Senior Adult Orphan Reporting Sir!

Adult orphan, senior orphan, next in line to die…these are some phrases and ideas I have run across the past few months that resonated or at least tickled my fancy enough to prompt some thoughts. First, I apologize to actual orphans that never had the support of your biological parents from a young age…I hope you found some love and support at some point in your life.

Second, this rumination started from seeing others in the family dealing with the passing of their parents and loved ones and me wanting to offer some hope that it gets better.  I had thoughts on being, at least theoretically, the next one in my family to be in line to die…but as usual I meandered into a stream of consciousness over dealing with the death of parents, coping and getting through it all.  This message has sat for several months with me wondering if I even wanted to publish it, as I am by no means a therapist or sage, and cannot even begin to imagine ever going to a therapist being as independent and bull-headed as I am.  So, please think of this as entertainment with a smattering of hope if you are a member of the Dead Parents Club.

Senior Adult Orphan Reporting Sir!

My mother passed away in 2004, dad following her 2 years later in 2006.  It seems to be the time in my life where friends, cousins and acquaintances all start working through the process of dealing with the loss of their own parents.

I have had some time to process my parent’s deaths over the last fifteen years, but memories still flood back all the time.  I think you continue working things out until you give up the ghost yourself.

People that still have their parents may believe they understand the loss of a parent, but they really have no way to personally understand until it happens. They may offer you their sympathies and kindnesses for a few weeks or months, but after more time goes by they seem to just want you to get over it, which I think is human nature and I can’t blame them.

But you won’t get over it.  Your parents are the ones that gave you life, your name, sustenance, really everything you needed until you developed into an individual that can exist on your own.

Initially, you are consumed with dealing with the mechanics of their deaths, especially after the last one passes and you have to deal with settling their estate (estate seems too grandiose a word for what my parents had remaining at the end of their lives). Things like selling the home you may have lived in all of your life, the months or even years dealing with lawyers, insurance companies and settling medical bills.

After the initial shock of their deaths, all of this bureaucratic stuff steals time away from the thoughts of your parents, yet the thoughts still manage to sneak through when you have a spare minute, or when prompted by a scene in a movie or even just a stupid Barry Manilow song (mom loved Barry). They come to you in your dreams, some dreams reassuring you everything is well, some leaving you wishing you had just another moment or two with them.

I hope you don’t have any unresolved issues that needed to be cleared up before they pass away, that has to make it even more difficult.  I think I was in a pretty good place… I just want more info about specific points and places in time as documenting family history has become more important to me.

After a while, perhaps years, the sadness of their loss gradually loses its sharp edge and dulls a bit. But it always remains present, easily set off by the emotional booby traps of long standing family habits, rituals and certain words used by the family that have been there for a lifetime.

No matter how independent you are, and again, I am independent with a capitol “I”, the loss of the home you grew up in and all the “stuff” that surrounded you, stuff that felt like it was always there and filled with the memories they evoke, unanswered questions, not having them there for the milestones of your own family, all add to the chipping away of the solidity of your life and begin creating an enduring sense of loss. One at a time, maybe not such a big deal, but over time they just keep accumulating.

Unless you have been very unfortunate, your parents could always be counted on to be in your corner no matter what. I distinctly remember my mother telling me (many times) when I was a little feller and had gotten into trouble over something not even important enough to recall, “I will always be your mother and I will love you no matter what”. I think this is what she typically said after she busted my butt for some transgression. Dad’s wisdom was “if you wind up in jail, don’t call me to bail you out, but you’re still my son”.

Now, mom may have deemed it necessary to beat you within an inch of your life at the time but she still loved you and supported you no matter what…to give you a few bucks to help you pay rent. To send a box of food from home on a holiday when you are thousands of miles away. To give you a place to stay to get back on your feet and so many other things.

The list becomes endless over the years, but most of all, they were that lifeline to talk you in off the ledge when life seemed hopeless, or to be your biggest cheerleader to listen at the moments you feel most proud of your accomplishments.  You knew they would be as proud or even prouder than you are. Then all of a sudden your cheerleaders have suddenly left the game…and are not coming back. You wonder who will ever care as much as they did. And the honest truth is, probably no one.

Now, when I was young I thought I was a being a good son to call home once a month, not counting holidays, so it was not unusual to build up a list of stuff to talk to mom about, and check the weather back in Ohio so I had something to talk to dad about…he was not a big conversationalist until he got older. So when they first died I can’t even count the number of times I would think “I need to call mom and dad to tell them…” and remember half way through my thought that they were not there to call anymore. That is a very lonely feeling.

The void that is created when they die is like a massive black hole…emotions and feelings get sucked right in and you can feel alone even with all your family, friends and loved ones still around you. It feels like nothing you do matters much anymore, that the forces that have always mattered the most and served as your compass through life are gone.

The compass needle starts swinging wildly (can’t help the compass metaphors, I was an Eagle Scout, Cavalry Scout, mountaineer and sailor, I like knowing where I am!). You aren’t sure if North still points North and even if it does, what direction should I go now?

It gradually dawned on me that “I have become the senior adult orphan of 5 other adult orphans.” I am the next one “in line” to die in my family if the rules of life were fair. They aren’t fair of course, and I actually hope that I am the next one up and that myself and all of my brothers and sisters have long and happy lives.

That is how life should play out.  I’m really not one to get lost too deeply in an existential crisis, and the irony of my choice to write all this is not lost, I just hope to show that I stared this situation in the eye for a while and managed to climb over it as we all must, and do eventually. Your needs and your path will differ from mine, but it is a path we must all travel. Your route and mileage may vary.

At some point you have to do what every child has always had to do…go on living.  You think back to how your parents reacted when their parents died (although I never knew my mother’s mom) and what they did.  So you go on being the wise one for your children, giving meaning to your life by providing and sharing things that are important to you.

I do know that when your parents die you become part of “the club”. It’s not a club you want to be a part of, but eventually you will. It’s a club where you hopefully try to take care of the other club members a little more, even though your own loss, at times, can be as painful as it ever was. It’s a club where when a conversation comes up concerning parents passing away, members cast a knowing glance to other members without a need to explain.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to not let myself forget the stories that are important to me as well as to prompt other family to create their own stories. As the years pass it becomes harder to recall all the memories of them. The stories begin to fade a little more every year.

I scour the internet looking for stories, documents and connections to previous family members that all have stories to continue telling  I don’t want them to be forgotten, and I want to create new stories, a record, that can be passed down so grand children don’t have to wonder what tragedy and suffering as well as joy great great grandmaw experienced building her big family.

I want future family to know that great grandad didn’t just serve his country from this year to that year…that there are many stories showing he was tough and brave, a hero in every sense of the word, not only the school bus driver and janitor that some know him as.

Hopefully you can get to the point, as I feel I have, where you can remember the good stuff and laugh at the bad stuff.  Maybe you’ll write stories like I do, where you see holidays, birthdays or other milestones as a chance to remember and celebrate their part in your life. Or maybe you’ll be able to sit around with your friends and family telling the stories, laughing about how crazy it used to be without the stabs of pain.

I take after my father in the sense of being the strong, tough, silent, self-reliant type, not the kind of guy that plasters good thoughts of the day all over Facebook.  But I am rather sentimental.  I try to bring meaning by helping my friends and family when they need it or when they can just use a hand. By sharing the things I have found value in, whether it is discovering family stories, building or making things, fostering adventure in the mountains, sailing or simply sharing a good bottle of whiskey.

I try by remembering and telling the stories of my family, if for no other reason than some person down the line may be like me, looking at names and wondering “who were those people, what were they like?”

While I am not ready to hand the reins over to the next-in-line senior orphan yet, I have seen and done things I could never imagine as a young boy growing up in a tiny mid-western town named West Carrollton. I’m not done yet, I hope I have a few more good chapters to write.  To quote Jimmy Buffet (there’s a Jimmy quote for everything), “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life all the way…” You do the same.

Coal Miner’s Son

Ronald Clayton Crider was born 85 years ago on the 21st of March, 1934, in the tiny coal town of Coxton, in Harlan County, Kentucky.  Hardly a town, Coxton is a Census Designated Place, or CDP.  As a CDP, it has no real legal status.  This means it isn’t really a town, but just a place that most of the residents agreed, at some point, to call the area they lived in. I don’t know how many people lived there in 1934, but there are only 258 today, so maybe it wasn’t too hard to agree on a name unless there was some family feuding going on.

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Out of the 540 Kentucky cities, towns and CDP’s, Coxton is rated 535 in per capita income, and 452 in population. Median income is $16,407. There will not be a quiz, just a bit of data to show this is a very small place that is one of many dying coal towns in Appalachia.  The only cultural feature noted in Coxton was the old post office, which is now closed.

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Small 3 bedroom home in Coxton that sold for $35,000 in 2018. 928 sq ft. Note the Basketball hoop.

In looking for notable births and deaths, the only person listed for Coxton is a guy named Wallace Clayton ”Wah Wah” Jones.  He was born in Harlan on July 14, 1926 and died July 27, 2014 at the age of 88.  He played for the University of Kentucky where he played varsity football, basketball, baseball and track. He was twice All-SEC in football, his coach, by the way, was Bear Bryant when he coached for UK. In basketball, he was a three time All-American and four time All-SEC. He led the Wildcats to 2 NCAA Championships, in 1948 and 1949.

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Wah Wah Jones when he played for UK Wildcats

Wallace Clayton Jones was also a member of the 1948 Olympic Gold medal winning team with coach Adolph Rupp’s “Fabulous Five”, the same 5 guys than ran the table at UK. During his four years at Kentucky, the basketball team had a combined record of 130-10 and won the SEC championship every year…Most believe him to be the greatest athlete to ever come out of UK. Now, I know that is something Uncle Ronnie would love to see repeated again today.

Yes, yes, I hear you, Harlan is not Coxton, but it is only four miles away and I’m telling the story, you knew I was going to sneak a little history in here. Harlan was the big city and during the heyday of coal mining, had a whole 4,000 people living there in the 30’s.  Today there are only around 1,600.

I know that was a long winded way to work in UK basketball and another guy named Clayton, a Clayton that to our family is much more famous and important than old Wah Wah. They both came from a tiny, out of the way place in the Appalachian mountains and both made their marks, one as an athlete and one as a family man that provided far more than just food for the table.

Uncle Ronnie was noted as being called Clayton in the 1940 census. Clayton must have been the favorite name for babies in the 30’s, like Jackson or Liam today. (Clayton was actually the 188th most favorite name back then…you knew I would look it up). The family was living in Harlan/Brookside, another small camp town a bit further east of Coxton.

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1940 Census of the Boy and Mary Crider household

His father Bony, (I don’t know why he went by Bony when he had such a cool name like Carlos Bonaparte Crider, but that’s another tale), is noted as working as a miner and made a whole $600 in 1939 working in the mine. I’ll guess it all went back into the pocket of the mining company that provided their home to rent and the camp store to buy groceries and other necessities so you pretty much just borrowed the mine company’s money and gave it right back.

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As a little comparison, a neighbor, John Hayes, made $884 working as a gas station attendant.  Of course Bony only worked 35 weeks that year, while John worked all 52. I did the math for you; John made $17 a week and Bony made $17.14 a week.  How’s that for a big incentive for spending all day down in a dark, damp, explosive hole working on your black lung portfolio. Bony made it to 92 though, so there must be some good genes there.

Bony and Mary Crider’s family

In any case, the Crider’s of Harlan County were in no immediate danger of pushing the Rockefeller’s or Vanderbilt’s off the list of richest families in America back then. Back in those days, coal miners fought hard, bled and even died to unionize for better wages and safer working conditions.

An example of company owned housing This house rented for $6 a month
Example of company owned housing. This “house” rented for $6 a month.

Harlan County was known as “Bloody Harlan” for many years, with long, deadly strikes into the 70’s and even 80’s.  Today there are no union mines operating in Kentucky, the last one shut down in 2015 after 100 years of mine workers striving to make their lives better. Watch the movies Coal Miners Daughter, Matewan or Harlan County War to get an idea of what went on the in mining communities of the past. Or just ask Uncle Ronnie.

While Kentucky is beautiful, in looking at a future like that, it may be no surprise that the Crider’s, like many other families in Kentucky including mine, began migrating north to find better jobs and pay for a better way of life than coal and tobacco farming could offer.

Harlan union negotiations, early 1970’s

I remember Ronnie telling some stories about finding trouble in Frenchburg (Janice Profitt), but I don’t know exactly when he moved there, that’s a good question for Uncle Ronnie…he’s sitting right over there, go ahead, ask…and make a note for me. I know they were still in Harlan in 1947, as that is when his brother Charles was born.

Harlan 1940's
Harlan 1940’s

 

Downtown Harlan today.

I do know he married the love of his life, my wonderful Aunt Janice, whom he was married to for 62 years, in the mid-fifties. Then along came my Crider 1st cousins; Rhonda, Jeff, and Tonya.

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Young Janice and Ronnie

By 1959 Ronnie and Janice are listed in the Dayton Ohio phone directory with him working at Specialty Paper as a helper and living at 1033 Miami Chapel. Same with 1960, but they had moved to 1011 Miami Chapel, so they lived right next door to Janice’s mother and father at 1010 Miami Chapel.

A lot of my memories with the Crider’s are from when they lived on Orange Ave in Moraine. Almost every Saturday night was spent either there or over at Mamaw and Papaw’s house with the adults playing cards…I should say the men folk played cards. The women were only invited to the main table when the men folk were down a person.  They spent their time chatting, crocheting and trying to ignore their children for a few precious minutes.

I always think of Uncle Ronnie as the quiet uncle…unless he was in the middle of a card game or apparently when watching the UK Wildcats…I saw the Facebook video Uncle Ronnie. Then all bets were off and he was as loud as a wildcat himself.  I guess he had to be to be in order to be heard in the middle of the loud mouths of the Profitt’s, Benson’s and Little’s. I won’t even get into the Egelston’s. For the life of me I couldn’t understand what was so exciting about winning a hand of 500 rummy that would make the whole dining room erupt like the Browns won a Superbowl.

When he was hunting or fishing though, he was as quiet as a church mouse. He’d give you the stink eye if you happened to be hunting close to him and snapped a twig or rustled a leaf. The military should have done a scientific study on him before they came up with their stealth technology, they could have saved a lot of money.

Slayer of fish

There was always competition out hunting. It seemed like it was always some combination of dad, Ronnie, one of his brothers, Charles I think, Densil, Jeff and me. While everyone had their day from time to time, Ronnie set the bar, if nothing else by his sheer determination.  He just wasn’t going to come out of the woods or off the river if he knew someone had him beat.

I remember one time squirrel hunting with dad, Densil and Ronnie.  I had managed to get 3 out of one big hickory and Uncle Ronnie only had a couple. I was standing next to Densil at the bottom of a draw as it was getting late for finding squirrels, we went out before the break of dawn and waited for them to wake up and start feeding. It was getting towards mid-day and we were kind of done for the day.

Densil’s cracking jokes and instructing me in the manly arts when he looks up on a ridge and see’s Ronnie bent over in a squat, his shotgun at the ready in front of him. Densil points and says “look at that Ronnie up there, he knows you have him beat and he’s not going to quit until he at least gets one more.”

If you know Densil, you know what was next. He picks up some rocks and starts hucking them up towards Ronnie.  One hits high in a tree and dribbles down through the branches, like the sound a squirrel makes when he is “cutting”, or chewing bits of a nuts shell off. Ronnie jerks just his head towards the sound of the noise and freezes, scanning every square inch for signs of a squirrel.

Densil is cracking up, and hucks another rock in another direction. Ronnie swirls around and freezes, head moving slowly back and forth, scanning.  Densil is almost in tears, trying to be quiet, stifling his laugh but sounding like Muttley, the cartoon dog from the 60’s.  He hucks one more up the ridge and the jig is up, Ronnie’s too savvy a hunter to believe the same kind of noise is coming from 3 different directions. He looks down towards the bottom of the draw and spots us, pointing a finger at us like “I see you shit heads down there” and just gave up and headed down towards us.

He always wanted one more squirrel, rabbit, pheasant, channel cat, bass, red eye…whatever we were going after.  If he didn’t limit-out he simply felt like he wasn’t done yet. The thing to understand is that he wasn’t a sore loser or wished poor hunting on anyone else…he was just the Energizer Bunny of hunting and fishing and didn’t know how to quit.

Those are a few things that stood out and impressed me about Uncle Ronnie as a boy and young man.  The thing that most impresses me after just shy of 60 years of looking back on Ronnie and his gang of Criders is his quiet, unconditional love for his family.  The love for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is obvious and returned by them all.

I’m convinced he has the patience of Job just by remaining married to Aunt Janice for over 6 decades. After all, she had both Egelston AND Profitt in her just to start with. Add to that her own special blend of practical jokes and orneriness offset by her wonderful sense of humor and love for her family.

Beware, behind that smile is trouble.

Some of my very favorite moments are sitting around with Ronnie and the rest of the family telling stories about the good old days during my all too short trips back to Ohio. I love to watch him get animated in the middle of a good tale and get to laughing so hard he can barely finish.

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Story time!

Of all the uncles I was in fairly regular contact with, he was the quiet, gentle one. Now, that bar might be another one you could just step across with very little effort when Uncle Densil is cracking a bawdy joke or Uncle Bob is flexing his Hula Girl tattoo while revving his Harley, but I seldom heard him cuss and yell as much as my dad, a trained professional.

Janice and Ronnie
Mr. Rogers?

Now, I’m not saying he was an angel and didn’t have his moments like every father does.  If we were all running wild around the house or neighborhood and I heard a “Jeffery Keith Crider” I was running for cover to keep away from any collateral damage from a hide-tanning gone wild. In my family you ran and hid anytime you heard a full given name, even if it wasn’t yours.

Uncle Ronnie, you are a wonderful example of a man, husband, father and uncle. I hope if Kentucky is still in it today you have a big screen TV to watch during this interminable happy birthday tale. I hope to hear many more stories, Happy 85th!

 

 

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

I have the “We’re Related” app on my iPhone more for fun than anything else. It is an app that compares your family tree with other trees on Ancestry.com to come up with possible matches to famous people.

I say possible because to prove the connection you have to do the work in your tree and back down the other line to see if it is really true.  I’ve seen some folks take whatever the app says as gospel, probably due more to the novelty of being connected to a famous person than anything, but I have traced a number of them back and could not find the connection.

A new “connection” pops into the app every so often and I’ll take a look to see if it is one I might pursue a bit deeper. Since my family goes back hundreds of years in America, I’m not too surprised to learn I might be the 10th cousin, 3 times removed, of some notable politician or actor…but you still have to research to prove it.

A few days ago Judy Garland happened to pop up as a 7th cousin, 2x removed. “Hmmm”, I thought, “Judy Garland… might have to dig on this one”, remembering the many, many times that my mother told me Judy was my grandmother’s favorite singer and how Over the Rainbow was her favorite song of all times, which kind of made it her favorite song as well.

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Dorothy and Toto

 

“Over the Rainbow” was, of course, written for the movie “The Wizard of Oz”, with Judy in her starring role as Dorothy and became Garland’s signature song.  It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1939. It was entered in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as music that is “culturally, historically, or artistically significant”.

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The Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts ranked it number one on their Songs of the Century list and The American Film Institute named it best movie song on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs list, so it has an impeccable pedigree for being a favorite song.

A major part of the tale from my mother was that Betty Jane, my grandmother, strongly related and empathized with Judy and how she had struggled in her personal life from an early age. The pressures of early stardom affected her physical and mental health from the time she was a teenager.

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Into her adulthood, Judy was plagued by alcohol and substance abuse, as well as financial instability; she often owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. Her lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol ultimately led to her death in London from a barbiturate overdose at age 47.

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Judy latter in life

Betty Jane had a similar tale…she was born in 1908 and as a one or two year old infant was adopted from St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum in Columbus. She came to her adoptive parents Ada and Millard Brake very sick, with some kind of growth on her neck. Ada named her Bessie after her younger sister that had died at ten years old, but Bessie began using Betty later in life.

St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, Columbus Ohio

Bessie’s life was tough. Her parents ran a boarding house to try and make ends meet, with Milliard working as a stonemason at the time they adopted her. A few years later he was working for the railroad and fell underneath a moving railcar. Both of his legs were severed and he died from blood loss at the age of 41. Betty Jane was only 9 years old and they went to live with Ada’s 63 year old, widowed father, Albert Benedict.

Great Grandma Ada Brake

Married in 1926 at the age of 18 to Carl Clemans, she had Carlotta, her first child, at 19, followed by Gene in 1931 and my mother Ellen in 1934.

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Carlotta, Gene, Ellen, Betty, 1937

In 1929, the Great Crash of Wall Street happened, beginning the Great Depression that lasted 12 long years. Carl had been working as a clerk for the Smith Brothers Hardware Company, but as the Depression dragged on the family was back living with Ada in 1933, who ran a café, with Betty working the café and Carl working the companion gas station.

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Carl was back working for the same hardware store by 1935, but he and Betty were legally separated in 1940, Carl having moved out prior to that, according to mom because of Betty’s heavy drinking.

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Carl Clemans

In 1941, as WWII began, Betty had a fourth child, Shirley, with a married railway worker, Marvin Wickersham.  By all appearances, Marvin ignored the fact he had a daughter, concentrating on his existing family.  With Betty still drinking, my mother was the one that took care of Shirley while Betty worked as a clerk at the Columbus Motor Car Company.

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Ellen and Shirley in Columbus

The divorce with Carl was complete in 1942. Betty married again in 1950, to Wayne Rush. According to my mother he was a good, hard working man, but after years of drinking, Betty died in 1954, at the young age of 46, one year younger than her idol Judy Garland.

Betty and Wayne Rush with her children. Back row Gene, Betty, Wayne. Front row Shirley, Carlotta w son Mike and Ellen

As she died five years before I was born, I never knew my grandmother other than through the stories my mother told. I can surely see why Betty would have felt a deep connection to Judy Garland with their similar struggles in life.

So, I started digging, trying to see if the connection was more than just emotional. As it turns out, the familial connection is from my father’s side, going back four generations to Preston Proffitt’s wife, Martha Wright. Then back three generations of Wright’s to Thomas Wright’s wife Frances Moore, my 7thGreat Grandmother from Ireland.

Things are a little squishy records-wise after that point, but until I do some deeper digging I’ll stop there, as it makes a nice tale on this St. Patrick’s Day weekend to have an Irish Great Grandmother from the 1600’s connected by a song dreaming about a better life over the rainbow, to my grandmother in the 1900’s who never found her Leprechaun with a pot of gold at the other end.

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Betty Jane Rush

Brothers in Arms

I happened to channel surf past an episode of the PBS series “We’ll Meet Again” that is named “Korean War Brothers In Arms”.  This title caught my eye as I did a tour of duty up near the Korean DMZ and often think of my brothers in arms from that wild tour.

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Les on a Cobra crash recovery mission near the Korean DMZ 1979

I also happen to admin a Facebook Group dedicated to the small garrison where I was stationed in Korea, Camp Stanley.  This camp was in constant use from 1957 until it was closed for good November of 2017.

I ride herd over a couple of thousand soldiers representing 5 decades of service that have year-long hardship tours at that camp in common. They now reminisce together on a daily basis and find old buddies they haven’t talked to in years.  It is truly gratifying to see a couple of old soldiers take up where they left off, as only those that have shared hardship together can.

So, I decided to park the remote and see if there was anything interesting about the show to share with my buddies.

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Camp Stanley, Korea Group

I hadn’t seen or heard of the documentary series that describes itself like so:

We’ll Meet Again is a documentary series reported and executive produced by Ann Curry. Each episode introduces us to two people who were affected by momentous events in American history. We follow them on a journey of detection as they look for a long-lost friend, family member or significant stranger.

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I got a little more interested as I began understanding where the show was going…looking up long lost friends or others that had an impact on their life that they have lost contact with.

That played into another passion I have, which is family history and genealogy. I can’t get enough of shows like “Who Do You Think You Are”, “Finding Your Roots” and “Long Lost Family”.  I spend an inordinate amount of time researching my family’s history on various genealogy related sites and find our stories extremely fascinating.

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But that’s not what made me decide to put these words together.  One of the stories in the show reminded me of a similar situation concerning my father. The story on TV was about a man whose life had been heavily influenced by the heroic actions of two of his lieutenants during a period of heavy combat during the Korean War.

To briefly summarize the story, the young marine was from a very broken home whose mother was in the service and had left him several times, and he had never known his father.  Essentially an orphan, he joined the Marines to feel like he was a part of something bigger and to serve his country.

jo.pngHe was sent to war in Korea and on one particular occasion his artillery unit came under very heavy enemy artillery bombardment. All communications had been completely cut off.  This went on all day as part of a major Chinese offensive.

His unit, as well as many others, was in chaos and taking heavy losses. With no communications with HQ they were in danger of being routed…until these two lieutenants started making their way to each of his artillery unit’s gun positions, giving firing instructions and encouragement all around.

This young Marine was incredulous that these two officers were willingly placing their lives in extreme danger by moving from position to position, with no cover, and talking to each gun crew to calm them down and get them back in the fight. This is of course how the Marines want all their officers and NCOs to behave, but in real life the instinct to stay alive often keeps ordinary men hunkering down in their foxholes, which was the case for the young Marine.

That left such a huge impression on him as a young man that he never forgot it.  He determined to live his life with the example set by these two brave men that were dedicated to getting the mission accomplished and caring for their men, no matter the risk to themselves.  It affected him so deeply that after living most of his life, he wanted to reconnect with these men that had meant so much to him and let them know he viewed them as heroes and as examples to pattern his life. While he found both men to have passed on, he did eventually connect with their families to express to them how he felt about their loved ones.

It was at this point in the show that I remembered a phone call that occurred just after my father had passed away in 2006. I had flown back to Ohio for my father’s funeral and to help get the estate settled. One day we happened to be gathered around my parent’s dining room table, spread with insurance forms, bank account info, hospital bills and all the other various “important” paperwork from 80 years of life.

The phone rang and my sister Melody answered and chatted briefly trying to answer someone’s questions before waving me over and handing the phone to me and said it was someone that knew dad.  It turned out the call was from one of my father’s brothers in arms from Vietnam. He had served as a Platoon Leader, with my dad serving as his Platoon Sergeant.

They served together in Charlie Company, 1st Platoon, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment.  They were nicknamed the Jumping Mustangs as they were an airborne unit. As a reference, they were a sister unit to the 1/7th Cavalry Regiment depicted in the Movie “We were Soldiers” with Mel Gibson and went through identical training.  Both units traveled by ship together as the first divisional unit to arrive in Vietnam as the war heated up in 1965, the 1st Cavalry Division (Air Mobile) based at An Khé in the Central Highlands.

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Back in 1965 Vietnam, the man on the phone was a very green 2nd lieutenant, right out of college, that had suddenly been put in charge of leading 50 or so young infantrymen into combat.  A platoon’s leadership was typically a 1st or 2nd Lieutenant, the lowest of the officer ranks, known as the Platoon Leader, and a senior non-commissioned officer or NCO known as the Platoon Sergeant.

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Dad in Vietnam, 1965

The NCO’s always have much more experience than a butter-bar, a nickname given for the single gold bar denoting their rank. The senior NCOs, having spent years attaining their rank, had much more experience and had typically served in combat. The Platoon Sergeants ranks were usually Staff Sgt. (E-6), or Sgt. First Class (E-7).  There are then 4-6 Staff Sgt’s (E-6), or Sgt’s (E-5) that serve as Squad Leaders for teams of 8-10 men.

My dad was a career soldier with 20 years in the Army, having joined in 1943 and fought in terrible conditions against the Japanese in the Pacific theater in WWII, held the Yugoslavian General Tito’s communist aggression at bay in the Free Territory of Trieste just after WWII and held the line against Chinese and North Koreans on the 38th parallel during the Korean War.  Vietnam was to be his final war before he retired in 1966.

This lieutenant was calling, it turned out, because he had been thinking about dad and how, in his words, “he was a real old-school hard-ass, but SFC Profitt saved my dumb, green ass so many times over there”.

He just wanted to touch base to see how he was doing after all those years and shoot the shit. I could hear the sadness and loss in his voice after finding out dad had passed away only a few days before his call.

It was jarring that he would suddenly call after so much time had passed and dad had just died.  When I looked back at calendar dates though, it was a only a couple of weeks past the 40th anniversary of when they would have last seen each other in Vietnam.

So he may have just been reminiscing on the 40 year milestone or there may have been some unexplainable cosmic energy at work, or a TV show may have just tickled his memory, as it has mine. It certainly brought tears to my eyes to hear a total stranger speak of my father in such reverent terms.

Similar to the guy in the TV show, after his service he had just gone on living his life for decades, dealing with all the immediate needs that come up with work and family, as we all do.  But over time, and with age and experience, it became more important to reconnect with one of the more meaningful people in his life.

He reminisced how the tough old Airborne Ranger and veteran of multiple wars had taken a young kid (he was probably only 21-22, dad was 40) under his wing and showed him how the real Army worked and how to keep his men alive in combat.

He said it was frightening for him when dad’s 40 year old warrior knees finally got too torn up for him to go on field operations into the jungle and he had to get a less experienced Platoon Sgt. to take over.

But he said dad had trained him well, and he made it through OK.  I can’t remember all the details of the conversation as this was over 12 years ago. At the time I thought I could never forget, but I do remember hearing true respect and sadness in his voice.

A few months previously, after showing dad the videos I made of some of his Army service, including Vietnam, on Memorial Day that year, I remember him saying “Hell, you know more about what I did than I do”.  But that was after I had spent months digging through his old orders and records and researching tons of info in books and on the internet.

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Dad and I at the Moraine veteran memorial dedication May of 2006.  He passed away 2 months later.

I loved seeing the pride in his face as he watched the videos and added details he remembered to the stories, trying to put names to his men’s faces on the screen gave me immeasurable joy to be able to honor him that way.

I am at a point in my life where it has now been 40 years since last seeing my own brothers in arms, and can now easily empathize with how time has a way of peeling away layers of memory and leaving only the highlights…the people, places and points in time that get indelibly stamped into your memory.

I continued talking with the old soldier for a while longer and then gave him my contact information as I had a number of dad’s photos I wanted to share with him as well as the video that I had edited together from the photos.  He sounded excited about that and promised that he would dig through the back of his closet to see what pictures he still had.

Time passed, and I suspect with dad gone the urge to reconnect was dampened as the demands of life caught back up.  I have never heard from him again and, over time, I have lost, misplaced or simply can’t remember where I stashed his contact info, but the memory of that call is one of those memories stamped in my brain that I hope I never forget.