It is peaceful when Mike Morton sits down at his laptop.
His children are asleep, dreaming perhaps about the stories daddy tells them.
As Morton quietly taps away on the keyboard, their favorite critters, named after each child, come to life.
There’s Tristan the Tiger.
Megan the Monkey.
And Michelle the Happy Cat.
Morton also writes stories for friends’ children.
“I never know what I am going to write until I start,” said the 42-year-old Bradenton native. “It takes me awhile, depending on how I feel, but once I start writing, it just all seems to come together. It makes me feel closer to my children.”
Morton is in Iraq.
His children, ages 3 through 10, and their mother, Martha, are at Fort Gordon, Ga.
He’s a sergeant major, a decorated infantryman at Camp Striker, south of Baghdad’s international airport, on his third combat tour.
He has three months left.
Until then their twice weekly phone conversations — and the children’s stories he e-mails home — have to do.
“They ask what I’m doing, I say ‘Army work,’” said Morton, an 18-year Army veteran. “I’m an infantryman. They understand that. I just don’t tell them about any of the bad things that happen on engagements.”
They already know.
Morton, who has four Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars, was injured in Ramadi during his second combat tour three years ago. After his Humvee was caught in the IED explosion under the Humvee in front of them, he was burned saving four comrades from the fire.
The family visited him in Germany where he was hospitalized for three weeks.
“They were pretty scared when they came to see me,” Morton recalled. “I saw the fear in their eyes.”
His present combat tour has been comparatively calm, assisting Iraqi security forces.
Still, it is remarkable how Morton, after a 16-hour day on patrol, can put down his weapons, disengage himself from a war zone and write about Jake the Loveable Lion, Petey the Polar Bear and Spencer the Super Penguin.
“It’s a stress relief and takes me away from everything,” he said. “I don’t get a lot of free time, but when I do it’s something I enjoy. I usually start with a child’s name and their favorite animal. If they do something special or have a favorite pastime, then I try to include that in the story.”
Morton discovered his gift rather naturally.
“It started by reading books to my kids before bed, but I ran out of books to read,” he said. “So I created characters in my head, making it up as I went along. My kids would rather hear me tell more stories about those characters than read to them.”
One of the first was Danger Duck.
“He’s afraid of water and a lot of his friends tease him about his fear,” Morton said. “So I threw in a female duck, Prissy, who helped him overcome his fear. My daughters liked that.”
His stories are illustrated with clip art from the Internet, and he said he’s got countless story ideas waiting to be written.
Nothing has been published. Yet.
Until then, Morton is happy to hear how much other soldiers’ kids love his children’s stories.
That goes for his own kids, too.
“It’s kind of like dad’s still there even though dad’s not there,” he said. “That makes it all worth it.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a phone number for verification.