Thousands of yards of yarn have passed through Vera Robbins' busy fingers in the past eight years.
The 72-year-old Milton-Freewater grandmother is one of almost 700 volunteers nationwide who crochet and knit stocking caps for Operation Beanies, a California-based nonprofit providing handmade caps to active-duty servicemen and women.
Robbins first heard of the group while living in Richland and serving as a greeter with the Tri-City ACES, or American Citizens Encouraging Support, which meets returning service members at the Tri-Cities Airport.
The grandmother of one of the returning servicemen told her about Operation Beanie.
"I said, 'I could do that.' She signed me up and sent me a pattern for the hats," Robbins said.
After a trip to the store for yarn, she was ready to make her first beanie, but first she had to polish her crocheting skills.
"I'd learned to crochet when I was about 14 but I hadn't picked up a hook in years. Those first few, oh, they took forever. I had to keep checking the pattern every few stitches," she said.
With practice, Robbins fell into the rhythm of crochet, automatically wrapping and hooking brightly colored yarns into single and double crochet loops going around and around, adding row after row until the cap is completed.
Her stash of yarn numbers in the hundreds of skeins, all stored in eight large Sterlite containers. Yet she always is on the lookout for more.
"I volunteer at a thrift shop in Milton-Freewater, so when yarn comes in I buy it. I also check other thrift stores and watch for sales," she said.
Once in a while she gets donations.
"Some ladies in Milton-Freewater heard what I was doing and met me in the parking lot at Safeway and gave me 20 skeins of yarn, free," she said.
Once Robbins completes 20 or 30 hats, she drops them off with Dick Gilmore of Kennewick. He collects hats from about 100 knitters and crocheters in the Mid-Columbia, then sends them on to Miki Sessler of Huntington Beach, Calif., founder of Operation Beanies. Sessler, in turn, sends them on to the military.
"I don't keep track of every one but I figure we've sent, over the years, some 7,000 beanies from here," Gilmore said. "I heard once that the Mid-Columbia is one of the largest contributors."
The beanies provide warm, cushy caps for military personnel who wear them as padding under their helmets, to keep bugs away and to stay warm at night.
According to the Operation Beanies website, Sessler gets hats from about 700 people in 16 states. Go to www.operationbeanies.org or call Robbins at 541-861-3133 to learn more.
At first, Robbins' goal was to make 500 hats. But once she got going, she found she could turn out two a night.
"So I upped my goal to 1,000," she said.
It took almost seven years, but Robbins recently completed her 1,000th cap, done -- appropriately -- in red, white and blue yarns.
That cap almost wasn't made. Late last year she developed carpal tunnel syndrome in her right hand, requiring surgery and a four-month break from crocheting. But as soon as she healed, Robbins began turning out beanies again.
"I make them while watching television at night. I get bored just looking at the screen. This keeps my fingers busy," she said while working on her 1,020th cap.
Robbins has no intentions of giving up her patriotic hobby.
"I'm not saying I'll reach 2,000, but I'll keep making them until my hand gives out or I die," she said.