TOGUS — World War II veteran Leroy Peasley served at Iwo Jima, guarded one president and spoke ahead of another. Neal Caron never saw combat during his Navy stint.
Even so, the two men from two generations found an audience for their writing on Saturday at the Maine Veterans Creative Arts Festival at the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus, put on by the veterans’ hospital and the Maine American Legion Auxiliary.
Peasley, of Rockland, who turns 90 on Sunday, read two poems inspired by his service. In the first, he recounted standing beside a railing, burying a fellow Marine at sea near Iwo Jima, site of one of the bloodiest battles in WWII Pacific theater.
“I don’t have that many more years, but to be able to come up and tell my story, I can thank the Auxiliary, these angels of mercy, because they’ve taken us veterans who have problems after our service and showed us that they care,” he said afterward.
Caron, 53, of Oakland, read a very different poem, recounting the toll his abusive father took on him and his mother. The Navy was his escape from that violent home in Clinton, he said.
“Boot camp was easier than my home life,” Caron said.
The show could send the work of more than 30 local first-place winners to national judges, said Elizabeth Marrone, a Togus recreation therapist and the show’s coordinator. The national festival will be run from late October to early November in Milwaukee. The categories run the gamut from ceramics to watercolor to knitting to songs, poems and humor.
Some of the veterans who took the stage on Saturday said they probably wouldn’t perform in public if not for the show, including Army veteran Rick Dorsky, 67, of Levant, who did a Down East humor routine for the first time, working the jokes he learned on construction sites and has told to friends and relatives into a stand-up act.
When asked whether he was nervous, he responded in character: “Like a whore in church.”
Topsham bluegrass musician Beth Revels went onstage and forgot many of the words to “Blarney Roses,” the first of four songs she performed Saturday.
It wasn’t stage fright, just a combination of high sugar and old age, the 53-year-old Navy veteran said. She said she has been performing since she was a child and “started so young that I didn’t know I was supposed to be afraid.”
But Revels, who goes by “Mama Beth” onstage, redeemed herself during the rest of the show. Her service intersected with music: She said in the 1980s, she was one of the only female buglers in the color guard nationally, playing taps at veterans’ funerals.
Most of them served in World War I and II, she said; but occasionally, she’d find her herself playing for younger soldiers. That was the hardest. “Try to play with a lump in your throat,” Revels said.
The emcee, humorist Gary Crocker, of West Gardiner, a Vietnam War veteran, hosted the show for his second straight year: “Vets are the best people on the planet,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing it.”
After Iwo Jima, Peasley guarded President Franklin Roosevelt at what is now Camp David during a meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 2010, he led a Portland Expo crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance before President Barack Obama delivered a speech on health care.
Backstage on Saturday, he was about to go out to read his second poem when a show staffer realized he didn’t have the text with him.
Crocker asked him whether he needed it. Peasley said he didn’t, as long as he said it slowly.
“Any speed you like,” deferred Crocker.
The self-described “old Marine” laughed. Then he went out and recited his “Beat the Drum Slowly” from memory, without a hitch.