Portland man makes sticks for soldiersPORTLAND — On Independence Day, and every other day, soldiers at Walter Reed hospital in Washington know they can lean on Dennis Enger.
By: Ann Bailey, Grand Forks Herald
PORTLAND — On Independence Day, and every other day, soldiers at Walter Reed hospital in Washington know they can lean on Dennis Enger.
The Portland man has dedicated himself to making willow walking sticks for the soldiers who have had a leg amputated. Enger began carving the sticks from willow tree saplings two years ago.
“I had a friend whose grandson lost a leg over in Iraq, so I thought I had to do something,” he said.
A Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran, Enger has a strong kinship with young men who are serving their country. He contacted a fellow member of the North Dakota Vietnam Veterans of America organization to find out how he could distribute the sticks to veterans at Walter Reed. The organization delivered about 50 of Enger’s walking sticks to the hospital in February 2006.
“They got the ball rolling and they paid for all of the shipping fees,” Enger said. Last Veteran’s Day, Enger and his wife Phyllis made a personal delivery, handing out about 100 walking sticks to men and women who lived in the hospital’s Mologne House.
It was an emotional experience for the couple to meet the young men and women who had lost one or both of their legs.
“We delivered them, and depending on the kid, we went outside and cried,” Enger said.
He had intended to make last fall’s donation his last, but after meeting the soldiers, he decided to continue his work. Enger uses the money he gets from selling sticks he makes for commercial sale to buy materials, such as rubber tips and leather wrist straps that go on the walking sticks he donates to the soldiers.
Enger, a woodworker, had never tried his hand at making walking sticks until he started making them for the veterans. Though smaller-size than his woodworking projects, the walking sticks are at least as labor-intensive.
“The toy boxes, I go to the lumber yard and get the wood. Here, I have to go out to the woods and cut the trees,” he said.
He makes three or four trips annually to his daughter’s and son-in-law’s farm near Drake to cut saplings. Enger strips the bark and cuts the branches from them, then lets them dry for three months before sanding, staining and applying a coat of polyurethane to the sticks. Each dried stick takes about five hours to make.
Enger works in his garage during the winter and on the patio of his home during the summer. He has gone through hundreds of razor blades and more than a dozen utility knives during the last two years.
The retired tree trimmer works on the walking sticks at least a few hours every day. This past week he put in longer hours because he wanted to get a batch of newly cut trees stripped of their bark before they dried.
“If I skin them right away it’s easy because they’re wet,” Enger said, showing visitors how the wet bark slips easily off the tree in long strips while he has to chip away at the trees with dried bark, and then scrape off shards that cling to the wood.
But even when he doesn’t get the tree stripped within a week and the bark becomes brittle and hard to scrape, Enger remains dedicated to helping the soldiers. He figures it’s one small way he can give back to the men and women who have given so much more.
“There’s not a day that we don’t think of these kids,” he said, paging through a scrapbook filled with pictures of the men and women he and Phyllis met at Walter Reed. In each picture the soldiers are holding Enger’s walking sticks.
“He’s very patriotic. He just has a big heart,” Phyllis said. “We all have to do something, and he will do this and get them to Walter Reed until the day he dies.”
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