Monday, May 28, 2012

THE SADDEST TWENTY MILES

I know it's not western-y. But it's Memorial Day. Please take a minute to remember with me.

People say all small towns look the same. The old brick buildings guarding the streets

silently speak of the past, when they were new and full of life. The traffic light on Main Street measures the slow pace of life in increments of green, yellow and red. Most times, the Christmas decorations go up on the streetlights after Halloween and don’t come down until the first warm day of spring.

The flag at the courthouse is no odd sight; flags in small towns are common and patriotism runs high along with societal values. The speed limit is no more than 35, and everyone knows that. There’s no reason to rush, anyway.

My first clue that something was different about Madill that August day was the sign. On the very far northern edge of the “city” limits someone had placed a huge banner by the side of the two-lane highway. It stood unfurled between two wooden poles.

“A TRUE AMERICAN HERO,” the lettering read, and below that, “2ND LT. JOE CUNNINGHAM.” Red and blue magic marker starbursts filled the white void of the background around the letters, leaving no doubt that the banner had taken hours of loving, painstaking precision to create.

And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air…

The banner stood as the beginning of what was to be a somber twenty miles of driving for me that day. Only a few feet from where the banner had been placed, small roadside flags were planted in the parched Oklahoma soil. There had been no rain for weeks, and with our record-breaking number of triple-digit days, I could only imagine how hard it must have been to push those small, fragile twelve-inch sticks into the rock-hard ground at such measured intervals.


If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know Saturday mornings are the liveliest, busiest times of the week. Not so on this Saturday morning. As I topped the hill and the main part of town came into view, my heart skipped a beat. I had never seen such a profusion of color. Red, white and blue—everywhere. Flags flew from every porch, every small business, every conceivable place visible…and that could only mean one very tragic thing.

Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there…


I slowed down to twenty-five as tears blurred my eyes. A car pulled out in front of me a little further down the road, and I looked to my right. The side road had been blocked off. There were at least two hundred motorcycles parked beside the First Baptist Church. The Patriot Guard Riders had come to pay their respects—and to be certain that everyone else did, too, should a certain crazy group of fanatics from Kansas decide to make an appearance.

Across from the motorcycles, a huge, beautiful American flag was unfurled, the field of blue lending its stars to heaven, the stripes perpendicular to the ground. In front of that flag stood perhaps fifty lawmen of every type, a mix from both sides of the Red River, Texans and Oklahomans.

The parking lots for the businesses in the immediate area were full to overflowing, even though none of those businesses were open. Signs filled the windows under where the flags flew:

“CLOSED. BACK AT 1:00 P.M. REST IN PEACE, JOE.”

I stopped at the light on Main Street. The courthouse flag was, of course, flying at half-mast. There were no other cars on the road. The one that had pulled out in front of me earlier had turned off a block back, at the first available parking place, a long, half-mile hike away from the church. I was driving through a ghost town.

The signboard at the Grab & Go read, “OBAMA MAY BE PRESIDENT, BUT GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE.” Any other time, I might have smiled, but not with that small picket of flags that still sporadically lined the road, reminding me of the terrible loss this town was reeling from.

Another hand-lettered sign by the road: “WE’LL MISS YOU, JOE. GO WITH GOD.”

And yet, another: “REST IN PEACE, JOE. WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”

I drove out of Madill, headed for Kingston, another small town, a few short miles away.

Small towns, close together, are usually rivals on the high school football field and in most other things, but when all is said and done, we remember that we are, all of us, citizens of the same wonderful country, and that’s what matters—more than who wins the game on Friday night, more than which town has the best point guard on the basketball court, and more than which quarterback has better chances with the big college scouts. As Americans, we all have equal ‘bragging rights’—we are Americans, and no other country pulls together as we do when the going gets tough.

I couldn’t think of anything, anywhere, any time being tougher than losing even one of our young men to war. A bright smile that would never be seen again, coming through his parents’ door; two arms that could never open to hug his best girl again; the echoing sound of emptiness forever where once his steps fell—an aching, empty hole in the lives of every person he ever knew that could never, never be filled.

My thoughts rolled over one another as I drove. I wondered about him, about his family—about what he’d left behind, and how the people he’d known would ever manage to survive without him in their lives forevermore.

I was on the fringes of Kingston when the roadside flags started up in earnest again—though they’d never completely stopped. But now, it looked as if someone had planted a beautiful garden of red, white, and blue flowers in the cracked, dry Oklahoma soil.
As Kingston came into view ahead, flags fluttered in the wind at every business. Some buildings had bunting on their storefronts.

It doesn’t take long to cover the few miles from one end of Kingston to the other. But with every inch of ground I traveled, there was no doubt that 2nd Lieutenant Joe Cunningham was remembered, respected, and revered.

As I drove out of town, yellow ribbons tied around several branches of a tree in someone’s yard caught my eye.

“HE IS HOME. REST IN PEACE.”

No small town rivalry, now. As Americans all, we share only a unified, joint loss of a shining star; the precious, irreplaceable light of someone’s life.

He was 27. He loved to hunt and fish. He had dreams of becoming a highway patrol officer and finishing his degree. He always wore a smile.

I will never drive that sad stretch of road again without remembering a man I never met. A hometown hero is gone forever, but he will never, never be forgotten.

25 comments:

  1. So sad. There isn't too much more to say.

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  2. No, I understand, Miriam. The front headlines on the main newspaper here in Oklahoma that day carried color side-by-side pictures of two funerals, going on simultaneously in different towns for 2 young men--one of them was Joe Cunningham. TERRIBLE.
    Cheryl

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  3. This is so touching, Cheryl, and you told the story so eloquently. Nothing is sadder than a military funeral. But it makes my heart swell with pride to see so many American flags wafting gently in the breeze. We do live in the home of the brave. No doubt about it.

    Hope you have a wonderful Memorial Day.

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  4. Thanks so much Linda. I know you've probably read this post before--I've posted it at P&P, but this day meant so much to me, when I drove through that town and saw what was going on there--I don't think I'll ever forget it.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

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  5. How touching. As Americans, we all have to remember the real meaning of this holiday, to honor all the war dead who helped to make this country the land of the free.

    Wishing you a great Memorial Day!

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  6. Thank you for this first hand story of how so many of our young men have given the biggest sacrifice for our Nation.

    You brought tears to my eyes. I only wish all of our fallen had such wonderful acknowledgement in their hometowns.

    Hugs to the families of the fallen, too.

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  7. Very poignant, Cheryl. Thank you so much sharing. You capture the intent of Memorial Day with a very personal story and remind us all that small town America owns the heart of the nation.

    Smiles
    Steph

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  8. Beautifully done, Cheryl. I remember the years in my youth when I stood at my Uncle Ova's grave at the military cemetery in Burlingame, California. A sea of white grave markers with American flags. It gives you such a sense of loss. All of the beautiful American G.I.s gone. It breaks your heart when their deaths are not respected anymore like they should be. My uncle was 24, in World War II when he sacrificed his life so 17 of his comrades could live.I am the keeper of his Purple Heart.

    Your story touched my heart and brought this memory to my mind. I was lucky because my husband came home from Vietnam after spending the 366 days there.

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  9. So heart-tugging, Cheryl. e strive for emotion in our fiction, but there's nothing like the real emotion out there in real life. Beautiful!

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  10. Beautiful, Cheryl. I have a story on my blog who was a San Marcos Academy student--died in Afganistan, also at the age of 27. He grew up here in San Marcos.
    Such a waster, such a monumental, horrendous waste of young men with promise and potential.
    Thanks.

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  11. Beautiful post. It brought tears to my eyes. My son in law is in the army and though he is safely stationed in Germany, many of his friends and fellow soldiers have been deployed, some never to return home again. May God bless all soldiers, sailors, airmen/women and marines. Thank you all for your service.

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  12. Susan, I agree wholeheartedly. Although we gather with our friends and families and share good times, the real meaning must never be forgotten. Thanks so much for commenting.
    Cheryl

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  13. Oh, Lynne, I wish that, too. It seems that so often in our younger children and adolescents, patriotism is not taught at home or in school. I think standard reading should be THE MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY and some other stories and poems that teach the meaning of patriotism. People aren't just born with that--they have to learn it by example, etc. Ok, off my soapbox now... Thanks for coming by.
    Cheryl

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  14. Hey Steph, let me say thank you to you for your service today. That's one thing we can all do that doesn't cost a thing and means so much. Yes, you're certainly right about the heart of American being in the small towns. Many times when my kids were younger Gary and I sure thought about moving to one and out of Oklahoma City! Thanks for coming by and commenting.
    Cheryl

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  15. Paisley, my husband was in Viet Nam too, but that was before I knew him--thank God! I don't know how I would have been able to stand it with the worry--I'm a worrywart anyhow. My hat's off to you!Please tell your husband thank you for his service. There's a family that lives down the street from me whose son was a couple of years older than my daughter. He was killed in Iraq, and they had a big laminated poster made with his pciture on it and several smaller pics surrounding the big one of him in his uniform. They put it out in the front yard on the corner, and two of the other neighbors down there had copies made and put in their yards, too. It has his date of birth, date of death and name, and the words, "My hero, My son" on it. I can hardly drive by it all this time later without getting teary. Such a sad, sad loss.
    Cheryl

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  16. Tanya, thanks so much for commenting. That is one sight I will never forget--one of the things I remember most is all those motorcycles and their riders, ready to protect the family members from that "church" I won't even dignify by naming.
    Cheryl

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  17. Celia, thanks for telling us about your blog--I'll get over there and read that. You're so right--it is such a waste of life. I can't even imagine the pain of being a mother of one of those young men killed over there.
    Cheryl

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  18. Lilly, I'm so glad to hear that your son in law is safe in Germany and out of harm's way. One of my husband's co-workers had a son who was in the Army and was "manipulated" through reorganization of troops into having to go back over to Iraq and Afghanistan three times! That is so wrong! Thanks for coming by.
    Please tell you sil thanks for his service!
    Cheryl

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  19. I remember this from last year, Cheryl, and it's as haunting now as it was then. .

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  20. Cheryl, I remember you posting this on a site last year. It is something that can be read over and over again.

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  21. Very moving tribute Cheryl.

    As we say her in Australia at military funerals and war memorial services:

    At the going down of the sun
    And in the morning
    Wwe will remember them.
    Least We Forget

    Regards

    Margaret

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  22. Sorry for typos Cheryl, fingers slipped. Should read

    At the going down of the sun
    And in the morning
    We will remember them

    Lest we forget.

    Margaret

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  23. Keena,
    Yes, I know what you mean--it's one of those things that you can't forget--at least, I can't--and it seems that as time goes by unless one of the soldiers get's hurt or killed people tend for forget, so I am just trying to give us a chance to remember on this Memorial Day. Thank you so much for coming by!
    Cheryl

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  24. Hi Paty,
    Yes, I think so, too! This is one of those blogs that just stays with you, and makes you remember. Thanks for commenting!
    Cheryl

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  25. Oh, Margaret, I love that! So fitting--such a nice tribute, and so true. Thank you so much for coming by and commenting--I hope none of us ever forget.
    Cheryl

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