What’s the story over there, you wonder. The woman, by herself in the car, crying softly. A widow, or a daughter. And what’s the story here, on Memorial Day, in Raleigh’s historic Oakwood Cemetery, of the children attending the memorial for the veterans who gave their lives in service? Grandchildren, perhaps. Great-grandchildren, even.
Yes, before and during and after the somber remembrance of those men and women who died in service, you wondered. Some were there, surely, to honor all who died, to do their own duty, as most do every year, in recognition of the profound sacrifice of all those whose graves were marked this day by small American flags. That is the custom on this most sad, perhaps most patriotic, of all days.
For many, the loss of someone in service was fresh, Iraq or Afghanistan, or the Gulf War. Family members they were, wives or husbands and children perhaps. And there were a few World War II veterans there, with their caps marking their branch of the military, or their ships or their companies. The same for Vietnam vets, Korea, wars that seem distant to many, near to others, with all the veterans aging now, way past the years they were when they came home.
But some seemed, at least by their faces, to be thinking back, way back, of the stories they heard long ago of uncles and brothers and cousins who died in war. Those buried far from here, in Raleigh, or even in the military cemeteries around the United States. These were the people they heard about all their lives, but never met. And yet, on this day, the yellowing photographs come out, and the stories of these people long lost come back to them.
And so it was, when I thought, as always on this day, of two boys who grew up together, across the street from each other almost, in a small town in the North Carolina foothills. They were first cousins, but brothers, really.
Their story unfolded in my mind as the Brass Quintet of the Army Ground Forces Band played hymns and patriotic music almost as a background to the flood of memories for me and doubtless for others under this hot sun.
These boys, they played ball together, fished and hunted, struggled through the Depression in families with modest means. When they milked the cows for a neighboring farmer, they’d try to squirt each other with the cows’ udders and laugh, merrily chasing each other through the fields. Neither had much, but their boyhoods were often joyous because they had each other.
In their town, with their mothers as sisters, each with four children, they had no secrets and wanted none. Somehow, each made it to college, managing to work a couple of jobs. Always, they kept in touch, and both knew their lives and careers were likely to take them far from home.
Then there was World War II. The big war. They went in about the same time, one in the Army and the other in the Army Air Corps.
Their mothers worried so, and prayed and prayed that they’d live to see their boys come home.
One, trained as memory serves as an engineer, reckoned by his brothers and sister to surely to own his world one day, was a big guy, handsome, dark-haired and athletic. The other was smaller, but a star athlete in high school and junior college, a top student, and a writer.
One went to Europe, and the other to the Pacific theater.
And then one day, in 1944, the idyllic boyhood seemed distant, almost erased. The big, handsome guy, so gifted, was pulled along with many others into the infantry for the Battle of the Bulge. The United States was throwing everything it had at a desperate German offensive that caught the allies off guard on the Western Front, in France, Belgium and Luxembourg. The battle would result in the highest casualties of the war.
The telegram came to that small town in the foothills. The cousin with the bright smile had been killed on December 16.
The other boy came home, and lived a good, long life, but kept close by, and on the bookshelves, some small pictures from the Depression days of him and his “brother.”
My father told me once the only time he broke down talking about World War II was when he talked to his cousin Joe’s mother about whether she should bring him home or leave him in the cemetery in Luxembourg. He said to let him rest in peace.
And there he is today, in the Luxembourg American Cemetery, Luxembourg City, with a small white cross at Plot 1, Row 9.
I hope that last Monday, there was a small flag there.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org