There are two places I go whenever I want to spend a holiday with my father – Panel 9 East Line 71 of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D. C, or the headstone near the shade tree under the flagpole at Andrew Johnson’s National Cemetery in Greeneville, Tennessee.
The marble headstone was replaced with a new one this past year. Maintenance crews with lawn mowers had accidently nicked the one that was first erected in 1966. They were supposed to save me a chunk of that old headstone. I’d asked them to save Dad’s name, if they could, please.
“Yes, ma’am, we did,” said the National Park employee. “We had it here in the shop for a good while but when you didn’t come, we must have tossed it out. I’m real sorry.”
Since I live in Oregon getting to my father’s gravesite is no easy task. Usually I fly into Atlanta or Nashville, get a rental car, and make the long drive alone. I drive east on Highway 11 right past the clapboard house on the hill there in Mosheim where Daddy’s best buddy Dale and his wife Ruby lived. There used to be a big garden out back where Dale tended tomatoes and cukes. The swimming pool is drained now and crumbled in on one side.
I swam a good bit in that pool the summer Daddy died. Dale and Ruby took me and Brother John up to the house to stay with them so Mama could tend to the business of burying our father. Daddy’s body wouldn’t arrive in Knoxville until another 10 days the Army letter said. Vietnam is a long ways off from East Tennessee.
Dale is dead now, too, but Ruby still has the heads of all the deer Dale killed on their frequent forays to Montana. My father would have turned 80 this month had he not been struck with shrapnel one foggy morning in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands.
I can’t fathom my father as an old man, slow of step or thought. He was always so quick-witted, strong in mind, spirit and polished boots. Had he lived, I imagine Daddy would have joined Dale on those hunting trips to Montana. The two had been sidekicks throughout their boyhood days. They’d done their level best to fish out the Holston and French Broad Rivers. Hunting and fishing was more than just sport for the two of them – it was a way to fill their bellies in those days when the only thing more scarce than enough food was a regular paycheck.
Daddy ate his soup beans on a plate, with sliced tomatoes and fired potatoes on the side and a hunk of Mama’s cornbread. He drank coffee all the live-long day from a tin pot Mama kept percolating on the back eye of the stove, so it wouldn’t accidentally spill on any of us kids. On occasion Mama would make banana puddings with a swirly meringue she’d whipped up from egg whites and sugar. Daddy loved Mama’s pudding.
Before every meal, Daddy would bow his head and ask God to bless the food, and whenever he or Mama tucked us into bed at night, we would say the Lord’s Prayer. My father’s death would evoke many other sorts of prayers from a whole host of people over the years. People who still recall his easy laughter and the steadfast way in which he cared about others.
It was Jesus who said, No greater love has any man than he who lays down his life for a friend. Is there anything that speaks more clearly to that than rows of marble-white tombstones like the ones found at Arlington National Cemetery, at Andrew Johnson’s Cemetery, indeed at national cemeteries all across this land?
Including the one in Houston, Texas where the park director tried to ban the Reverend Scott Rainey, the preacher at Living Word Church of the Nazarene, from giving the invocation on this Memorial Day.
Park Director Arleen Ocasio, who’d asked to see the Rev. Rainey’s speech in advance, was put out that the good Reverend’s remarks didn’t “commemorate veterans from all cultures and religious beliefs.”
In other words, using the name of Jesus, as Rainey has done at past Memorial Day services he’s conducted, might offend somebody. Ocasio told Rainey if he didn’t make the prayer more universal, he would not be allowed to deliver the Memorial Day remarks. Rainey responded with a lawsuit.
Thank Jesus Christ and the mother who bore him, somebody had some common sense. Judge Lynn Hughes ruled that Ocasio’s attempts at censorship and religious discrimination violated Rev. Rainey’s First Amendment rights. The very sort of freedoms men like my father died fighting to preserve.
Rev. Rainey will be praying to Jesus when the faithful gather for the Memorial Day services at Houston’s National Cemetery on Monday to commemorate our nation’s fallen.
Director Ocasio has the right to pray to Jesus or any other being she so chooses. Or not to pray at all. I just hope she takes a moment to thank all those men and women laying beneath those marble slabs for earning her that right.
And for the families who love and miss them still.
This article published on May 27, 2011.