Monday, May 28, 2012

No flag, no ‘Taps’ for this casualty of war

 Patriotism – where do we get it?

I don’t remember the day mine was born, but I certainly recall where I found it. It was on a wall with faded flowered wallpaper at the foot of a bed in a tiny room in a West Central Illinois farmhouse. There my grandmother had a framed print of the Pledge of Allegiance, the words bordered with American flags. 
Hanging on the wall around the pledge were six photos – three young pilots, two sailors and, at the bottom left, a sepia-toned photo of a young high school senior, dapper in his suit and tie, hair neatly parted in the middle.

Out of those six young men – my dad and his brothers, four of whom were World War II vets and one who served during the Korean War – it was the one who didn’t serve a day in a military uniform who became the only casualty of war from this brood.

In the fall of 1943, my Uncle Lawrence was next in line to join my dad and their three older brothers serving our country.

As time for harvest approached, my Grandpa Tracy needed help in the fields, but his youngest son, barely a teen, wasn’t quite old enough to do a man’s work. So, Lawrence, the 18-year-old, was to wait to follow in his older brothers’ footsteps until the harvest was done. 

One fall day, as Grandpa and Lawrence were picking corn, a stalk got caught in the picker. Nearly 70 years later, I can only imagine how exactly it happened, but I’m guessing Grandpa or Lawrence stopped the tractor, and the teen jumped down and sprinted around to the picker, energetic and enthusiastic as he was.

When he reached in to unwedge the stalk, the moving parts of the farm equipment grabbed the cloth of my uncle’s long-sleeved shirt, pulling his arm in.

I never heard the story of how his arm was freed. I suspect my grandfather was the hero that day, separating man from machine.

What I do know is that, within days in that time before life-saving antibiotics, the enemy that took my uncle’s life wasn’t the Germans or the Japanese. It was gangrene. 

My dad and his brothers came home from the corners of the globe where they were stationed. They spent Lawrence’s last days with him, and newspaper accounts of his death report that, clown that he was, the young uncle I never met but always loved spent his final days cracking jokes and cheering those who maintained a bedside vigil. 

My dad was in the midst of a flight school at the time. When he returned to his base after the funeral, he was placed with the next class of cadets, but as the war wound down, my dad and his new class didn't get to serve an overseas mission.

We’ll never know if my young uncle’s untimely death may have kept my dad or another of his brothers from becoming a casualty of war in a conflict across the sea. 

I do know one thing, though. Today, when I see an American flag, say the pledge, or think of Memorial Day, I reflect upon the sacrifices made in the name of freedom and I am transported back to that tiny bedroom, those words and six portraits at the foot of a bed.

As I think of the young uncle I never got to know – serving his country in America’s heartland in bib overalls before swapping them for wings or a sailor’s cap – I reflect upon how no one presented my grandmother with a flag and no bugler played “Taps” when her son Lawrence died.

Today, though, as he’s been since I first gazed upon that wall and heard his story, my uncle, an unlikely casualty of war, will always be my American hero.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2012   

(Image via)