By Katherine Johnson
May 31, 2021
Disabled American Veterans Chapter 25 – Chaparral, New Mexico
Over the decades my relationship with Memorial Day has gone from being a kid in the back of a station wagon headed off to go camping, to sitting occasionally in a veterans cemetery with sweat soaking my blouse while a politician prattled on about American idealism, sacrificing for those ideals and how his or her great words and deeds exemplified these ideals , to where I mentally reside now.
This holiday when you get right over the bullseye of it all has little to do with the nation as a whole, its idealism, whether or not our wars were just or not, whether or not our politicians are noble or rotten, whether or not our generals served their troops well. It is much smaller than all that, much more personal than that. It begins and ends with honoring those young men and woman who served this country in battle, with some lying in graves that on this day get adorned with ribbons and flowers, those that came home shattered, and the lucky who came home physically in one piece and got on with living.
As I travel around, I often stop at random rural and small city cemeteries and wander amongst the graves because the dates at times reveal a historical timeline, with the names exposing who once lived there and quite possibly still have descendants in the area. I pay close attention to the military graves as you get a measure of the individual sacrifice these small communities made when required. Most of these died decades after their war while some clearly came home after dying in battle. These military headstones at times show up in the family plot or acknowledge their service if a private headstone is used. I came to understand that the families and individuals seem to be saying, even where the ground was once wet from tears, that serving was one of the greatest honors one can experience.
My Uncle Roger served in the Korean War and he was one of those that came home in one piece. After the war he gave up his motorcycle, got married, got a job, had kids, and got on with life. He was never a very good husband or father; it wasn’t in his nature. It wasn’t that he was mean, a drunk, slept around, was lazy, didn’t care; he was none of those things. Rather I don’t think he ever really got off that motorcycle. He began his working life as a door-to-door vacuum salesmen and ended up selling aluminum siding and windows. In between these two places he had lots of other detours, such as the time he and a pal traveled around the country selling car air fresheners that hung from rearview mirrors and aerosol mouth fresheners. It was on this sales adventure that he ended up in Seattle to spend a few days with his brother, my Dad, and is when I first remember meeting Roger. I still recall, even though I was quite young, how he placed an uncle magic spell on me that persists to this day even though he is now buried in the veteran’s section of the Hibbing, Minnesota cemetery. He was a good man, even a great man in his own way.
In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s I would make trips from Seattle to Minnesota to visit relatives which always included time with Uncle Roger. Inevitably we would end up heading off to go on fishing trips in Northern Minnesota that always ended up in chaos for one reason or another. It was glorious, good fun. Being a salesman, he never seemed to lack for words. Let me correct that. Being a salesman, he never lacked for words and would spin wild monologues about how the government was screwing everybody over, aluminum siding sales war stories, people he met once 25 years ago, his philosophy of life, and other important topics. Like I said he was a great man in his own way. He also took pictures nonstop of crazy things that seemed to make no sense whatsoever until he would get revved up and start pulling these pictures out while roaring down the highway. He would then begin explaining them with observations that a traffic cone in Keewatin was put there by a city worker around noon who would then head off to the bar for “lunch.” He would toss picture after picture out and never shut up; these were magical moments. His car was not just his office but a living room – it was full of everything you could need such as fishing poles and tackle, sales samples, an extra clean shirt, mouth wash, various snacks, and a couple of cartons of cigarettes. If the country ever got nuked, I think he would have been good to go for a couple years, maybe longer.
We also spent a fair amount of time at his VFW post where he would get me completely drunk. It took me a few times to figure out he had quit drinking and that he was having a roiling good time preforming this essential uncle duty. I never brought this up with him and generally played along. It was glorious, good fun. Being Roger, who was more of a class of tornado than a person, he knew everybody, their stories, how they served, how that affected them then and now. He made sure I got to meet everyone and during the introductions he would give a brief biography and such, “Joe here served in the Pacific in WWII where he got wounded from a Jap sniper,” or “Donny here served in Vietnam and broke his back in a car accident.” He had an encyclopedic memory of these personal details which covered everything from ex-wives names to how many times they had their driver’s license suspended, to a kid that managed to graduate from college in economics. Over the years I came to understand that I was being given an honor by these men: I knew their stories. Roger made that happen for me, he gave me something I could never have obtained on my own and because of that I fell more in love with him than can be imagined.
I also got to witness a tender side of him while at the VFW, a side that most people overlooked. He was kind of a mother hen to a lot of his fellow vets. He knew their health, if they were broke, hungry, abandoned by family, or were shattered someplace hidden and then took time to tend to these needs in his own particular way be that driving someone to a doctor appointment, buying them a beer and a hotdog, or just listening. He also put together care packages for his pals. We would be out and about and stop in to get some gas at a Holiday station. After filling up he would head inside and blow $100.00 on mini doughnuts, beef jerky, canned soup, potato chips, and other earthly delights found in such places. He would then get a few extra bags and then once back in the car he would divvy up the loot and then roar off to where his fellow vets were living. There he would drop off one of these treasure troves, chat a bit and then roar off the next vet. His pals loved him for this, and I am pretty sure it has a lot less to do with beef jerky and a lot more about something more important.
It was there and then that my thinking about Memorial Day began to grow and change. Memorial Day is every day, and it is exemplified by how one citizen soldier loves another citizen soldier selflessly. And sometimes it is celebrated by sharing a box of mini doughnuts or a kind introduction to some kid getting plastered on the next barstool over.
Copyright 2021 By Katherine Johnson – All Rights Reserved