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Yesterday was Memorial Day. After days of unrelenting gloom, the skies finally cleared, and the temperature approached civility. I was glad of that.
Those who have died for this nation deserve more than one day, of course. In the hustle and bustle of daily life other things invade. Bills. Kids. Jobs. Pandemics. We tie ourselves up with minutiae, so I guess it’s good to be reminded, even briefly, why we’re able to take so many things for granted.
It’s not an even playing field by any means. That’s because our leaders have rarely been made of the same stuff as the soldiers they sometimes so cavalierly send off to battle. But that’s on us. We need to choose more carefully. Walk the rows of any cemetery today….see the flags erect in the breeze. Ask yourself. “Am I worthy of their sacrifice? Is the man or woman I’m voting for worthy of their sacrifice?”
My father was ineligible to serve due to his colorblindness. He used to joke that the Army was afraid he’d go running around shooting the wrong guys. Pop was such a gentle man I can’t even imagine him flying bomber missions like his brother Jim, or running for cover in London as German bombs fell all around him, like his brother Tom was forced to do. I was named after his brother, who one night had to drag a friend named Frank Burke back into a London bomb shelter after Frank insisted on screaming at the overhead planes, “come down and fight like men you Nazi bastards!” Clearly this was a man who’d fit in with the Flannery clan, so Tom brought him home to meet the family after the war, and Frank promptly fell in love with and married my Aunt Clare.
Dad was such a gentle man. But then so was Jim. And Tom. And Frank Burke. Yet they fought. They were needed and they went. They didn’t make a big fuss out of it. I can’t remember any of them even talking, much less bragging about what they’d done. They didn’t consider themselves special.
My Mom’s sister Frances remained single her whole life, despite countless marriage proposals (and more than a few diamond rings) from GIs who fell madly in love with her. She was an Army nurse who saw the horrors of war up-close. She saw what bullets and bombs do to mostly teenage kids. She was tough as nails and as soft as porcelain. She could swear like a sailor and soothe like a priest in the confessional. She was a dark haired beauty, 5 foot nothing, who was as brave as any man who ever stormed a fortified position. After the war she lived alone for the rest of her life. With her dogs and her memories. I don’t think she ever got over the things she’d seen. She loved all her boys, so she could never make a choice when some begged for her hand. I don’t think she ever felt lonely. She never talked about the things she’d seen.
Mom’s brother Donald was 15. He told recruiters he was a little older and they pretended to believe him. He was sent to the Philippines and was soon captured by the Japanese. He spent the entire war in the hell that was a Japanese POW camp. The things he endured are almost unspeakable. An actual photograph, tracked down by my Dad after the war, survives. Taken by the Red Cross, it shows Donald with the other prisoners. He’s easy to spot. He’s the only boy surrounded by dozens of grizzled men. He looks like a mascot. The picture fills me with wonder, and then horror.
Over the years details of the tortures my Uncle suffered leaked out, though never from him. He never spoke of his ordeal. Not even to his own children. He came home from war a man not to be trifled with, but I’m told he went into war a boy not to be trifled with! He somehow lived a full, inherently decent life. Loving husband, father, and grandfather. And a badass Uncle to boot.
Donald was once asked to lead a group in the Pledge of Allegiance, and at once grew suspicious. “Why me?” he asked. “Because we wanted a war hero” he was told. “Well, go find one then”, Donald said. And that was that. When he received his back pay (for his time as a prisoner), he used it to send his parents to Florida on a vacation.
Passed away at the cusp of 90. The kind of man they don’t really make anymore. I can’t think of him without being proud that I share the same blood.
A simple thank you on this one day seems woefully insufficient. But I’ll say if anyway.
“The Greatest Generation”. Used in any other context it would sound hokey. Like being subject to one of those “when I was our age” speeches.
Tom Brokaw coined it I believe. Brokaw was inspired to write his book of that title after hearing about and then meeting Gino Merli, who of course is one of our own. Gino’s heroics that long ago night in Belgium would make Hollywood director’s blush. You read about them, and you expect a giant colossus to emerge from the wings. What you get instead is a 140 pound kid who should have been in high school. There he was instead, in a strange country surrounded by the bodies of his friends, single-handedly fighting off wave after wave of German attacks until reinforcements arrived. When it was over his first request was to go to mass, so he could pray for the souls of the men he’d killed. Nineteen men lay in front of his gun. He didn’t hate the enemy. He simply loved his friends more.
They don’t make Gino Merli’s anymore. He received his congressional medal of honor from President Truman, then came home to Peckville to graduate high school.
(Truman later came through the Valley on his re-election rail tour, and Gino met up with him again at a local campaign stop. Truman remembered him. “Merli! What the hell are you doing here?”, he said. Not missing a beat….Gino replied “Mr President, what the hell are YOU doing here?”)
My Dad was a good friend of Gino’s. I never got to meet him. But I did meet his wife and family….and I’m a better person because of it.
The soldiers of this nation have always done their duty. The duty of the rest of us is to ensure that the sacrifices they’ve made in the past, along with those we’ll ask of them in the future, will not be in vain. More will die. More will go off to fight as one person and come home as another, not quite whole. How a nation treats its soldiers, both dead and living, says a lot about the kind of nation it is.
Frequently we’ve been left wanting.
It’s up to us to be worthy. To earn this.
In a bit..