Our Veteran Day
I suppose a creative person could construct found poetry out of text messages, discover beauty in the terseness of this odd way a lot of us communicate. I don’t know much about poetry.
But now I re-read the message I got in the early afternoon of Election Day from my wife, and notice it still holds power. “Taking early bus home. Mom called. Daddy died.”
I met my father-in-law the day before I married his daughter. He was pretty terse himself, and over the years I would discover a touch of the poet in him, although on that day he was mostly quiet.
There was a lot of information to be exchanged and no time to do it, although in retrospect we could have both relaxed. We would have nearly 30 years to get to know each other.
You can know him too, a little, if I paint in broad enough strokes. He was a charter member of what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation, born in 1923, reaching adulthood as war loomed.
He joined the army after graduating high school and eventually was sent to North Africa and then Europe, Sicily, Anzio, southern France. He spent more than 300 days on the front lines, I’m told.
I probed my father-in-law a little about the war, just once, a year after I got married. I’m not a student of World War II, but I loved the movie “Patton” and he’d been in the vicinity.
My wife was shocked, later, that I’d managed to pry out a couple of stories. Like a lot of those men, he kept his mouth shut, came home and stayed silent about what he did and what he saw.
Patton was a flawed general but protected by Ike because by God he never quit, he persevered. He caused problems, though; you can’t be slapping soldiers who lose it, who see too much.
The ones who don’t get slapped still saw too much. That’s what amazes me about these silent stories, leaves me in awe. They came home, they continued, they survived. They persevered, too.
As he did. He worked, raised a family, paid for cars and college, retired in his mid-50s, worried about everyone and helped everyone, and thought, apparently, about the ones who had fought the same sort of battles.
And every Veteran’s Day, my father-in-law would go to the cemetery, the one that held his history, his family, the one where we laid him to rest last Friday, and he would plant flags on the graves of veterans.
After all these years, I imagine he knew where to place them. He planned to do it last Friday, he’d said. He had the flags and everything.
He would plant other things; he seemed to understand that time was fragile but could be on our side, and that things would grow if treated with care.
A year after we moved into our house, in fact, my father-in-law took cuttings from neighborhood trees and planted them in my yard. Most of them succumbed to the lawnmower; a couple grew into small trees that we eventually had to remove. One of them we left alone for time to deal with.
After the graveside service, my brother-in-law brought out the flags and we spread out, 20-odd of us, walking the rows of stones and markers, looking for signs of service. There were Civil War veterans there, Union and Confederate, along with the rest.
My son and I walked our section, holding flags, finding our veterans, honoring their service, honoring his grandfather. It seemed like a random job to me, so many lifetimes scattered around, but John knew it was a puzzle to be solved, and he knew puzzles.
“You have to see it as a grid,” he said. Twenty years of playing video games that required big-picture strategies had created a security when it came to this. I followed his lead, trusting him.
Listen: I want to tell you about this man, this ordinary life that was so extraordinary. I want to tell you how a small Texas town filled a church last week to pay their respects, to tell stories of his goodness.
I want to tell you how he cared for his community and his family, how he treasured his grandchildren, how he served quietly, how he lived fully. I want to tell you how much I loved my father-in-law. I want to tell you what he left us.
My son and I drove home from the airport on Saturday, exhausted and grateful to be back, and as we pulled into the driveway I had to look. There was no way I couldn’t.
He planted that cutting, a few inches in length, in the summer of 1989. His tree now stands more than 50 feet, towering above my house. It reminds us of what we lost, but what we had. It reminds us of this good man, and it reminds us of how he lived.
It reminds us that time is fragile but sometimes on our side. It reminds us of why we plant things, seeds and flags. And it reminds us of why we should.