Memorial Day

My great grandfather, Matthew O’Brien, fought in the Civil War. We aren’t exactly sure when he came over from Ireland, but we know he was in Watertown, New York before he made his way to Illinois. When war came, he enlisted in Henderson Township and went off to fight. He survived, and one of our family heirlooms is a presentation sword given to someone in his unit.

My grandfather fought in WWI. I don’t know what he did, he was a lawyer, and he also made it back alive, to get married and father 2 sons. He used his military service to help get elected to the state legislature after the war – we have cards with his photo that say “The Only World War Veteran Seeking Public Office in Knox County”.

Last year, my uncle told me that on December 7, 1941, he came home to find my father lying on the couch, clutching Matthew’s civil war sword. My father told his brother, “I’m going to war”.

Dad fought in France and Germany. My grandmother saved his letters and there is a particularly poignant one, written one holiday season, that tells her he has a Christmas tree, too – he is sleeping under the brush they have cut down to help keep them warm. When I was growing up, my Dad didn’t talk much about his army experience, although we all heard how the guy next to him in a foxhole caught some shrapnel that took a fist sized hole out of him, killing him instantly. Every July 4th, the whole family went to the country club to watch the fireworks set off on the shore of the lake, from the first of the rockets to the dazzling American flag that was the finale. Dad didn’t watch the fireworks. He was always in the Club House drinking. We all kind of knew that the noise bothered him, but we didn’t think too much of it. Dad always kept a serrated German knife in a scabbard under the mattress on his side of the bed. We weren’t supposed to touch it, but of course, we did, pulling it out, flailing it around, calling it our “head-chopping sword”. I think my brother still has that knife.

Dad kept some scrapbooks of his service days, but they were full of black and white square photos of men in uniform, and they all looked the same. I don’t think I paid much attention to them when I was little. But I did get into his bureau drawer containing his military stuff and sometimes snitch some of those pretty rectangular pins covered with grosgrain ribbon – I thought they looked cute on my mini-dresses. I also borrowed his olive drab webbing ammo belt to wear. I was pretty fashion forward and pretty ignorant. After Dad died, I used to wear a huge silver ring with a griffon crest on it, from that drawer – I was into mystical creatures. Years later I realized it was a Nazi souvenir, and I shudder to think how he came by it. I shudder to think how blithely I wore it.

In high school I got radicalized by the Christian Brothers who taught us along with the nuns. I was very anti Viet-Nam. I marched in my home town. I protested, I signed petitions. I marched into a cathedral in St. Louis to interrupt a Mass, protesting along with a group of people who included my friend David Darst. David was a Christian Brother who was serious about his opposition to the war. He sent his draft card back to the government and got visited by the FBI. He was part of the Catonsville Nine, a group who broke into a recruiting center in Maryland, stole a bunch or draft records, poured a napalm like substance on them and torched them. The nine went on trial and David was convicted along with his cohorts. In 1969, before he could serve his prison term he died in a car accident in Nebraska. I was in college at the time, and I couldn’t make it to the funeral. A few days after his death, I received a last letter from David. It was not one of his usual chipper and positive letters – he was worrying about the future, but still adamant that civil disobedience was the only way he could protest an unjust war. David was 28 when he died.

Years later in Boise, I helped excavate the grave of a Civil War soldier. On a survey of some land that had a lot of left over, unexploded ordinance from the late 1800s and early 1900s, surveyors found a grave. It was an emergency excavation – we were down there in the evening, with bright lights hooked up to truck batteries, while we picked splinters of coffin away from the bones of some unknown soldier.

The carpenter at the Museum I worked at built a wood coffin for the remains of this soldier, and on Memorial Day there was a ceremony and burial at the local military cemetery. Re-enactors came in uniform, and bagpipers piped some haunting, wailing tune, as we followed the coffin up a dirt track through a bunch of weeds to an old burial ground. The service and prayers were old ones commonly used for veterans in the last century. We never found out who the unknown soldier was, but we re-interred him with respect.

On Memorial Day I do think of all the people who have fought, one way or another, for our country. I have stood on the grounds of Verdun overwhelmed by the acres of white crosses. I have cleaned and curated Civil War amputating sets, and swords. I have labeled and carefully packed away plenty of uniforms, guns, swords, ammunition and gear worn and saved by soldiers who held on to them – from the Revolutionary War to Viet Nam. On Memorial Day, I think of all the people who gave up their future so that I could have one. One day of remembrance isn’t enough.

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