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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Wounded Warrior: A Day of Grace in Southern Illinois

This week drew a contrast between life in America, both equally inspiring, yet diverse in presentation.  After a thrilling and most satisfying trip to New York City, filled with the bustle of life, drama and sensory elation...I found myself making the drive to Fairfield, Illinois, my home town, returning to my roots and humble beginnings.

My uncle Ralph, another of the great generation, passed away while I was in New York.  I was able to make the drive early the morning after my return to his funeral.  Proceeded by my father and three uncles in death, Ralph was part of a generation of Americans who left the farms of Southern Illinois and helped to defeat it's generations evils on the battlefields of Europe and Asia and returned home to build the America that increasingly we tend to forget.

As I grew up I always thought of my uncle Ralph as a scary man.  Married to one of my father's sisters, Aunt Toots, he was dark and mysterious.  It wasn't until his declining years that he finally opened up to me and allowed me to see his soul's scars, the kind that only horrific battle can produce, which opened my eyes to why this man was who he was in 2010.

Ralph, of all my family who served in WWII, was the least vocal of his time in service, yet was the most decorated and battle hardened veteran of the bunch.  You see, Ralph was an Army Ranger, the elite special forces of the day, who immediately enlisted the Monday after Pearl Harbor, and found himself in every major landing and battle from North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Europe from 1942 to 1945.  My uncle Ralph saw, and made, killing an everyday occurrence.  On June 6, 1944, Ralph was one of the 225 Army Rangers who stormed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, which they assaulted in support of the Omaha Beach landings, more recently made famous by the movie Saving Private Ryan.  He was also one of the 90 left standing once relieved.

Stretched out in his coffin, with the folded flag of a soldier and his 30 plus medals that he never showed anyone until the year before his death, family and friends gathered in a small wooden chapel to say their goodbye's to the the empty body that once contained this wounded warrior.  I searched the room as ancient faces from my past reminded me of my own humble beginnings.  The part time pastor, and full time farmer, dressed in blue jean overalls, white oxford shirt and a thin black tie, delivered a simple, humble and loving eulogy.  His peaceful presence covered the grief in the room like a soothing balm on sunburned skin.  Death, always Ralph's closest companion, finally freed him of his self-inflicted prison.  

The procession made the nine mile journey from the Chapel at Wayne City, passed Simms, where my family took roots in the early 1800's and finally to the burial ground at Fairfield.  During that silent trip, wind caressing me like a mother's embrace, I was reminded of my particular brand of America.  Every car, truck, semi pulled over in respect.  As we passed the farmers in their fields, busy harvesting corn, they stopped their tractors and stood erect with their hats over their hearts in respect.  I was moved to tears as I remembered my roots and why I am who I am today.

Finally, as we arrived at the cemetery, I sat down at the grave site, my seat nearly on top of the grave that holds my mother and father, with my Uncle Oran (92), my Aunt Toots (85) and my Aunt Short (81), the last of my father's clan.  The honor guard rifles pierced the silence and made my aunt's shudder with their violence.  The men remained stoic as men from Southern Illinois do so well.  It took the sound of the bugle playing taps to melt the hearts of the old warriors, reducing them to crying babies as their souls were cleansed with their own tears.

Grace came down and replaced Death that sunny Wednesday afternoon in Southern Illinois.

Sir Hook, who after Oran is next in line, of Warrick  


  1. I've been out of town without access to a computer, and this is the first blog I've read. You told the story beautifully. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Peace be with you and your family.

    Sir Bowie of Greenbriar