photo from a retired Coast Guard telecommunications specialist.
In part, the card reads:
"Did you know that your cards always seem to get put up first and taken down last? You are very much appreciated by all Coasties everywhere."
Bouton's face, flush with joy, now bears a smile that seems to stretch past her oversized spectacles and says, "It's cards like this one that make it all worth it." Authors note: To write Lois Bouton, please send letters and cards to The Coast Guard Lady, 1616 16th St., Rogers, AR, 72758. Additionally, donations of stamps are always welcome.