Today is Memorial Day. The true meaning of the day didn’t really take hold for me until I was well into my adulthood. My father served in the U.S. Army, but his four-year hitch never put him into a combat situation, so the only real risk he ever faced was riding in the team bus on the German Autobahn to his unit’s next baseball game. I had a cousin and an uncle who served during the Vietnam era; my cousin, Bob Wilson, was a forward observer for an artillery battery, so his view of the war was usually from a relatively safe hilltop, while my uncle, Dennis Carpenter, served on a Navy sub tender that had one or two annual cruises, usually to the Caribbean from its home port on the East Coast.
So, I never had the experience of getting to know a relative, or even a close friend, who would be lost in service to our country. Later on, I had another cousin, Scott Witz, who saw combat in both the Gulf War and later in Iraq, the first one as an Army medic, the second as an Apache helicopter pilot. He never told me of any close calls he had during either tour. My brother Alan was in a National Guard unit that was in the process of being called up during the Gulf War in early 1991, but he and his comrades had barely started their training before the war ended.
Over a million other American families haven’t been as lucky as mine. These are the men and women we honor today for their sacrifices, and those of their families back home.
I looked up the casualty figures for all of America’s wars. Since the first shots were fired in the Revolution back in 1775 at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, over 1.3 million of our fellow citizens have made the ultimate sacrifice. This number doesn’t include the many thousands who have perished during peacetime as a result of training accidents or illness. But even if we only look at those on the official casualty rolls, the number is staggering. Let’s put it in perspective: if each of those fallen were to walk in front of us and spend just a minute telling us about himself, where he was from and where he fell, it would take nearly a thousand days for all of them to tell us their stories.
A family visit, a grieving soul comforted.
I took a week off from work, my first full week away from radio since August of 2019, and flew to Phoenix the other day to visit my family. My father turned 86 in February, my mother will be 85 in a couple weeks. They moved into an assisted living facility in Surprise back on October 1, and they’re doing pretty well. Various orthopedic and intestinal problems have rendered my strapping, athletic father rather weak and frail, and his mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be, but the time I spent with him was a blessing for both of us, especially for me. I was still locked in the vise-grip of grief over the passing of my dog, Sophie, a few weeks earlier. My dad, who has been a life-long dog lover and has had to deal with the loss of many, listened to me describe my pain and held me as I wept. My parents have a Yorkie named Bobbie, and she comforted me, too, just by letting me hold her. One day during my visit, we all went to my brother Brian’s home in Gilbert and Bobbie jumped on the couch next to me. I’m convinced she could feel what I was going through and wanted to comfort me the best way she could.
And of course it was also a blessing to have my mother to talk to, and my brother and his family provided delightful company. Brian lost a beloved dog several years ago, and we were able to commiserate only as brothers, and dog-lovers, can.
It was very hot down there, near 100 degrees every day, so I was a little anxious to get home as the visit’s final full day wound down. That morning, Brian and I had explored Old Scottsdale, and while I was unable to find the Western-style, leather winter coat I wanted–at least, one I could afford–I did find myself a new straw fedora and an early birthday gift for Sue. At a combination art gallery and bookstore, I bought Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography, Total Recall, which I began reading on the flight home. I like to read about high-achieving individuals. What’s their secret? How did they overcome challenges? In Schwarzenegger’s case, as is always true for those who have overcome life’s many obstacles to achieve success, the secret is always the same: hard work, dedication to your craft and the ability to adapt to change and overcome mistakes.
I returned on Friday, May 29, with the entire holiday weekend to enjoy at home in the blessedly cool Wisconsin weather. Sue and I finished a project to remove split-rail fencing at the entrance to our driveway and replace it with aluminum. We went to the gym in Rice Lake, ran some errands, cooked out on our deck a couple times and listened to our favorite baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers, sweep a series in Washington and then come home today to beat Detroit in a 10-inning thriller. I conducted the service at our church yesterday, giving our hard-working interim pastor, Ron Gerl, a well-deserved break; you can catch my sermon here: https://llchurch.com/Sermons. After the service, we came home to receive our annual delivery of firewood, two cords’ worth that had to be stacked under the deck after being unloaded in the driveway.
Today was a good day, by many measures a great one, but also sad. I didn’t attend the annual Memorial Day service in Rice Lake; Sue and I were finishing up the fencing project, which included a quick trip to a nearby greenhouse at an Amish farm down the road for a plant, and then went on a bicycle ride through Birchwood. After that, we spent the rest of the day as we typically do: chores and so forth, including my weekly car-washing. In every one of those activities, Sophie would normally have been right with us: chasing her ball while we work on the fencing and in the gardens, joining us on the bike ride–I would carry her in a pouch on my chest–and stopping at Ed’s Pit Stop for ice cream, then relaxing on the deck while I grilled chicken for dinner. After clearing the table, Sue and I watched two deer approach the yard through the woods, aiming for Sue’s flowers. She had to shoo them away; that would’ve been Sophie’s job, at which she was very good.
My son Jim called this evening and said he was worried about me, since our conversations since Sophie’s passing had always included mentioning the dog, including on our visit to him in Milwaukee a couple weeks ago, as have my posts. I appreciate my son’s concern, and at times I have been a little worried myself. My grief is still there, although I suppose it has moved through some phases since that terrible night. I keep telling myself that every day brings little Maisie, her unborn niece, one day closer to coming home here with us. What a joyous day that will be! Until then, we soldier on here. And today, I’m very mindful that the grief I feel, intense as it is, does not really compare to that felt by the loved ones of our many fallen warriors, whom we remember this day. To those fallen, we owe everything we have, for without them, it all would’ve been taken from us long ago.