IRMO, S.C. — Arthur Thexton can pick up the telephone anytime he wants and speak to dozens of crown princes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
This former United States intelligence operative is so well known in the Middle East that he was on the first airplane carrying Americans to Kuwait City at the end of the Persian Gulf War.
But these days, Mr. Thexton is far more interested in talking to GI Joes and Janes than royalty.
From his immaculately kept home in this well-to-do Columbia, S.C., suburb, he has become a one-man USO show.
For the past 10 years, Thexton has sent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of letters and care packages to US troops in the Balkans and Middle East.
On a recent sunny day, he points to a large box on his living room floor. The box is filled with 20 pounds of pecans that will brighten the spirit of American troops. "They don't get them in Kosovo!" he says.
This year, Thexton is corresponding with grunts at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and at air bases in remote Middle East locales. His motivation, he says, is simple: Young troops get lonely and scared in strange, faraway places.
He spends at least two to three hours each day preparing his cards and boxes.
Thexton's letters, and especially his packages, are not something they will easily forget. The former Army intelligence specialist stuffs them with bric-a-brac, much of it from his native South Carolina. He ships surplus postcards from state and federal agencies, homemade breads and cookies, pencils, tourism guides, pecan wafers, and even plastic toys from McDonald's Happy Meals.
The toys, he says, are useful for GIs trying to win the hearts and minds and children in hostile areas such as Bosnia. "The troopers on patrol at night give [children] a toy. If you give something to the children, it calms the parents."
Thexton's self-described gift of "being able to talk to anyone," helped him during his intelligence career, and it helps him today as he expands his network of people who help stock his packages. Some bake bread, others help collect the mounds of trinkets he ships to soldiers.
A few weeks ago, he called the US National Guard headquarters in South Carolina to get the names of troops assigned to peacekeeping missions overseas. He was especially interested in the names of those not getting much mail.
Thexton's kindness isn't reserved just for people in camouflage. Fluent in Arabic, he is a fixture at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where he has befriended dozens of foreign students, particularly those from the Middle East. One of his main goals, he says, is to help dispel stereotypes about Arabs.
Pat Willer, director of international programs at USC, says Thexton has achieved his goal. Because of him, she says, many in the state have a much broader understanding of Arab customs and culture.
If Thexton is a second uncle to college students and GIs, he looks the part. With gray hair and a goatee, the large man bears a close resemblance to the actor Burl Ives.
THE recipients of his packages might think him some kind of an eccentric archangel.
Wrote one Marine lieutenant on duty in Albania: "Arthur, your package made it out to the Marines of the 26th Expeditionary Unit, battalion landing team. It is nice to know that we can make a difference.... It makes us proud to defend the free world when there are people like you."
An Army sergeant in Kosovo lauded his new friend by urging him to remember that his packages "made a difference in our lives."
When asked about his kindness, Thexton shrugs and seems at a loss for words. "Those kids are on the ground with no electricity, no water, no nothing," he says. "As things die down, the packages get fewer and fewer."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society