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About Utah: Cassette tapes preserve one family's war ... and love

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 12:35 a.m. MDT

The film ended, the lights came up — and there was a slight pause.

What to do?

Applaud or not applaud?

We had just watched an advance screening of “One Family’s War,” a KUED-produced documentary about a soldier named Bret Crandall from Sandy who was killed in Vietnam 45 years ago.

I was there because I knew Bret. He was a classmate of mine. We went to school together and were both in the Jordan High School graduating class of 1966. I had provided a yearbook photo of Bret to Sally Shaum, the producer of the documentary, and she provided me an invitation to the private screening, attended by members of the extended Crandall family and assorted friends.

The documentary made its public television debut Sunday night on KUED and is scheduled to air again at 8 p.m. Memorial Day as well as this coming Thursday, May 29, at 7:30 p.m.

It’s a poignant, understated film about family love and the intrusion of war.

Bret Crandall was the only child born to Irwin and Helen Crandall. He was the center of their world.

That is obvious from the cassette tapes sent back and forth while Bret was in Vietnam.

They each had a Panasonic tape recorder — one in Sandy, the other at Camp Eagle in then-South Vietnam, just west of the city of Hue — and used what was cutting-edge technology in the 1960s to express themselves verbally.

After Irwin and Helen died in the 1990s, the tapes collected dust in an old box in the corner of a trailer — until they were discovered by a family member, Kathy Rohlfing, who is married to Bret’s cousin Alan.

When Kathy heard what was on the tapes — hours of intimate, heartfelt conversations between parents and their son away at war — she contacted Sally at KUED to see if the TV station might be interested in them.

Sally couldn’t say “you bet” fast enough.

The taped conversations are the star of her show — the voices, unaffected by the years, of three people telling one another how much they matter.

They express their feelings in a variety of everyday ways: through football scores, weather reports, remembrances of steak dinners and breakfasts, talk about what they’ll do when Bret comes home, music and the “greatest dog in the world,” Stubby.

The priceless value of the tapes is clear on both fronts.

Says Bret to his parents: “Boy, if I was a millionaire I think all’s I’d do is get packages and just send to companies over here to distribute out to the guys. That mail and the packages are wonderful.”

It’s also clear that everyone knows what’s at stake. Irwin addresses the subject on one of the tapes when he expresses this to his son: “The main thing I’m afraid of is things might seem to ease off and it’s natural for a person to ease off themselves and then all of a sudden, whammo!”

He’s too right about that.

On an unspecified date near the end of February — it could have happened on Feb. 22, 1969, Bret’s 21st birthday — Bret is part of a 12-man night patrol, the group’s designated sniper, when he steps on a booby trap and a grenade explodes next to his head.

As they load him onto the medical helicopter that rushes in to carry him out of the jungle, his buddies tell him: “Hey, man, the war is over for you. You’re going back to the world.”

But not for long. A month later, on March 30, with his mother and father at his bedside, Spc. 4 Bret Crandall, Jordan High class of ’66, dies in an army hospital in El Paso of complications from his head wounds.

The tapes end after that.

The documentary closes with a brief summary of Irwin and Helen’s life post-Bret. They live another two-plus decades, but not without lugging a heavy load of grief. Their son is gone. They will have no grandchildren.

Who knows if they could ever bear to listen to those cassette recordings again?

But we can — and hence, when the credits rolled the other night and the house lights came up, the reason for the audience’s momentary hesitation.

Just how do you react to a story that ends like that?

But soon enough the audience recovered, exhaled, found its voice and started clapping.

The applause was directed straight at Sally, the filmmaker — for expertly telling the love story of one family’s war.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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