- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

SAUK RAPIDS, Minn. (AP) - His voice is softer now, a relative whisper compared to the one that boomed theater lines and belted out songs.

His hands tremble - sometimes just slightly, sometimes more than slightly. It gets in the way of making the music that’s been such a big part of his life, the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/1SWosjW ) reported.

“I’m trying to live with it,” Al Hams said with a verbal shrug. “It’s not easy. It’s not fun. But it is.”

Hams is 72. He has Parkinson’s disease, very likely due to his exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the year he served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam (1969-70).

He calls that the “missing year” - a period Hams tried to forget as he moved forward with a rich life filled with family, theater and music.

“I’ve accomplished some neat things in my life, I think,” Hams said. “I’m satisfied with that. I don’t think back to ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I should have done that.’

“You get to the fork in the road, and you take it.”

That’s it. That’s Al Hams.

No self-pity. No “poor Al.”

“He’s never said to me, ‘This is totally not fair,’ ” said Teri LaPatka Hams, Al’s wife since 2007 and longtime friend. “He’ll say it sucks. But he won’t say, ‘Why me?’ “

“I don’t think that he feels that way,” added Amanda Crisalli, the oldest of the four children Hams had with his first wife Marge. She died of brain cancer in 2001.

“I think that’s part of what creative people do,” Crisalli said. “When you’ve got something that you need to work through, you find an outlet to work through it.”

Hams put his bitter Vietnam memories aside by working in a variety of ways - as an actor and musician and writer, as a parent and husband.

In 2013, that “missing year” officially returned when Hams was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Once again, he’s answering with the same creativity that’s been the response to the other traumas in his life.

The loss of a year. The loss of his first wife. The loss of his music, and his health.

Hams dealt with all that through creativity. That’s ongoing - and Hams is going on, despite Parkinson’s.

“Just never stop,” he said. “Rule No. 1, Rule No. 2 and Rule No. 3 is just don’t stop.”

___

Hams is standing in the music room of his Sauk Rapids home, banging away on a guitar that he used to exclusively finger-pick.

It sounds fine, really. But it’s just not the same.

“Now you’ve heard why I’m so frustrated about playing,” said Hams, who started playing guitar before he arrived at St. Cloud State as a freshman theater major in 1961.

“It’s all in my head. It’s all there. I just can’t connect it.”

Hams is all about connections.

“Everybody knows Al. I got used to that a long time ago,” said Teri Hams, who met Al when she applied for a job at Al’s Music in 1985. “So many people knew Marge also.”

“They know him, and they know of him, and they talk to him,” Crisalli said. “But they don’t know him deep down.”

That’s where you’ll find a calm and a peace that not even Parkinson’s can touch.

“People often ask me ‘How’s Al doing?’ Considering, I think he’s doing very well,” said Teri, 51, who has three teen-aged children from her first marriage.

“Will people notice the changes? I think they will,” she said. “He’s going to keep doing what he’s doing until he can’t do it anymore.”

He’s already done a lot. Hams met musicians Doc Severinsen and Tom Paxton and Arlo Guthrie, and successfully played Stump the Band on “The Tonight Show.”

He met Neil Young while selling a speed-reading course door-to-door in Los Angeles, and he was an extra in a George Hamilton movie (“Evel Knievel,” 1971).

“A lot of strange things have happened,” Hams said. “I introduced Ann B. Davis to smelt.”

“He used to sing very loud in church,” said a laughing Crisalli, 41, who’s involved in theater and film in Phoenix and teaches film production at Arizona State University. “I just remember as a kid, he was very loud.”

Hams is particularly proud of the years he owned Al’s Music in St. Cloud (1976-2004, 2009-2014), a store that launched countless musical careers.

“I feel like I really helped a lot of people get into music - thousands and thousands of kids, from schools all around,” he said. “It affected me to a huge degree.”

Hams retired in 2004, and again in 2014. But not necessarily because he wanted to.

___

According to government statistics, U.S. military forces sprayed more than 19.4 million gallons of Agent Orange to eliminate forest cover during the Vietnam War. Most of that was between 1966-69.

More than a dozen diseases are recognized by the Veterans Administration as being related to exposure to the powerful herbicide: leukemia, diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, respiratory cancer .

Parkinson’s disease.

Anybody who physically served in Vietnam, or on its rivers, or worked with aircraft that delivered Agent Orange, is considered to have been exposed.

“If he set foot in the Republic of Vietnam, you qualify (for medical care),” said Barry Venable, public affairs officer at the St. Cloud VA Hospital.

“By public law, these patients are considered eligible for service in connection with Agent Orange exposure - whether it be as little as an hour on the ground, or months on the ground,” added Dr. Susan Markstrom, chief of staff at the St. Cloud VA.

“It’s in the water, so to speak. So you were considered to be exposed to Agent Orange.”

That translates to thousands of patients at the St. Cloud facility, which in 2015 treated 38,000 patients - 55 percent of them Vietnam veterans.

“Every one of them have had potential Agent Orange exposure,” Venable said. “Last year, we saw about 17,500 Vietnam-era veterans. Of those, 75 percent, or about 12,784, had indicated they were exposed to Agent Orange while in the service.

“That gives you some idea of the breadth of the exposure in the population, at least locally.”

As early as 2009, Hams and his family started seeing signs that he might be one of them.

___

Initially, Hams thought he had restless leg syndrome. Parkinson’s doesn’t run in his family.

“I was having twitching at night in my sleep,” Hams said, “driving my wife nuts.”

“My siblings and I probably noticed the shaking before we really knew that there was a diagnosis,” Crisalli said. “It was physically obvious.”

Teri Hams, who works as the librarian at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud, first saw tremors in 2009.

“They weren’t very frequent,” she said. “They would usually show itself if he were a little tired, or maybe hungry.”

That led her to do some research, in part because of the experience of ex-husband Tom Donahue - also a Vietnam veteran. (They divorced in 2003.)

“It was about two months before (Al and I) were going to get married,” she said. “Tom came over and was standing in the driveway.

“He’s telling us he has leukemia.”

That was June 2007. Donahue died January 2009.

“She’s a librarian,” Hams said. “She started putting that all together.”

Hams contacted Stearns County veterans service officer Terry Ferdinandt, who arranged for testing at the St. Cloud VA.

About six weeks later, the results came back - Parkinson’s, with Agent Orange the acknowledged cause.

“The government, to their credit, said ‘we can’t prove it one way of the other, so we’ll include it,’ ” said Hams, who subsequently was placed on 70-percent disability.

The “missing year” had returned.

Everything Hams had tried to forget about the draft and Vietnam came rushing back.

“I’m still resentful,” he said.

___

It might be the only thing in life that Al Hams is actually bitter about.

“I’ve been carrying this bitterness about being a Vietnam vet, for years and years and years,” he said.

“I didn’t tell anybody I was a veteran. I just avoided the subject at all costs, because we were looked down upon.”

Hams was a 25½-year-old, married, college graduate in the master’s degree program at St. Cloud State University when his draft number was called in 1968.

“I had seven college deferments,” he said. “They weren’t gonna give me any more.”

He was inducted in February 1969 at Whitehall Street in Manhattan - the same induction facility immortalized by Arlo Guthrie in his song “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Hams was shipped to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where his recent temporary job at Holt Rinehart and Winston Publishing in New York came in handy.

“They said, ‘Oh, I see you have an English background,’ ” said Hams, who characterized his job as “glorified secretary.”

“‘You’re a journalist?’ Yeah,” Hams said. “So they made me an informational specialist.

“I thought, ‘This is great. I’ll be here for two years, and I’ll be done.’ “

Nope. Hams was sent to Vietnam in October 1969 and attached to the First Signal Brigade at Long Binh Base, an Army headquarters near Saigon.

He was assigned to write news releases, take photos and produce a military publication.

“We had an every-other-week, 30,000-circulation, Army newspaper,” Hams said. “If a congressman was coming to visit, we had to make sure they were taken good care of. Whatever they needed, we did.

“The last six months I was there, I edited the paper. I was a 26-year-old college graduate, married, with more experience than my boss.”

It was at Long Binh that Hams was exposed to Agent Orange, which was so common that he thought nothing of it.

“They’d come by with a big C-130 and just dump it down on an area,” he said. “It was everywhere.

“I remember seeing pallet after pallet, big barrels. They spilled some on the tarmac, and it was like ‘ho hum.’

“They just let it dry.”

___

Hams was sent back to the U.S. in late August 1970 as the war began to draw down.

“It was 11 months,” he said. “They had already started to get rid of people (in Vietnam).”

His stint was over. The interruption of his life was done. Hams got through it, and moved on.

“He never talked about Vietnam,” Crisalli said. “We knew that he was there. We got a couple stories about driving important people around in the Jeep. But that was it. There was nothing graphic and nothing heartbreaking that he told us.”

For many veterans, their homecoming - or lack of one - was almost worse than being in Vietnam.

“Everybody his age that went to Vietnam felt slighted,” Teri Hams said. “Nobody was getting the recognition for their service.”

“People would literally spit at you,” said Hams, who was sent to Oakland, California, and mustered out of the Army in September 1970.

“They issued me a whole brand-new dress uniform, with all my ribbons, a whole set of dress greens, shoes, everything,” he said. “In order to leave the post, we had to be in uniform. So I got on the Army bus, and went to the San Francisco airport.”

That moment remains one of Hams’ most vivid Vietnam-related memories.

“The first thing I did after they released me was I went inside to the bathrooms, took off my new dress uniform and threw it away,” he said. “The garbage cans in the terminal were full of dress green uniforms.

“Everybody was doing it, and putting on civilian clothes.”

Hams put on his civvies, boarded his plane and returned to his wife and life in Minnesota.

___

Al Hams left the Vietnam War - his “missing year,” his unwanted memories, his Army discharge uniform - in a bathroom trash can at the San Francisco airport.

He was ready to return to the “normal” life he involuntarily left, and to put Vietnam behind him.

Until the 2013 diagnosis of his Agent Orange-induced disease, Hams generally did that.

But now, the “missing year” is back.

Hams has Parkinson’s. Normal is gone.

“I don’t know what normal is any more,” Hams said with a chuckle. “You become very fatalistic about that.

“The first three things that go are your short-term memory . (long pause) . I can’t remember the other two.”

He grinned. “It’s my only joke.”

Hams is forging ahead with life, and with his creative process - just like he did when he left the U.S. Army in 1970, and when his first wife Marge died in 2001, and when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013.

Just like always.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had that in our family when bad things happen, that we need something to blame or someone to blame,” said Amanda Crisalli, the oldest of Hams’ four children from his first marriage. “We weren’t really brought up that way.

“People get things. People die before their time. It’s not anything you can control. I don’t think my mom was mad, either.”

___

For Hams, the first step back to normalcy after his September 1970 discharge was letting go.

That wasn’t easy for Vietnam veterans.

“When you’re drafted, you go. You have a sense of duty,” said Teri Hams, Al’s wife since 2007. “All those guys that were in that situation, that were drafted, gave a lot - and came back to nothing.

“The resentment comes not from the military, but from the acceptance of the public at that point in time. They processed the best they could, by themselves, at that time.”

Hams returned to St. Cloud and Marge, who had one semester left to finish her degree at St. Cloud State University. He worked at Mack’s Music for a couple months before Marge graduated and the two aspiring actors moved to Los Angeles.

They stayed for 10 months. The highlight: Al and Marge are both extras in the 1971 movie “Evel Knievel,” starring George Hamilton.

“Nice guy,” Hams said. “You can see us in about five spots.”

The lowlight: Everything else. Al and Marge hated Los Angeles, and moved back to St. Cloud in 1971.

Hams worked at Mack’s from 1971-76, then bought out the equipment after Mack retired. He opened Al’s Music - initially in a location next to Herberger’s, and then on East St. Germain starting in 1989.

Hams sold the business in 2004, got back into it in 2009, and retired again in 2014.

But his life changed dramatically before all of that.

___

In 1999, Marge Hams was diagnosed with brain cancer. She was a St. Cloud institution in her own right, as a performer and St. Cloud Tech drama coach and business owner, and her illness hit friends and family particularly hard.

“Marge was a friend of mine. We had a connection,” said Teri Hams, who helped however she could during Marge’s 2½-year battle with cancer.

“If (Al) needed to vent a little bit about what was going on, that was my role,” Teri said. “There were days when not everybody was getting along.”

Marge died Nov. 14, 2001. Al’s creative outlets - theater, music, writing - helped him recover from the loss. His first book, “Why I Didn’t Make it to Woodstock,” was published in 2006.

“In terms of me dealing with the death of my first wife, I’m resolved on that,” Hams said. “I’ve moved on.”

Moving on from Vietnam proved equally challenging, especially after his Parkinson’s diagnosis and other medical issues.

“Sometimes it’s hard - not just for Al and me, but for some of the older vets, knowing what they went through,” Teri Hams said. “They just did not get support that military guys are getting today. Hopefully, we learned from that.

“That can never be repaired.”

Hams began experiencing heart problems in 2004. He needed a pacemaker, and he’s undergone three ablations for atrial fibrillation.

“It’s an electrical problem - both of them,” said Hams, who wonders if his heart issue isn’t related to his Parkinson’s and Agent Orange exposure. “I’ve been thinking of sticking my finger in a socket.”

Then came the Parkinson’s diagnosis. Hams’ musical involvement provided one of the most tell-tale signs.

“That was the thing that told me something wasn’t right,” Hams said. “I can’t finger-style play guitar any more. It comes and goes, but it favors my right side.”

“It slowed him down, that’s for sure,” Crisalli said. “His fingers aren’t doing exactly what they used to do.”

It’s all part of a new reality - for Hams, and for countless Vietnam veterans dealing with Agent Orange exposure.

“How has our life changed? He’s slower. His movements are slower. Everything slows down,” Teri Hams said. “It takes more patience on all of our part, not just his. It’s most frustrating for him.

“It’s a gradual change. There’s nothing we can do to make it not be there, so how do you approach it?”

___

A wave of Vietnam veterans began dealing with the consequences of Agent Orange exposure at roughly the same time as Hams.

“There is a lag time before disease development related to any toxin exposure,” said Dr. Susan Markstrom, chief of staff at the St. Cloud VA Hospital.

“Since these veterans are now aging, they’re coming into our system,” she said. “Indeed, we’re seeing a surge in Agent Orange-related illnesses that we’re treating.”

After his initial Parkinson’s diagnosis, Hams assumed it would be a while before the VA determined the level of his disability payments.

“I got a letter from the VA saying they’re working on your case. We’ll get back to you,” said Hams, who said his experience with the VA system has been “very good.”

“I figured maybe six months or a year,” he said. “It was like two weeks later and I got a letter from them - we were very surprised.”

Hams was placed on 70-percent disability. He’s still able to walk and drive a car without much problem, at least for now.

“They’re not denying anybody with those specific medical situations,” Teri Hams said. “There’s a list. If you have one of those, you will get some type of benefit from that.

“I think everyone is pretty much aware of the disservice that was done (to Vietnam veterans) by the American public, and the government,” she said. “This is about the only way they can make some amends.”

Hams does physical therapy through the Big and Loud program, which helps Parkinson’s patients retrain sensory, motor and cognitive functions through intensive exercise.

Switching medications - he’s now taking Levodopa - also has helped.

“The first time I saw him after I knew that he had Parkinson’s, I was shocked at how his balance was off and really how unsteady he was,” Crisalli said, recounting Hams’ 2015 visit to Phoenix. “When I drove up (to the airport), I barely recognized him.

“He came again in February, and he was a lot more his old self. That’s helped him quite a bit. He’s steadier than he was for sure.”

The trajectory of Hams’ Parkinson’s is a complete unknown.

“Parkinson’s progresses, but it will progress differently for everybody,” Teri Hams said. “It’s hard to say where we’ll be a year from now. It could be a real gradual thing, or all of a sudden things could change rapidly.

“We’ll have to deal with that when that time comes. But it will continue to worsen, and we know that.

“You just don’t want to go there,” she said. “We just try to create our own life.”

___

His hands don’t function as well, and his voice is quieter.

“One of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is that you get a very soft voice,” Markstrom said. “You slow down. You lose your ability to project your voice.”

But Hams can still bang away on the guitar.

He’s also banging away at a variety of writing projects - his third book, and three one-act plays.

“He’s always been busy. I don’t think he’ll stop now,” Crisalli said. “That would go against his character.”

“I’m gonna go with it until I’m satisfied with it,” Hams said. “Right now, I’ve got four projects in the fire.”

There’s a one-act play called “Anger Management,” about patients conversing in the waiting room at a psychiatrist’s office. “By the time the shrink comes out, they decide they’ve cured each other,” Hams said.

There’s another called “The Ledge.” A man gets fired from his job, goes home to jump out the window and kill himself, and surprises his wife with another man. The men end up having a conversation while hanging from a ledge - one naked, the other in a suit. “It has nothing to do with me personally,” Hams said with a wry smile.

The third is called “Breakfast in the Suburbs,” focusing on how people get together in relationships. “If you’re old enough to remember ‘The Bickersons,’ it’s kinda like that,” Hams said.

The book is more of an autobiography, written largely for his family - and written because of Hams’ own parents.

“It’s important for the family to know, because of the things I wanted to know about my parents,” Hams said. “They wouldn’t tell me. They didn’t tell me. They’d just say, ‘It’s not important.’

“These are things my kids don’t know about me - and by and large Teri doesn’t know about.”

There’s a Vietnam chapter, tentatively called “Missing Year.” There are Parkinson’s references.

But mostly, Hams just wants to fill in some blanks.

“I’m grateful now that he’s willing to open up about it,” Crisalli said. “I’m looking forward to hearing about it.”

___

There’s no way of knowing exactly where this is going, or how quickly.

“Best outcome is you stay home, and you’re able to perform all of your activities in daily living by your own or with some aids,” Markstrom said. “I think that’s the best-case scenario. Stay active as much as you can.”

Hams has made that his mission.

“He’s being really proactive with this,” Crisalli said. “He’s not gonna just let it take over. He’s working against it.”

Hams is still writing, still creating, still living.

“The only thing I’m sorry about is that I can’t play (guitar),” he said. “Music is such an important part of my life.”

He’s still Al. He’s not going to dive into the pity pool.

“It is what it is,” Hams said with another verbal shrug. “It’s like crying over spilled milk.

“I’m still trying to stay active. That’s as close to a solution as you can get.”

Al Hams is moving ahead, with a purpose. There won’t be another “missing year.”

___

Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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