A Memorial Day Tribute – The Picture on the Dresser

When I was a young lad of elementary school age, I would sometimes find my way into my parent’s bedroom and ramble in their closet. I would find my father’s Class A uniform coat and put it on and stare at myself in the mirror. I remember it was Khaki, a Class A uniform color in use back in the 50’s and 60’s. The right shoulder sleeve was adorned with the bright blue, white and red patch of the 11th Airborne Division. My father had been a soldier in World War II and also was in the Georgia National Guard in the 50’s. I would stand up straight and salute myself in the mirror, struggling to keep the oversized coat from swallowing my little arms.

As I practiced my close order drill, my eyes would drift around the bedroom and I would find a picture kept on my parent’s dresser. It was a picture of a man. It was not a picture of my father. The man in the picture looked a lot like my older brother Pat. Next to the picture in another frame was an award. My inquisitive eyes would try to read the big words……”The Silver Star awarded posthumously to”………. I would try to finish reading it and then I would eventually finish my drill then go and play.

As I grew older, I would eventually ask my mother who the man was in the picture. In her most loving way, she sat me down and told me that the man was my older brother’s father. She told me that he was a soldier and that he had been killed in a war. I had wondered why my brothers were so much older than me and they had a different last name.  I began to understand now why the picture was there and what it meant to my family and what it meant to me.

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This reality would further touch me on a Memorial Day long ago. We got in our car and drove to the National Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia. As we drove through the cemetery, I looked out over the hundreds of headstones that stood over the rolling hills. Our car finally came to rest and we all got out. My mother had an arrangement of flowers that she had purchased from one of the flower shops in town. We walked up the hill and came to find the headstone of her late husband. We placed the flowers and said a prayer. We made our way back home that afternoon and we shared hot dogs and hamburgers at a family barbeque.

Years later, I would reflect on my family, a family with brothers who have different last names. I would think about the thousands of other families who had brothers and sisters with different last names, all with the common thread of ultimate sacrifice, the final devotion of service to a country and a way of life.

The victims of war are not only the soldier, the sailor, the airman or the marine; they are also the widows, the sons, the daughters, the mother’s and the father’s. They are the families that must pick up the pieces and move forward with their lives after the loss of a loved one from war. My mother was not yet 30 years old when she faced this reality, along with three young sons whose father would not be coming home.

I am led to believe that the people who originated the Memorial Day remembrances right after the Civil War, did so not only to remember the fallen, but also to aid their own grieving and healing process. A war where hundreds of thousands lost their lives seems unfathomable to us today, but was all too real for our ancestors.

We must dutifully remind ourselves that this is not just another three day weekend to open up the summer, but a solemn remembrance of those who have given their lives in war. I will always be reminded by a memory, a memory of a picture on my parent’s dresser.

In Memory of 1st Lieutenant Carl L. Kelly, Infantry, Killed in Action in Korea, 1951.

Awarded the Silver Star

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Cedar Rock, Dirt Roads and Brotherhood

One of the joys of growing up in a small southern town was the proximity of dirt roads. You didn’t have to drive very far to get to one. I’m not sure what it is about dirt roads, but they seem to beckon the hearts of young southern boys. At least it was that way in our rural county. If you had an older brother, he would usually be the first one to introduce you to the serenity of riding on the back roads of the country with the windows down.
One of those experiences stays fresh in my mind after all these years and illustrates how the bonds of brotherhood are built and what strengthens them in our memories. I don’t remember what the occasion was or if we really needed one, but my older brother Pat took me and my little brother Joey for an excursion to Cedar Rock. If my memory serves me, it was right before Easter one year. It was a beautiful spring day in Georgia. Cedar Rock was a destination out in the far reaches of the county away from town. You would get there by traveling a few paved county roads and then turn down some old dirt roads. Cedar Rock was nothing like Stone Mountain, the large outcropping of Georgia granite that has been a tourist attraction for decades, but it was a little piece of exposed granite in the rural reaches of Butts County.
Cedar Rock had become a congregation area for the youth in the county to park their cars, build campfires and bonfires, drink a few beers, tell tales and to just get away from town. On our particular visit that day, we took some Crisco, some potatoes for frying and one of my mom’s black iron skillets. We also took along a single shot .22 rifle and a box of cartridges. My little brother and I were excited to be riding in our brother’s truck with the windows down and the wind and sun hitting our faces. We set out on our journey and stopped by “Saint Cawthon’s “bait shop to pick up some cokes. Pat spoke to “Saint” as we were checking out and asked about his son Phillip. My brother and Phillip had been friends in school but they also shared another bond. Pat and Phillip had been young soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division serving in Vietnam. Pat told me that he and Phillip had found each other and shared some time together during a break from their combat action. I’m sure seeing a familiar face in a war zone thousands of miles from home gave both of them a comforting feeling in their hearts.
As we continued on our journey, we began our first turns onto the dirt roads that would get us to our destination. Driving along and weaving our way thru the trees that lined our path, we came across what can only be described as a dumping area. Some ways off the road was an area where people would illegally dump old furniture, tires, trash and other oddities. It was an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful area. Perched on a limb and a good distance from the dirt road was a turkey vulture, or what we affectionately call a “buzzard”. No doubt the buzzard was waiting to find a morsel of goodness from the trash heaps. My brother Pat stopped the truck and set his eyes on the buzzard. He reached down and took the .22 rifle and loaded a round into the chamber. He looked over to me and my little brother and said, “Watch this!” He carefully took aim at the buzzard on his perch. I said, “You ain’t gonna hit that buzzard, it’s too far!” As soon as I uttered the last syllable, the crisp shot of the .22 rang out. We thought the bird had heard the crack of the rifle and began to fly away, but Pat had found his mark and the buzzard glided down to the floor of the dump. Being good southern boys, we had to go examine our kill and see where we got him. Pat’s aim was true and upon examination, we found the buzzard with a hole in his neck. Joey and I both shouted, “Wow! Pat! That was a good shot!” He replied back, “You gotta make them count.” Pat was quiet and solemn as we walked back to the truck. This was uncharacteristic of his usual boisterous and jovial self. Years later, I would understand. I think when Pat pulled the trigger on that buzzard, he also pulled the trigger on some memories of combat.
After a few more turns, we finally made it to our destination. We arrived at Cedar Rock. This was the first time Joey and I had ever been to this place, but from Pat’s knowing glance, we knew this was not his first time here. We unloaded the truck and Pat led us straight to an area of rocks which looked like it was the perfect place to build a small fire and rest a frying pan. We all began to gather some firewood and soon we had a good fire going. We then settled the old black iron skillet in place. Digging into our Crisco can, we filled up the pan and watched as the white concoction began to melt into clear liquid oil. Our next task was to prepare our French fries. We cut them up and put them into a small cooler. As soon as the fire had heated the oil to Pat’s liking, he started to lay the potatoes in the pan. My little brother and I could immediately begin to smell the distinct aroma of potatoes being fried in oil. We enjoyed being in the beautiful outdoors and taking in the sights and sounds and smells. Our mouths began to water as we pondered the delicious taste of a fried potato. Pat soon began to plate them on some paper plates we had and he told me and Joey to salt them right away while they were hot.
As soon as we had a big pile, we opened up our bottle of ketchup and popped the tops off our cokes. We sat down around our fire at Cedar Rock and began to enjoy our campfire French fries. We laughed and talked and enjoyed each other’s company.
As soon as our bellies were full of French fries, we turned our attention to shooting the .22 rifle. Pat used some of the leftover paper plates to use as targets. He nailed them to some trees and then he began his clinic on firing a rifle and hitting the bull’s eye of the target. While honing our marksmanship skills under Pat’s watchful eye, we went through a box of cartridges.
Soon after the last trigger was pulled, we began to clean up and load up the truck. We began our trek back home leaving the dirt roads and finding the highway. As the wind came thru the windows and blew on our faces, I licked the corner of my mouth and tasted the remnants of ketchup and salt. We stopped by a filling station so Pat could fill up the truck with gas. Joey and I bartered with Pat for some change to get a candy bar. One of Pat’s old friends saw me and Joey and asked Pat, “Is that your half-brother’s Chip and Joey?” Pat responded quickly and firmly, “We are brothers, ain’t nothing half about us!” Joey and I looked up at Pat with shy grins of pride; Pat looked down and smiled back. The bonds of brotherhood are not only borne of blood, they are also forged with love and camaraderie. My brother taught me this long ago.
Over ten years later, I would be enduring the sweltering summer heat on a firing range at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Trying to qualify on my M-16 rifle, I was in a firing position when those memories of Cedar Rock and that day came rushing back in my head. With the sting of sweat burning my eyes, I gave up a brief grin thinking of that day as I tried to lay a bead on my target. I would qualify expert that day, aided no doubt by the patient instruction of my brother those many years ago.
It was one day in a lifetime, but that day at Cedar Rock has given me a lifelong memory. Every Easter weekend, I recall the brotherhood we shared that day.