When I was a child I always thought of Memorial Day as vacation time - - a time for sun, water and fun - - Florida here we come! We'd either pile up in the car and travel as a family, or, if the family didn't have plans to go, once we got old enough we'd cook up our own plans to go with a friend and their family.
There were those special summers that a big Sister would take us to a local cook-out or the Lake for the weekend. And wow, those lake trips, they had a ski boat! We'd spend the entire weekend piling on sunblock or not, getting sunburned or tanned, eating more than we needed, water skiing, swimming, running, laughing and having fun.
Sometimes the locals would light a few fireworks kind of like the 4th of July. And the music blaring throughout the neighboring campgrounds was always great.
Gosh, I remember those days so well. I even remember the guard shack at the entrance of the park, and how the adrenaline would rush once you reached the gate. We're here! Let us in!
As you went about your travels down the highways and back roads, regardless of your destination, you'd see the American flag waving proudly - - in front yards, office buildings, and even along the highways. Families and friends would be gathered in front or back yards, BBQ pit roaring, the smell of Southern BBQ grilling on the open fire, and usually a few corn cobs on the grill, along with watermelon waiting on the tables.
Kids would be running, screaming, laughing, and having fun. A lot of local Community Centers, Schools, and Churches would throw festivals, BBQ picnics, dances - - you name it. You always heard the blaring yet beautiful sounds of music playing on the stereos where Dads had pulled the big speakers out to the front porches, or maybe Bubba the local 'good old boy' had God Bless America cranked up in his pickup truck, coming out of none less than Bose speakers he'd saved for, and bought at the corner car stereo shop.
A lot of my friends would visit relatives, and Grandparent's house was a prime destination. Some folks would go fishing, while other went beaching.
All of those wonderful summers, are memories that will stay with me forever. There was a special feeling in the air, even a special smell. All of the senses were tuned in to those special "Memorial Day" weekend festivities.
I didn't realize what Memorial Day really meant, until days before my Father passed away.
Dad was a World War II (WWII) Soldier. He didn't talk about it much, but was very nostalgic about his WWII friends. Throughout my life, he didn't discuss the War much, at all. In fact, he made it pretty clear, it wasn't one of his favorite topics of conversation. He did make big efforts to attend his WWII reunions, and loved seeing his old buddies. Funny thing though - - or sad really, almost every time I went with him to these special reunions, he would get physically ill. I think it was just too much, the horrific memories, yet the excitement and special bond he felt when he reunited with his friends who made it home from the War. He'd be okay after the initial excitement had passed.
In those last days in the hospital, I stayed by his side (we all did) as many hours and days as the body could stay there, with little rest, and days of anguish watching him go from this strong healthy man - - "our absolute rock", to the man he had become in his last days - - no choice of his of course. At his side I listened. We all listened, as intently and carefully as we could. He talked a lot. Most of the time I don't think he knew he was talking. The medicine and his condition had played their toll. His life was swirling out of control, all his life's memories flying by, in and out, all over the place, and coming to the surface. He talked about many wonderful memories, the things in his life that meant the most. He talked about his children (at one point looking up at his Nurse, "I was a good Daddy." And goodness, was he an awesome Dad, just the best ever.). He talked so lovingly and passionately about his Sweetheart of over 60 years (even worried about her Birthday gifts) -- our Mother, talked about his work - - how he loved to work and build, his dreams, his happiness, fun, funny stories, then he'd sleep a while.
The evening to "tell all" came. I wasn't expecting it. After 60 years of holding most of it in, he was ready to talk. He started talking about the War. The pain on his face is hard to put into words. I've never seen this kind of fear and frustration, a sort of loathing that he wasn't even capable of expressing - - about what the War had done to his life and so many others. He talked about these days of being away "at War", about missing his family, missing the birth of his first child, the cold nights, days without food, the bunkers, the guns and the smell of death. What a lot of kids today don't realize, these boys, these Men - - didn't have a choice back then, short of going into hiding. When you turned 18, off to War you went.
He talked most of the night that night, about THE War in his life. He talked about friends who were killed next to him, heads blown off, boys killed within 3 inches of his shoulder. He talked about being one of the lucky ones. He talked about having to kill. He cried. No, he wept.
The next day my little Brother came to be with him. Dad started talking again, about this War, World War II. He explained to us what he had to do, what his job was in the Army during the War. He was one of the Soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge. source - pbs.org -- "During the winter of 1944-45, more than 500,000 troops were deployed in the Ardennes. An astonishing number -- 76,000 -- would be wounded or killed. The troops were young men -- some of them barely out of high school." Many were his friends. Some of the stories he shared, I couldn't write. They are beyond horrific, and too painful to repeat. Make no mistake. This War was beyond most of our imaginations.
Sources - pbs.org & my Dad -- "Freezing cold, frostbite, death -- these were everyday facts for the soldiers at the Bulge."
Dad was the "Head Gunner' I believe is what he called it. He had to load ammunition into this monstrous killing machine. "We had the Germans cornered", he'd say. "After days and nights towards the end of the Bulge, we begged them to surrender. They were just boys. We even had some of our boys crawl towards the enemy lines to explain, You can't escape. It's impossible. Please surrender." Dad said some of his friends gave their lives, trying to get the young Soldiers on the opposing side to surrender. He saw many of his friends gunned down. I believe this was my Dad's job, like the photo depicts:
He didn't say much more after this. Like I mentioned earlier, he told a lot I won't say here. This was the day I understood what Memorial Day really meant. My Dad didn't die in the War. But a great part of his Soul did, and many of his friends. After 84 years of a truly wonderful and amazing life - - a wife and best friend of 60+ years, 5 children and a ton of grandchildren, many many friends, huge successes, loved by so many, wonderful, brilliant and sweet man - - some of his last thoughts on this Earth, aside from making his absolute and total peace with God, were about the War. His War. The War that was fought for our freedom.
Thank you to all our Soldiers, those who are serving today and the past, and for those who gave your lives for our freedom and future - - or as Andy Rooney so perfectly stated it "those who did not give their lives, but had them taken", thank you for all that you have done to protect our freedom.
God Bless All Soldiers, far and wide, past and present.
Our Dad - - Our Hero:
Dad and Jen: Somewhere around 25 and 12 years ago.