Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lest we forget...

This is the address that I will be delivering at the local VFW post's annual Memorial Day ceremony tomorrow.

I am honored, and also humbled, to be standing before you this morning. I honestly never thought I’d be given the opportunity to speak at this service, for a variety of reasons—a major one of which is that, as some of you know, my political leanings tend not to be in keeping with the mainstream views of rural Iowa.

But over the days and weeks since Commander Irwin asked me to speak, as I’ve thought about what I’d say today, I’ve been reminded that this day is not about politics. It’s not about my political views, or yours. It’s not about the last vote in Congress, or what the President said in his last press conference, or what a candidate might have said in a stump speech. It’s not about the latest editorial in the Sac Sun or the Messenger or the Register or any other paper. It’s not about what Congressman King said in his last article in the paper.

No, this day is about things far more important than politics. It’s about honoring the memories of our brothers—and, increasingly, sisters—in arms who gave their lives for this country, for the sake of each of us. It’s about sacrifice, and heroism, and deep comradeship tested by fire.
I don’t necessarily have any words of wisdom to bestow on you. Truthfully, wisdom ought to flow in the other direction—from you to me. I have never been called upon to lay down my life for a friend, for an ideal, or for my country. To you who have, I owe a great debt. But I have no wise words for you. I can only speak of others I have known, whom I honor and remember today, who have sacrificed greatly on behalf of our nation.

In the late 1930s, when she finished high school, Ann Meloy wanted to attend college.Her parents had put her brother through college, but in those days it wasn’t terribly common for parents to do the same for a daughter.She was able to get enough training to become a nurse; then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she enlisted in the United States Navy. She cared for those who were wounded in the Pacific, on hospital ships and at Mare Island.

Like many who served in the Second World War, Ann doesn’t say much about her experiences. Her son has heard a few of the stories, heard her express the anguish she felt at seeing young men, who to her twenty-something-year-old eyes seemed like “babies,” come to her maimed, wounded, sometimes mortally. Ann—my mother-in-law—ended her career with the Navy as Lieutenant Ann Meloy White; the things she saw and experienced remain with her to this day. For better or worse, her experiences have shaped her into the person she now is.

One day, hopefully not too soon, Ann will rest at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, perhaps beside some of the boys she tried to put back together at Mare Island, perhaps with others she cared for during her many years as a psychiatric nurse with the VA after she was finally able to attend college thanks to the GI Bill. Like them, she will not be forgotten as long as there is a Memorial Day.

Don McCord fought in a completely different sort of a war from the one in which Ann served. He was a classmate of my dad’s in high school; they graduated together in 1959. In 1963, he finished his time at Coffeyville College, where he was a columnist for the monthly magazine, The College Dial. As soon as he graduated, he left for the Army.

I don’t know if it’s true—don’t know if it even worked this way—but the story around town was that when he received his draft notice to go to Vietnam, he decided to join the Green Berets. Figured he wouldn’t be coming back, evidently, so he decided he’d grab all the glory he could on the way out.

No one in Coffeyville—with the possible exception of his mother—saw or heard from McCord after that, until he drifted back into town in 1979 for his 20th high school reunion. In the meantime, so the story goes, when he finished his tour in Vietnam he lived for a time in Los Angeles, working as a deejay there. Local folklore says when he lived in LA, he had a roommate, a struggling actor by the name of Howard Hessemann. When Hessemann got his big break, playing Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati, supposedly he modeled the character on his roommate, Don McCord.

Whether or not it’s true, if you’ve seen Dr. Johnny Fever, you know what McCord looked like when he reappeared in Coffeyville in 1979: satin jacket with the sleeves pushed up, sunglasses at all hours of day or night, mustache and several days’ growth of beard, hair that could use a barber’s attention—dark shot through with grey, though, instead of blonde like Howard Hessemann’s. He went to work at the local radio station, where he was the voice of my early adolescence. He was the one who was on the air on December 8, 1980, when the news came that John Lennon had been shot in New York.

McCord was something of a hero to me, although I’m sure I got on his last nerve, getting in on all the radio contests and generally being a smart aleck as only a twelve-year-old can be. To get me out of his hair, he’d let me come down to the station and pick out records from the box of demos they had in the back room, stuff that didn’t fit the station’s format so they’d never play it, or things they’d gotten duplicates of. Some of my best vinyl came out of that box.

By the time I left for college, McCord’s alcoholism—a good friend of his later said he drank because it was the only way he could get any relief from the horrors that had haunted him ever since his days in Vietnam—had gotten the best of him, and he’d lost his job as well as his wife, a fellow deejay at KGGF. He went to rehab, but it didn’t stick. Eventually he got a job working nights at the little liquor store up the street from the house where I grew up.

And then one morning, the owner of the store arrived to find the door unlocked and all the lights on. When she went inside she found McCord in the back room, dead of an apparent heart attack. He was 48, and it had been more than a quarter century since he wrote his farewell column in The College Dial—still every bit as funny today as it was when it came off his typewriter in 1963—and headed off to the Army; but he was a casualty of the war in Vietnam as surely as those whose planes were shot down, as surely as the man I knew in Oregon who died of cancer he believed to have been the result of exposure to Agent Orange.

I didn’t know—I was too young to understand, even though some of my earliest memories are of watching Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News with a map of Indochina floating over his right shoulder. I have no idea what McCord experienced in Vietnam, no idea what my mother-in-law experienced at Mare Island. Many of you do, and while our political views may not agree, I have a feeling we all have in common one deep longing: that one day there will be no new battlefields, no new impromptu memorials of rifle and helmet set up by those who have had to watch a brother or sister in arms die, no more families receiving the terrible news that the one of whom they are so proud will never come home.

We don’t know when it will come, but let us honor the memory of those who have given their lives by praying and working for that day, as described by Micah, a prophet of God…

In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

Amen. May the day come soon; but may we, in the meantime, be found worthy of the sacrifices that have been made so that we might live and be free.