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Yesterday, An American Hero Was Buried

Yesterday, at 11:00 a.m., the United States of America buried one of its heroes. Most likely you missed this event, for his death wasn’t covered by the Mainstream News Media; it wasn’t recorded on the front page of the country’s “Newspaper of Record”; and there were no foreign dignitaries in attendance. Not a single reporter found the event noteworthy enough to place it on his “to do” list, and the only “dignitaries” in sight as the hearse pulled up was the 3-man honor guard standing at attention by the curb, whose hands slowly came up in perfect salutes as the flag-draped coffin exited, borne by 7 young men impeccably dressed in dark suits, white shirts and ties.

No medals for valor or bravery in battle adorned the coffin…nor were any pinned to the lapels of the perfectly pressed suit that lay on the lifeless body it held. To the casual observer, it appeared like no more…no less than the funeral of yet another World War II and Korean War Veteran; a scene that is repeated in hundreds and thousands of cemeteries every day across the fruited plain. So, how do I know that this man, who by all appearances was just a common, ordinary, unremarkable man, was an American hero?

Because he was my dad.

Dad grew up in the Great Depression, and like so many of his era, it was the defining event of his life. His father, a successful businessman, lost all he owned and my dad was sent to hoe and pick cotton in the fields around Malone, Texas, at the age of 7 to help make ends meet. The want and deprivation they endured shaped my Dad’s entire life and, I’m sure, was the driving force behind him saving every bent nail (hey, you can straighten those later), every discarded electrical engine (you can run a pump with one of those), and every bit of barbed wire, bailing wire and twine imaginable (you never know when you’re going to need that), and doggone it all, he was usually right.

From my earliest rememberances, it was my dad’s stated mission in life to make sure his children understood that life was a gift from God, and it was our responsibility, nee’ our duty, to live it in a way that gave full witness to that gift. I learned from early on that my Dad’s philosophy of life could be summed up quite simply:

Duty. Honor. Country.

It would take more time than I have, and more patience than you have, to recount the myriad of ways that my dad lived that credo. This August, he and my mom would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.  Remarkable one might think; but not to Dad. He and mom certainly didn’t have a “perfect” marriage but leave her? Why, he had made a promise on August 25, 1951, to love her for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death parted them and to my dad, a man’s word was his bond. It would never have occurred to him to even consider breaking something that precious.

Duty. Honor. Country.

Miss voting in an election? Receive Dad’s lecture about the hundreds of thousands of men who gave their lives at Bunker Hill…on the beaches of Normandy…on the Inchon Peninsula…to preserve the precious right and freedom to cast a ballot. And you’re too lazy to get off your butt and honor their sacrifice by doing something as simple as casting a ballot in the greatest country on earth? For shame!

Duty. Honor. Country.

My Dad’s favorite record album? Gen. Douglas McArthur’s Farewell Address to Congress. Heard it so many times that I’m sure I was the only kid in the first grade at L.L. Hotchkiss Elementary School who knew that Douglas McArthur said “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” I was also the only kid at L.L. Hotchkiss who, in the 2nd grade, had bumper stickers plastered all over his notebooks which said “How do you kill Johnson grass? You pour Goldwater over it.” Dad never missed an election and he served as a poll watcher and election judge for more years than I could possibly remember, even when late in his life, he had to be wheeled into the polling place.

Duty. Honor. Country.

I can’t begin to think of which conversation Dad had with me that influenced who I am today…because there are far too many of them. 

“So…when do you want me home from my High School graduation party?” “I don’t care. What I do care about is that you remember who you are. Oh, and by the way, we leave for church at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning;” or,

“Son, human beings can take away from you everything in the world you own – your house, your money, all your earthly possesions, your family, even your life. But there’s 3 things they can never take away from you and that’s your honor, your reputation, and your faith. Those you have to give away.”

Duty. Honor. Country.

But I think the one I cherish the most occurred in 3rd or 4th grade. Growing up in Texas where football isn’t a sport, it’s a religion, all the neighborhood kids had their own football uniform (I’m talking helmets, shoulder pads, jersey’s hip pads, the whole nine yards) and we gathered on a regular basis at the vacant lot across the street from our house to engage in long hours of tackle football. So, it was no surprise that one Saturday morning I looked out the front window to see the neighborhood urchins gathering for our weekly football game. I rushed to my room to don my football togs which initiated this exchange with my Dad:

“So…where ya going?”

“To play football across the street.”

“Ummm….aren’t you supposed to mow the Jackson’s lawn today?

“Ummmm…well….yeah…but I’ll do that after we’re done playing.”

“No, you’ll do it now. You have a commitment to the Jackson’s to mow their yard and that comes before your football game.”

Duty. Honor. Country.

I must have set a world’s record for mowing a lawn and, 30 minutes later I was out cavorting on the vacant lot w/my football peeps alternately thinking I was Don Meredith or Bullet Bob Hayes. Well, at least I was until I looked up and saw my Dad striding across the street. The gait didn’t look overly positive to my trained eyes and as he drew closer, and I could see the whites of his eyes, I knew he hadn’t come over to tell me that my mom had just baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies. He strode right onto the field, and stepped right into that holy of holies (our huddle) where the following conversation ensued:

“Thought you were going to mow the Jackson’s yard before you started playing football.”

“I did!”

“So you did, huh? Did you do a good job?” (I may have been young and dumb, but I knew there was only one answer to this question)

“uhhhh….no.”

“Did Mr. Jackson pay you you for mowing his yard?

“Yeah”

“How much?”

“Three bucks.”

“Well, I took a look at the job you did this morning and that was the sorriest job of mowing a yard I’ve ever seen. You didn’t edge it like you were paid to do and you mowed it so fast that you left ridges of grass all over the place. Mr. Jackson paid you to do a job and you didn’t do it which means you stole $3 from him as sure as if you had walked into his bedroom and took it off his dresser. So here are your options, you either give Mr. Jackson his $3 back and apologize to him for stealing money from him, or you march over there and finish the job he paid you to do and that you should have done the first time.”

Duty. Honor. Country.

My Dad wasn’t the richest guy in the world but he always had a good job that more than took care of our needs, and he lived the work ethic that he preached both around the house and on the job. He wasn’t the smartest guy in the world but he could figure out more ways to jury-rig and repair things than anybody I’ve ever met (and being an accountant and a computer programmer, he wasn’t exactly lacking in intellect, either). But he was never about stature…he was never about living in the biggest house on the block…he was never about ostentatious displays of anything. Because none of those had anything to do with what was really important in life: Duty. Honor. Country.

And he never stopped inculcating and teaching those simple truths. The last words my Dad ever spoke to me? In our last conversation right before he died, I sensed he was getting weary and it was time to say good-bye for what I knew in my heart would be the final time. So, with wavering voice and tear-filled eyes I thanked him for having instilled in me love of God, love of family, and love of country. And the old war horse gathered all the energy left in his frail, 87 year old body, and in a raspy but resolute voice said “Son, we live in the greatest country God ever created; He is still in control and he always will be and don’t you ever forget it.”

Duty. Honor. Country.

Yet it wasn’t until this weekend that I realized the depth and breadth of the lives that Dad touched. But as I watched the unending stream of people, young and old, who for two hours came to pay their last respects to him on Sunday night, I realized just how much Dad truly lived his values. The mother of an autistic 18 year old who told me that Dad always took the time to talk to him and to teach him how to look a man in the eye and shake his hand…who touched Dad’s lifeless hand and looked up at his mother and said “He’s with Jesus now, right?” The niece that drove over 200 miles to pay her last respects who recounted all the times that mom & dad helped her while she was in college and how they visited her father continually even when he had Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease. A man whom I had never met or known, who walked up to me at the end of Dad’s funeral, and with eyes brimming with tears, shook my hand, introduced himself and said “your father was the most honorable and decent man I’ve ever met. It was a privilege to be able to call him my friend, and an unspeakable honor for him to call me friend.”

Dad would’ve wondered what all the bother was about. After all, he was just giving back to God all that God had given to him. You know, Duty…Honor…Country; the simple, humble belief that the world was about much more than just your own wants and needs; the belief that the most important things in life can’t be measured by the numbers in your bank account or the square footage of your house; the belief in a cause greater than oneself, a belief that motivated patriotic Americans to drop their pitchforks, grab their muskets and head for Lexington and Concord; that drove them up the cliffs of Omaha Beach in the face of whithering fire; that cause millions of men and women today to pledge their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to battle the forces that would wrest away from their children and grandchildren the greatest country God ever created. A heart that yearned to someday hear the words of his Lord say “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; come and enter the kingdom I have prepared for you.”

And so unfolds the final scene of this humble hero’s life: The lone bugler…the mournful strains of Taps wafting over his gravesite…the corporal and Master Sergeant folding the flag he loved so much perfectly, expertly, crisply, 13 times. The sergeant kneeling before my mom…looking into her eyes and quietly, softly saying “Ma’am, on behalf of a grateful nation, and with gratitude for your husband’s faithful service to it, I present to you this flag.” My mom clutching that symbol of all that Dad held near and dear to his heart, next to hers. That final, perfect, crisp salute to my mom as the master sergeant rose from his knees.

And as I looked from my mother to those gathered to pay the last respects, I saw the tear-filled eyes of 12 grandchildren to whom Dad resolutely and endlessly preached the same vision I heard so many times: Duty. Honor. Country. Because, after all, freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction, and that wasn’t going to happen on Dad’s watch. No way. No how.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Mission Accomplished

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