Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

May 27, 2013

On Memorial Day everyone should remember the gift of freedom

By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— A week ago today, I went back home to southwestern Pennsylvania to visit with my family members and ancestors buried in the Claysville Cemetery. The old Purviance Cemetery across from our house at 104 Main Street is the older of the two cemeteries in town, but I have more family members at the Claysville Cemetery.

Some of my earliest recollections took place at Claysville Cemetery. I remember scrambling around the leggings of the Legionnaire rifle team to grab their brass shells as they locked and loaded for the next round of a three-volley salute to all the service men and women buried in the cemetery. My dad commanded the drill team for as long as I can remember. They were a focused group of veterans and my scrambling didn’t appear to bother them.

By the time I turned 7, I started singing the National Anthem at the services. I never got tired of singing it. There are Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and now, Global War on Terror veterans buried there. I remain overwhelmed by what all of them did for me. They gave me freedom.

For much of my life, I felt bad because I didn’t serve — I didn’t offer to give my life so the rest of my nation could live free. When I was in high school, a surgeon told me just before I went under the knife that I would never be drafted, and it changed me. I wondered, why me? Why not somebody else? I didn’t handle the news well. It gave me pause then and it gives me pause now.

My mom finally set me free of my guilt on Memorial Day 21 years ago. Through the winter of 1991 and spring of 1992, Mom was fighting with all of her might to overcome the paralysis she suffered when she had her stroke. I tried to encourage her so hard that I looked past her limitations, and started to zero in on her capabilities. The more she didn’t give up, the more I worked to help her achieve all that she wanted to achieve.

I was surprised when she said she had only missed one Memorial Day program at Claysville Cemetery since she was born in 1919. Her next sentence was that she wanted to go there on Memorial Day. Long before the trip, I had already erased all my ideas of the childish boy and/or girl jobs I held close to my heart. No one said a word as I checked to see if the coast was clear, and rolled mom into public bathrooms along the way and lifted her on and off of the facilities. I went from being a boy to becoming a man. I learned that a man looks at life from a different perspective.

Taking Mom to the annual reveille breakfast at dad’s Legion post was like bringing a dignitary to the event. Prior to her stroke, Mom had been such a constant presence in town, and everyone there knew that my sister and brother both died of cancer in the 15 months before Mom’s stroke. Mom said that she married my dad when he came back from World War II, and together, they married into the Legion and Legion Auxiliary. The James R. Hunt Post 639 was their world.

After we left the breakfast to drive to the cemetery for the service, I confided in Mom that I carried a personal burden because I didn’t serve in the military. As we were driving to the cemetery to park near my dad’s grave, Mom asked me to stop and visit my grandfather’s grave. I was named William for him. He died in 1940, and I was born nine years later.

She didn’t ask me to get out of the car, but asked me to check on something about the date on his headstone. I did as she asked. There was a mist of rain falling that morning. When I got back in the car to drive another 40-45 yards to where my dad and sister were buried, my mom told me a story about her dad ... my grandfather.

Mom said that before she was born, her father wanted to join the Army during World War I, but her brother — my Uncle Don — was an infant, and my grandfather ran the family farm. At that time, operating a big farm was also important to the war effort. Mom told me that when she was young, my grandfather’s Dough Boy friends often came out to the farm to visit and spend time in fellowship. “They were friends,” she said.

She told me that her earliest memory was of attending the Memorial Day service at Claysville Cemetery. The only event she missed was when she was very sick and that, “As far as I know, I started attending when I was a little baby ... just like you,” she said.

Mom sat in the car with the window down as I stood outside during the service. I learned an important lesson about service that morning. Seeing my grandfather’s grave a week ago today reminded me of that conversation. This time when I communicated with him, I had more to say about service. This time, I was proud to say that I carry his name. Now, my mom’s there all the time with my dad, sister and all my ancestors where they show their eternal thanks for the freedom we all enjoyed.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.