Sowing seeds for peace
Experience with wounded vets during
Vietnam war inspires a global movement.
The flight from Atlanta to Tokyo was 19 hours, plus a stopover in Alaska to refuel. Laura Dorsey Rains sat there in her prim white shirt with the Peter Pan collar, her pantyhose itchy and hot. The burly man next to her was blowing cigar smoke in a cloud that enveloped her. She was too petrified to complain. Besides, well-bred Southern girls kept quiet and smiled. It was 1966 and she was 20 years old.
Laura thought about her grandmother’s incredulous reaction as she prepared for the trip: Men have been going to war for centuries. Women stay home and write letters — they don’t take off after their men!
Laura supposed she was naïve, but how could she just stay home and wait for news that her husband was dying? Or dead? The letter, that ominous official letter, said that Tom had been critically wounded in Vietnam and had been airlifted to a military hospital in Japan. She had to go to him. She just had to.
Born in Atlanta, Laura’s family had deep roots in the city. Her paternal grandfather, Hugh Dorsey, was governor of Georgia during World War I. Her father, Hugh Dorsey Jr., was a renowned local attorney and president of the Atlanta Bar Association in the ‘60s. Her family was prominent and wealthy enough to employ “help” in the lovely two-story brick Georgian on 28th Street where Laura was raised. She was sheltered, as refined Southern girls often were, from any upsetting talk — like the Korean War or the civil rights movement. She was an adult before she learned that a school friend had been arrested for participating in a lunch counter demonstration and that Laura’s father had obtained her friend’s release from jail.
Instead, Laura took art and ballroom dance lessons; she took pleasure in the beauty of the family’s well-tended gardens; she dressed in hat and gloves and went to the Presbyterian Church on Sundays. After high school, she went to Agnes Scott College, where her mother and aunt had gone before her. While a student, she married her high school sweetheart, Tom Rains, who had just graduated from Washington and Lee in Virginia. He planned to serve his country, as his father had. Laura’s life promised to be as picture perfect as the gardens at her family home.
Laura had never before been out of the country when she boarded that plane for Japan. Her parents used their connections to organize safe passage. A friend who worked for Coca-Cola in Japan arranged for a driver to pick her up at the Tokyo airport and drive her more than six hours away to Kishine, home of the 106th Division Military Hospital.
The driver dropped her off at the security gate in front of a fenced-in compound of cinder-block buildings. There wasn’t a tree in sight. It was much later that she realized the place afforded a magnificent view of Mt. Fuji, but she only saw the peak one day when the gloomy clouds abated.
She was shocked when she first saw Tom, thin and gaunt in his army-issue robe. He was overjoyed to see her. Laura cried.
She was still reeling from the fact that this should have never happened. Tom could have served stateside, but he had volunteered for active duty. He got caught up in the hoopla when his ROTC buddies began getting their orders. He wanted be a warrior too, seeing it as a great adventure.
Though the US had been sending “advisers” to Vietnam for many years, the conflict escalated in 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and troop levels increased dramatically. It was in the midst of this troop buildup that Lt. Tom Rains completed military training at Fort Benning and went to Army Ranger School in Panama. He was sent to Vietnam where he served as a platoon leader somewhere near the Cambodian border.
Even more disturbing and senseless to Laura was the fact that Tom’s wounds were the result of “friendly fire.” During a skirmish, artillery fire aimed at the enemy fell short of its intended target and hit American troops. Several men died as a result. Tom was critically wounded when shrapnel struck his abdomen and thigh. He clung to life as a helicopter ferried him to a field hospital.
Lining the wards of the hospital at Kishine were so many young men, lying in narrow beds, pushed so close together that Laura could barely wedge a chair next to Tom. One ward led into the next and into the next. Hundreds of young men, wounded and struggling for life.
Outside the windows, Laura could see that the long narrow buildings of the compound surrounded a courtyard of sorts, which served as a heliport. Choppers brought in the wounded day and night, the ear-piercing whine of the whirring blades an ever-present reminder of where she was.
Technically, Laura had no official permission to be there, but a short, stocky sergeant who ran a tight ship grudgingly gave her a room in the first floor barracks adjacent to the hospital ward. She only expected to be there a week, but as Tom needed more surgeries, a week became a month and then another. Eventually the staff sergeant indicated she’d have to vacate the room. However, he indicated slyly, he probably could find her accommodations if only (wink, wink) she could be a little more “accommodating.”
“I was naïve,” remembers Laura, “but I wasn’t dumb.”
Whenever she heard that sergeant’s boots clomping down the hall, keys jangling from his belt, she headed in the opposite direction.
A nurse preparing to take off for 30 days R&R saved the day and offered Laura her room.
Photo: A Japanese garden in Tokyo. AJC file.
A world apart
Laura became a fixture on the ward. She befriended everyone. Napalm burns over here, amputated limbs over there — the place was heavy with suffering. She walked from bed to bed and listened to all their stories. She couldn’t turn away from these lonely, hurting, heartsick men — boys, really. Many of them were younger than she was. Sometimes she would get to know a fellow, rejoice when he was mended, only to watch him shipped back to Vietnam. Later, she would hear that he had been killed in action. She suppressed her fear and anger in front of Tom, but in her room, she sobbed in her pillow.
“I didn’t know it then,” Laura said, “but I was absorbing all the grief of those men. I learned how to ride the trains in Japan because I needed to get away from the hospital.”
That’s how she discovered Japanese gardens.
The first time she got off the train in Tokyo, she elbowed her way through the hustling, harried knot of people and traffic, only to suddenly step into a small, perfect, quiet space that seemed to exist in a world apart, in a movie maybe. Lush green grasses and moss spread out under meticulously pruned pines and fruit trees. There was a small wooden bridge arching over a narrow stream that trickled over rock formations. The city and its noise seemed to vanish.
Laura did not realize how much stress she’d been under until she walked into that garden.
“It felt as if I’d been thirsty and suddenly found water,” she remembers. “It was life-giving. Nurturing. Almost as if I’d been touched by the Divine.”
On subsequent train trips, she found many of these “pocket” gardens maintained by the city, as well as larger community gardens. The Japanese, she learned, placed great importance on refreshing one’s mind through the contemplation of natural beauty. Unlike the gardens typical of Atlanta, these gardens were not riotous with color. Instead, they relied on shape, texture and precise placement to create peaceful havens. She could sit in the gardens for hours and the suffering at Kishine would be lifted from her soul for a while.
Laura turned 21 during the summer she spent in Japan, but by the time she returned to Atlanta she felt much older. She would forever be appalled at how casually societies send their young men off to war. She had seen the human cost up close.
Tom recovered from his injuries and was sent home after four months at Kishine. The couple settled into life in Atlanta and had three children. Laura joined the Junior League, eventually becoming president. She did volunteer work. She also felt compelled to take a few classes at Columbia Theological Seminary. The time she spent in Kishine had left a niggling place in her soul that she could not ignore. She was looking for clarity, for meaning, for purpose.
She and Tom also enjoyed planting a garden in the yard of their beloved clapboard home in Ansley Park. Her childhood memories of lush Southern gardens, combined with the subtlety of those Japanese gardens, inspired her to create a beautiful and peaceful oasis in her own yard.
One day in 1984, Laura was waiting in her car at a stoplight, thinking about gardens.
“I had a sudden inspiration,” she said. “I grabbed an envelope from the glove box — it was the only paper I could find — scribbled on it and stuck it back.”
Some months later, Laura discovered that envelope. On it she had written: “The peace that sustained me in those gardens is not something that only I can feel. It’s universal.” Then in bold letters: “GARDENS FOR PEACE.”
This was a project Laura felt in her heart and bones, but life was so busy at the time. Her oldest daughter, Laura, was leaving for college. Daughter Adair was in high school and Thomas was only 4. Her seminary classes required a great deal of time. She still did volunteer work. How could she undertake another project?
But the idea of peace gardens would not get out of her head. She reached out for help. Her father did the legal work. Her mother wrote requests for funds and invited participation. Soon, community groups such as the Peachtree Garden Club, and corporations including Coca-Cola, offered support. A board of trustees was formed, including officers from the Garden Club of America. Simon Downs, a Fellow from England at the UGA School of Landscape Design, did research, identified gardens for nomination and helped set standards for what qualified as a Garden for Peace.
The idea, according to the mission, was to designate and develop gardens “as a place for meditation and a symbol for peace throughout the world.”
Seeds of peace
The mature forest of oak, pine and hickory trees provides a canopy for smaller pines, shrubs and hardwoods in the 5-acre Swan Woods on the grounds of the Atlanta History Center. Adding texture are layers of trillium, laurel, May apple and ferns. Birds twitter and critters scramble. In 1988, it became the first site to receive a Gardens for Peace designation.
The centerpiece is a bronze sculpture of five life-sized figures holding hands around a 14-foot tree with doves in its branches. The piece was created by Georgi Jataridze of Tblisi, Atlanta’s sister city in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The mayor of Tblisi attended the dedication ceremony.
A year later, when a garden was dedicated in Tblisi, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young attended the ceremony with a delegation of local businessmen.
Year by year, more gardens were added at home and abroad. The events of September 11 brought renewed interest in places of peace. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, many folks came to Swan Woods and left flowers, candles and notes. Many just sat and prayed.
Today Gardens for Peace is a network of 19 gardens around the world, from Atlanta, Georgia, to Tblisi, Georgia; from Kenya to Korea; from California to Connecticut. Seven are in Georgia.
The 20th garden will be dedicated this fall in Montgomery, Alabama. It was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the renowned designer of Central Park in New York (as well as the green space along Ponce in Atlanta). The garden fell into disuse over the years and is now being reclaimed. A Gardens for Peace designation will be the final touch.
Every garden has a dedication ceremony planned by the community it serves. Some are small and intimate; others involve a weekend of workshops and speakers. Laura has been present at nearly every one.
“Powerful stories get shared at every dedication,” she says. Once, a WWII vet told Laura how he had gone back to France to visit the places where he had fought. He choked back tears when he told her one of the battlefields had been turned into a garden.
As Laura had hoped, Gardens for Peace has touched a wounded place in many souls.
“My mother once said that gardens speak in a ‘pattern language’ that you can hear if you simply sit still and listen,” says Laura. “I love knowing that people the world over are hearing the voice of peace through these gardens.”
Laura and Tom eventually divorced, but Laura went on to finish divinity school and become an ordained minister. She has served as a Presbyterian minister to several churches and as a chaplain at LaGrange College and at hospitals in Birmingham and Atlanta.
Back in 1966, when she was just a shy young woman walking among the wounded men at Kishine and listening to their stories, she had no inkling that this was her gift — that she would find her purpose, her passion and her profession ministering to people while promoting a culture of peace.
She is “a perfect example of a woman who clearly found the point of intersection of her passion, her purpose and her profession,” says Ann Cramer, a consultant with Coxe Curry and Associates, and a friend and supporter of Laura’s since their early years in the Junior League.
Laura now lives in Woodstock where she tends a small patio garden. She still works part-time at Northside Hospital when she isn’t travelling or doting on her six grandchildren. And, she continues to quietly plant seeds of peace — one garden at a time.
ABOUT THE STORY
Freelance writer Laurie Eynon met Laura Dorsey at Northside Hospital, where they both serve as chaplains. Laurie was struck by her colleague’s quiet modesty, which belied her prestigious roots, and her lifetime of passionate dedication to peace and healing. It is an uplifting story of good from bad, hope from despair, serenity from chaos.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Laurie Eynon is a freelance writer and part-time chaplain at Northside Hospital. She and her husband Rob enjoy books, movies, and Atlanta’s great restaurants. She is a frequent visitor to Indianapolis where her children and grandchildren live. This is her third Personal Journey for the AJC.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Chad Rhym is a photo intern at the AJC. He is a rising junior pursuing a bachelor of arts in Sociology at Morehouse College. This academic year, Rhym will serve as the senior copy editor and photography editor for the Maroon Tiger, Morehouse’s student publication, brand manager for Morehouse’s Student Government Association, and will be participating in the 2017-18 Georgia News Lab.