I had a friend tell me once that no one does Memorial Day like a small town. I don’t know if that’s true since I've never attended a Memorial Day ceremony in Minneapolis or New York. My guess is that they don’t have a member of the Legion read the names of all the deceased veterans, going back to the Civil War.
But they do here.
It’s an emotional event every year, but this year I was more emotional than usual. My father received a plaque and certificate for 75 years of membership in the American Legion.
That’s kind of a big deal. Roughly 16 million Americans served in the armed forces in WWII, and today about 100,000 are still living.
And of that 100,000, there’s only one who is my father.
Time flies. It really does. When I think of the changes in my life, I’m often dumbfounded, but then I consider my father, who was born in 1926. He enlisted in the Army when he was seventeen and left for training as soon as he turned eighteen. Not long ago, we came across his enlistment papers in which he listed his skills and talents. He wrote that, among other things, he could handle a six-horse team. He might have been stretching the truth a little, because I don’t think our farm was ever prosperous enough to allow for a six-horse team. If he could, that’s a real skill, and I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that he capably began driving a semi-truck when he was 75, or that during the last ten years of my farming career, he ran my Cat Challenger with a computer and radar.
He went to Europe on a troop ship, landed at Le Havre where there was nothing except rubble and a straight-line road cleared by a bulldozer plowing through the shell craters. He ended up stationed near Dachau, after the prisoners had been released and their place behind barbed wire taken by SS troops. While on leave, he attended the Nuremburg trials, and somewhere in the house there’s a photo of him in a rowboat on Lake Geneva – both of which might be called growth experiences.
When he was discharged, my father caught a troop ship from Bremerhaven and took the train home from the east coast. At the stop in Chicago, a neighbor climbed aboard. Bud Haukos, a Marine, was also on his way home and they rode the train together. No one met them at the station in Ortonville, so they slept on benches until the next morning, when, after chores were done, my grandfather showed up and gave them both rides to their homes. A year of Vet’s Ag classes at the University of Minnesota Farm Campus, a lifetime of farming, and a marriage of over 70 years brought him to the front row of the Memorial Day celebration in my hometown.
The Legion Commander had a nice speech prepared, but became too emotional to say the words out loud, which in a way was even more touching. The habits of a year of pandemic isolation led to no one noticing the flagpole at the cemetery had a broken link, but the weather was perfect, and the honor guards’ rifles all fired on command, so I’m calling the event a clear win.
It’s a lot to think about. Sixteen million dwindling to 100,000. My father has ledan active and involved life for nearly 95 years, yet I can think of no one, literally no one, who bears him ill will. Endurance, commitment, achievement, acceptance - there’s a lot that goes into a day like today.
Most of our clan gathered for the celebration. A motley baker’s dozen, an assortment of ages, sexes, occupations, and races. We served a meal for everyone Sunday night, and the plan was to go our separate ways after the ceremony. In the end, everyone stuck around, we put together a pretty good meal on zero notice, and whiled away the afternoon with multiple four-wheeler expeditions, canoeing, and some yard games.
Life is good and that’s always a blessing. It’s not always an accident.
Copyright 2021 Brent Olson