By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
While 6-year-old Isabelle Gregg is tearing the shiny paper from her Christmas presents, her dad will be aboard a warship thousands of miles away, making sure Isabelle has a safe place in which to play with her new toys.
Tony Gregg, Isabelle announces with the sort of proud smile little girls flash only when talking about their daddies, is a Marine.
A staff sergeant, to be specific.
Gregg, who has been in the Marine Corps for 18 years, works on the USS Peleliu, a carrier-type ship whose cargo includes anti-tank helicopters and Harrier fighter jets.
The Peleliu is patrolling the Arabian Sea.
The Arabian Sea is just south of Afghanistan.
But Isabelle doesnt care about wars or the Taliban or whichever cave Osama bin Laden might be occupying.
She just wants her daddy to come home for Christmas.
Dear Daddy, Isabelle wrote recently. Please come to Baker City to join us at Grannys and Papas house for Christmas dinner and sleep over until Christmas is over for all of us to go home.
Oh, and if her dad can arrange it, Isabelle would like a baby polar bear, too.
And a candymaker and a cotton candymaker and a doll and a pet baby cat.
Isabelle sent her wish list to her dad via e-mail.
But her high-tech message was only one of dozens that have traveled through cyberspace recently between Greggs ship on that faraway sea and the computer in his daughters first-grade classroom at Brooklyn Elementary.
Gregg and the 2,200 Marines and sailors aboard the Peleliu are the newest pen pals for Isabelle and the other first-graders in Susan Frantums class.
Its a good opportunity for them to use their writing skills, and it supports Isabelle and her family, Frantum said. Sometimes she says shes worried about the safety of her dad. She handles it just fine.
Frantum said this is the first time during her 21-year teaching career that shes had a student whose parent was serving in the military in a war zone.
But Frantum said safety, not war, is the topic she emphasizes with Isabelle and the other first-graders.
We talk about how their teacher provides a safe place while theyre in school, and that Isabelles dad is doing the same thing for us, Frantum said.
While their dad is serving his country, Isabelle and her brother Hunter, whos 4, are living in Baker City with their maternal grandparents, Ernie and Ivy Nelson.
The children arrived here in early August, after Tony Gregg, 38, shipped out on the Peleliu for maneuvers near Australia. His assignment there was quickly scuttled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, replaced by orders to sail to the Arabian Sea.
Isabelle and Hunters mom, Tara Gregg, is working and attending college classes in San Diego, where the Greggs have a home.
Tara is spending Christmas with her family in Baker City.
As she talks about the past few months, her tears tell more than her words about how long the days have been with her kids in Northeastern Oregon and her in Southern California.
I would rather have my children with me, Tara said. But I want whats best for them and I know this is best for them. Its been the best experience for them and for my parents.
You cant imagine how lucky and how thankful I am to have parents that love my family as much as they do. Its very comforting for me.
Ivy Nelson said Baker City residents have been absolutely wonderful to Isabelle and Hunter.
They treat them like family, she said.
Tony Greggs tour of duty and thus his childrens stay with their Granny and Papa in Baker City was extended after the Sept. 11, Nelson said.
Tara Gregg, 30, said Isabelle and Hunter were supposed to return to San Diego when her husband arrived, a reunion originally planned for early January. But now hes scheduled to be back in March too late for the Greggs 8th wedding anniversary in February, but in time, Isabelle hopes, for her 7th birthday on March 7.
Tony Gregg, like many of his shipmates, brought a laptop computer on board the Peleliu so he could stay in touch with his family.
That computer connection became immeasurably more important after Sept. 11, Tara said.
It means so much to the personnel on the boat, and it means so much to Isabelle to know her dad is safe, Tara said. I was very grateful to Mrs. Frantum for encouraging the children to become involved in this.
She has showed a pride and a supportiveness, not only in Isabelles father but also in this country.
Ernie Nelson, who also has exchanged e-mail messages with his son-in-law since the war started in Afghanistan, helped Frantum start the pen pal relationship with the crew of the Peleliu.
The ship, incidentally, is perhaps the most famous in the American fleet now, in part because its brig houses John Walker Lindh, the American accused of fighting with the Taliban and of meeting with Osama bin Laden himself.
Last week Nelson was in Frantums classroom while Isabelle and her classmates read hand-written letters from her dad and many other Marines and sailors on the ship. Those letters were sent by traditional mail.
In a letter to one of Isabelles classmates, Gregg expressed sentiments echoed by many others on the Peleliu:
We are very happy to be out here, keeping you safe, Staff Sgt. Gregg wrote. You take care, and study hard.
Isabelle said she writes to her dad about how much she likes ballet.
I say, have a happy Christmas, good night, she said.
Each of the letters from the Peleliu included a photograph of the ship.
One of the Marines even circled the helicopters he works on.
In a letter to Frantum, Gregg wrote about how much his shipmates enjoy exchanging thoughts and stories with the first-graders.
If some of the letters are a little hard to read for the kids, I do apologize , he wrote. We are doing the best we can out here.
I want to thank you not only for being my daughters teacher, but also just for being a teacher.
Tara Gregg, who served in the Navy, said she hopes Americans appreciate the sacrifices of military personnel and not just during the holidays.
She said she cried when the long-cold torch was lit atop the memorial to Baker Countys war casualties at the County Courthouse.
They love this country and they want this country to be safe, she said. People should be proud of where they live.