I wrote the following post several years ago to honor two of my wife's uncles. With this post, I would like to thank my wife's nieces and newphew who bravely made careers in the Navy...and to all the brave men and women who continue to put their lives on the line so that we can live in freedom. Our entire way of life has been paid for by their blood and sacrifice.
Heroes Among Us
This past weekend was my wife’s family reunion. When it first began 20+ years ago, it was to celebrate the birthday of my wife’s grandmother…the matriarch of a large and ever-growing Italian family. At the time it all began, my wife’s mother and father were still alive…as were all of my mother-in-law’s siblings. Over the years, the vast majority have gone on to an even greater family reunion celebration in heaven.
It is now my wife, my wife’s sister, and her cousins who have become the family elders. Our children and our grand children are now taking the spot on the treadmill of life where we used to reside. Looking around at the picnic table at the new faces, and remembering the faces of those no longer alive made me recall a couple of recent funerals.
Several years ago, Uncle Frank passed away. This gentle, soft-spoken man was the spitting image of an elder Joe DiMaggio. He could have been his twin. He was always so polite…so well dressed. He and my wife’s aunt lived in Pennsylvania, so the only time I had an opportunity to speak with him was at these reunions, or a wedding, or some other family function. Those conversations normally consisted of the kind of superficial exchanges we all engage in. “How you doing? Just fine, and you?”
When Uncle Frank passed away, his family requested a military funeral. Having never been in the military, I had no idea what the protocol was…but you have to be checked out. You are not going to get a military funeral unless you have actually served. When they looked up Uncle Frank’s military record they found that he had served bravely in battle after battle in the European theater during WWII. He had earned quite a few citations for bravery, and received medals for combat.
His family was stunned…he had never said a word to anyone about his time in uniform. He had quietly come back from the war and provided, cared for, and loved his family. No one knew that this Joe DiMaggio look-alike had served his country with such devotion and honor.
I caulked up the experience to one man’s idiosyncrasies…until Uncle Johnny passed away.
Uncle Johnny reminded me of Jimmy Stewart. He had a habit of stammering, or hesitating just a bit in his speech…just like Jimmy Stewart did in all those old movies. Uncle Johnny, for most of years I knew him, lived in California. According to family lore, he had a great job working in the aviation industry out there. As his health failed him and his wife passed away, he moved back home to be near his brother and sister. When Uncle Johnny passed away, he also had a laundry list of military achievements…and that job in aviation? It wouldn’t have been possible without the training he received during the war. Just like Uncle Frank, he never said much to the extended family about what he did during the war. He too, served his country humbly…without needing to tell anyone that in his younger days he too had put his life on the line for all of us.
As I came out of my daydream, I looked around the tables of people gathered there and wondered, of the handful of men and women older than me…how many other stories of bravery would come out after that individual joined his siblings in heaven. I wondered how many other families had similar silent heroes living among them.
I am sure Uncle Johnny and Uncle Frank had come home from the war, hoping that their sacrifice would put an end to war…sadly, we know that wasn’t the case. Worldwide, over 52 million people were killed during World War II. The former Soviet Union lost over 10% of its population to war. The United States suffered a half million casualties.
We are fortunate as a country that we are blessed with so many Uncle Johnny’s and Uncle Franks’s. I think their silence is sort of like the genie in the bottle. If you don’t tell anyone about the horrors of war, and you keep them buried deep inside your soul…then maybe, just maybe, those horrors won’t escape out into the bright sunlight of a new day. Maybe if they are kept under wraps, perhaps our children and their children won’t come to know the darkness that humanity can make when it is at his worst.
May God watch over Uncle Johnny and Uncle Frank. May they be in a place that knows no war. May God watch over your family’s Uncle Johnny and Uncle Frank too.