When students send out Flat Stanleys — 2-D cutouts in the shape of a little boy whose namesake is the basis for a children’s book turned popular literacy project — they usually result in a few pen pal-like exchanges over the year.
But an 8-year-old from Huntsville, Ark., waited a decade for his flat character to be returned, and it came with quite a story.
Luella Wood was Alan Orduna’s third-grade teacher at the time, but the boy didn’t have anyone in mind to send his Flat Stanley to, the Arizona Republic reported. So, Wood shipped the character off to an Army unit in Baghdad.
Orduna, now 17 years old, had long forgotten the Flat Stanley from which he never received a response. Then, he was surprised on Veteran’s Day last year.
“There were a lot of people surrounding the library, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?'” Orduna told the Republic. “They called me over and said, ‘Some soldier sent mail for you.'”
The man who had finally returned Stanley was Brian Owens, who now lives in Phoenix.
Owens was 24 years old and enlisted in the Army when Stanley came to him in 2004.
“I’d always been a fan of cool little projects like that, and I imagined my own kids taking part in something similar,” Owens told the newspaper. “I could just picture them kind of starry-eyed after getting a letter back, thinking ‘Oh, wow! A soldier overseas carried this, and he went here and there and did this and that.'”
But the harsh realities of war got in the way.
“I experienced many things that changed who I was, how I thought and who my loved ones remembered me being,” Owens wrote the travel log that was given to Orduna 10 years after Stanley was first sent. “I lost track of a lot of things, including the silent passenger … folded up in my back pocket.”
Forgotten in his wallet, Stanley would go on to accompany Owens through the rest of his military service, through a divorce, through a time when his struggles as a single dad and through his time working at an open-pit copper mine.
Eventually, Owens’ wallet got old. Cleaning out its contents, he found Stanley.
“After I found Stanley again and realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I still have this thing,’ it kind of took on a different, deeper meaning,” Owens said. “It was almost like I had a mission I hadn’t completed yet.”
But he no longer had the contact information to return the character with a message about its adventures. Yet, he still kept it.
According to the Republic, Stanley then went on to accompany Owens into another marriage to hitting rock bottom in a new town with no job.
“I looked at the situation, the economy, the bills; no matter which way I looked at it, it seemed dire,” Owens wrote, according to the newspaper.
When Owens tried to rejoin the military, he was denied. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and turned to drinking. Separating from his second wife, he and his boys moved to New Mexico to live with Owens parents. While there, he got into a car accident, and though the Republic reported that his injuries were minor, the accident gave him cause to find Stanley again.
“The vehicle was trashed, but me and Stanley yet again walked away.”
After meeting with a Veterans Affairs case manager who honed in on Owens’ skills, he began to turn his life around to focus on the occupational safety and health field, going back to school online and getting a job back at the mine that had previously closed. He even reunited with his second wife.
But one thing was left unfinished: Stanley.
According to the Republic, Owens went on a hunt for how to return Stanley to the child who shipped the character to him years before. As fate would have it, he found the a letter from the third-grade teacher and managed to find her email address online.
In better-late-than-never fashion, Owens’ message finally reached Orduna — and his message was a timely one.
“I know by now you are approaching the age when you will embark on your own journey,” Owens wrote. “Might I make a suggestion?
“Pick up your adventures with Stanley where ours ended. Put him in your wallet. You will undoubtedly face hard times. You will experience lows and uncertainty. But, whenever you feel despair or emptiness setting in, remember a saying I learned in the Army — ‘If you ever get to the point where it’s hopeless and nothing more can be done, you’ve overlooked something.’
“And, if you need a second opinion, there silently, you will have a passenger, hanging out, folded up in your back pocket, that can vouch for me,” he wrote, according to the Arizona Republic.
(H/T: USA Today)