My daughter, Ellen, and I stood at my parents’ graves on Mother’s Day a few weeks back and talked about how it couldn’t possibly have been so long since we lost them. My dad, for instance, has been gone for 16 years, and that is nearly unimaginable.
There was a small American flag shoved into the soil near my dad’s half of the headstone. It is the kind that is planted each year at the graves of veterans in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day. Just a few markers away, there was another just like it near my Uncle Gilbert, who we called “Bub.” He drove an Army truck through Germany over 65 years ago, learning, I suppose, how to do what he eventually did for the rest of his life.
“Why is that flag here every year?” Ellen asked me, for my dad had not been in the military, and she, who seems to know more about our family than just about anyone else, knew it. I am proud of my girl for that; she is interested in her roots, despite the fact that they have grown from — for want of another word — just an “average” family tree.
Each year, she travels to every family member’s grave that is within reasonable driving distance so she can decorate it and remember them. She has a big heart and can’t bear that in many instances, no one else visits these long-gone relatives.
My father may not have ever worn a uniform, but I don’t think it is wrong for a flag to be placed on his grave. Too young to have served in World War II, he was inexplicably never called to go to Korea a half-dozen years later. A benevolent draft board must have felt that his young wife and newborn son, or perhaps, his premature high blood pressure, were enough to keep him at home. I never really knew why he was never called to serve; I don’t think we ever talked about it.
My dad’s uncles, on the other hand, all had served in Europe; one, my Great Uncle Albert, was killed there. It was always my understanding that another of my granddad’s brother’s, Bob, spent some time languishing in a German prison camp. Yet another sibling, Will, also fought in Europe, and the youngest of the family, my Great Uncle Tom, who is still with us, was allowed to leave high school early to join the Navy just as the war was coming to a close. So, three of the Lunsford boys came home, but Albert is still there, buried with his brothers-in-arms in France.
My wife’s dad was called to Korea; Gib Dickey, three years older than my father, spent much of the war there stringing phone lines and fixing radios and freezing his “tail” off. It was an experience that stayed with him, not so much because he experienced the terrors of combat much in his time there — although he did mention in his usual, understated way that he didn’t particularly like being shelled by the North Koreans — but because it reinforced in him an already existing sense of appreciation for what he had at home.
“I didn’t know just how good I had it at home…,” Gib told me once as we spoke of how he used to load truckload after truckload of corn and beans with a scoop shovel on his dad’s farm, “…until I went to Korea,” he said. “I had to be one of the loneliest men over there.”
The flag on my dad’s grave has gotten me to thinking about the men and women who don’t go to wars, but who stay behind to fight in their own ways. My Aunt Elenore, for instance, left her home to follow Bub to basic training. She told me once that she drove to where he was stationed in Alabama by herself in a borrowed car. That may not sound like a remarkable thing, other than the fact that she had no license and had hardly ever driven before in those days before interstates. If I remember correctly, she worked in a war factory down there and stayed as close to Bub as she could until he shipped out.
My mother-in-law, Pat, took a job working at the Newport Army Ammunition Plant as she waited for Gib to come home. Her family was a poor one, but by the time Gib came home from Korea, and they got a stake from his dad to buy a farm a few miles away, it was Pat whose savings bought their first tractor, a bright red Farmall M that Gib had until he died at 81. For that alone, I think that someday, the flag for Gib could be nudged a little toward the middle of their stone.
Seeing that misplaced flag has made me realize that not everyone who served fought. My dad, for instance, helped my grandparents raise one of Uncle Albert’s boys, Gene, who came to live with them after his dad was killed in 1944. He and Dad became the best of buddies, despite a bit of an age difference.
My dad raised a family, and he tried to sell insurance and fix televisions and loaded lumber before eventually settling into the work of a carpenter and electrician and contractor. He worked hard his whole life, and he paid his taxes. Even when his heart and his health failed him, he refused to quit doing either; he didn’t believe it was the right thing to do. And in the last decade or so of that life, he took on small construction jobs at the Naval Surface Warfare Center near Crane. Some of his best friends there were military men, so he joined the local VFW and supported it. Some of those who got to know him came to his funeral; several were his pallbearers.
I know I should call someone, that I should get the clerical error that has led to that flag being on Dad’s grave fixed. Maybe next year…
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com for information about signings and speaking opportunities. He is currently working on his fourth book.