During his seven months and three days in the Saudi Arabian desert, Lance Cpl. Willie Mackelburg wrote hundreds of letters to Simi Valley schoolchildren, sending pictures of scorpions and bags of sand to the 11- and 12-year-olds from his hometown.
In return, the 23-year-old Marine Corps mortar-man Thursday received a welcome-home party complete with cakes, scrapbooks and singing children.
The students laid a red paper carpet on the Sycamore Elementary School lawn and cheered as Mackelburg and his wife, Paula, strode across it to cut a yellow ribbon from the sycamore tree that they had planted in his honor.
“Willie’s a Superman for me ‘cause he went out there and defended our country,” said Joe Correnti, a freckle-faced 12-year-old. “He had enough guts to go out there.”
Mackelburg, who is stationed at Camp Pendleton with the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Division, arrived home Saturday. His final task had been to search prisoners of war outside Kuwait City on the day of the cease-fire.
“They helped a lot . . . just hearing these little kids asking all these questions,” Mackelburg said of the letters. “It took my mind off things.”
On his way to see his mother, who owns an appliance store in Simi Valley, Mackelburg stopped at the school Thursday to show off his gas mask, bulletproof vest and the packaged stew from his ready-to-eat meals.
As did schoolchildren nationwide, the 400 students at Sycamore Elementary spent hours of class time during the war scrawling pictures and cards for several, often nameless, troops in the Middle East. But Mackelburg became something of a school mascot because he personally responded to the children in the upper grades and answered their offbeat questions, said teacher’s aide Judy Jackson.
“He’s on quite a pedestal right now,” said Jackson, a family friend of the Mackelburgs.
When Mackelburg entered the auditorium, he was greeted by children screaming “Willie” and excitedly waving flags. Two girls presented a bouquet of flowers to his 21-year-old wife and a school sweat shirt with all the students’ signatures to Mackelburg.
“Each letter I got was a special letter,” he told the children. “It’s great to be home.”
At least three times a month, Jackson mailed packages of letters--first Halloween cards, then greetings for Mackelburg’s November birthday, then cards on Christmas and Valentine’s Day and the dozens of ordinary school days in between.
The educators took advantage of the pen-pal arrangement involving Mackelburg and the 160 fourth- through sixth-graders as an opportunity to stress writing skills, use the school’s computer lab and teach history and geography, many of them said.
“I wish you could have seen them when they got the letters back. They just glowed,” Jackson said.
Twelve-year-old April Martinez received the Ziploc bag of sand that she requested. Correnti opened an envelope not to find the scorpion he wanted but at least a picture of one.
“I wanted to see how big they were,” he said, adding that Mackelburg’s letters now form a collage on his bedroom wall. “I could never buy a scorpion.”
“He’s a hero,” said Steve Avila, a 12-year-old Simi Valley resident who learned that Mackelburg liked Mike Quick of the Philadelphia Eagles football team and sent him the player’s card.
The children grinned and nudged one another as Mackelburg shook their hands.
“I think I’m a big idol to them now,” he said. “It gives me the chills.”