The story I’m about to tell is part fact, part fiction. Much is derived from my Grandfather’s story of his time in the military during WWII, but some is artistic embellishment. Some of you may recall from this post that my grandparents actually married as he was headed off to war. Parts of these are from actual stories he shared with us, but most of it is fiction.
Rock Island National Cemetery
“Hey dad! Where ya goin’?” Kevin raced to the black Cadillac. He turned to face his son, leaving the keys dangling in the door. “The party’s gonna start soon.”
Adam reached down and ruffled his son’s blond hair. “I’m going to visit with an old friend for a while. I’ll be back.”
“Can I come?” His carbon copy hopped from foot to foot with the unbridled energy only a ten year old possessed.
He stared out at the festively decorated street for a moment as he debated his answer. Was Kevin old enough to understand? To appreciate? He turned the key in the heavy metal door and yanked it open. With a shrug he decided there was no time like the present.
“Get in, kid.” With a sweep of his arm, he gestured for him to slide across the bench seats to the passenger side.
“Yes!” Kevin’s small fist punched the air in excitement.
Adam called out to his wife through the screened front walk up. “Elise, I’m taking Kev with me, okay?”
Her voice came through the front door. “See you boys soon. Don’t stay out too long. Company will be here soon and I’ll need your help on the grill.”
He reassured her quickly, got into the car, and backed out of the driveway. As they drove down the road, he half-heartedly listened to Kevin chatter about the parade, the cook out, and his excitement at nearing the end of the school year. The rest of him prayed he’d find the right words to share with his son.
As he turned the car into the drive, past the large stone walls and open wrought iron gate, he felt his son’s eyes go from the letters on the wall to his face. “Hey, dad.”
“Yes, son?” He glanced over at his son. For once, the boy was still, his blue eyes, solemn.
“That sign said Rock Island National Cemetery.” He paused, his small fingers pulling nervously at the edges of his denim shorts. “Are your friends meeting us here?”
He parked the car and motioned for his son to get out. “You could say that.”
Adam stepped from the vehicle and walked around to the passenger side where his son stood waiting. He slung an arm around the boy’s shoulder and guided the way down the familiar path. It was time.
“Kevin, do you remember when I told you that I used to be in the Navy?” He slowed his gait as they walked through the grassy areas and wove their way around tombstones.
His son nodded.
“Your mom and I had just gotten married when I was called away to war. You and your sisters weren’t even born yet.” He smiled down at his boy. “In fact, your mom found out she was pregnant with Katie while I was on a ship heading to Europe. Of course, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that Hitler was trying to take over the world and it was my turn to fight. It was my duty to help keep our world safe.”
He swallowed hard. “There were a lot of guys just like me on that ship. Young. Excited. Wanting to make a difference in the world. But we were also a little bit scared. I mean, it was war. People could die in war. Not that we really thought it could happen to us.”
He stopped in front of a tombstone, placed his hand gently against the white, worn marker and closed his eyes for a moment. “Hey Charlie, I brought some company today. This is my kid, Kevin. I wanted him to meet you.”
He watched as his son stepped forward and traced the name carved into the hard marble, blue eyes squinting with focus and curiosity. “Charlie was one of my first friends on our ship. When we found out we grew up a few miles apart, we became best buds. One day, we were put on duty to clean the hull of our ship. We were scraping away when my stomach began to bother me. Charlie sent me back up to go lie down until I felt better. He said he’d finish everything off. I’d just headed for my room when we came under fire. I ran as fast as I could to see what happened. A missile had hit our ship right where I’d been just minutes before. Charlie didn’t stand a chance. It could just as easily have been me.”
His son wrapped his arms around him, and he squeezed back, running a hand through his son’s blond hair. “Two times while I was at war I almost died. That was the first time. I guess God was sending me a message to let me know he wasn’t ready for me yet. But in the meantime, I come here every Memorial day to hang out with my friend. To make sure he’s remembered. To tell him thank you for saving my life, even though he had no idea at the time. I pay my respects, then come home to enjoy your mother’s parties and count each and every one of you as my blessings.”
Kevin took a deep breath; the long ago conversation with his dad feeling like yesterday, rather than 40. He watched as the honor guard folded his father’s flag while a lone trumpet played “Taps” in the background. As the soldier marched toward him and presented him with the cloth triangle of red, white, and blue, he accepted, holding it close to his chest. Sixty years later, his dad would be reunited with his friend.
“Charlie.” His smile was bittersweet. “Wherever you are; thanks for giving me this time with my dad. Hope you guys are enjoying a beer together in person. I know he was looking forward to seeing you again.”