I come from a family of warriors.
On a mantel in my parents’ home, there’s a faded picture of one of my ancestors in his Civil War uniform. The man staring out from the daguerreotype could be Lincoln or Grant — unless you look closely — because all you can see at first is a massive black beard poking out from a cloud.
Other warriors in our family tree followed. Some fought in WWI. Another was injured at Pearl Harbor. Though they did not see combat, my father served in the Air Force in the 50s; my oldest brother was a tank commander prior to the first Gulf War.
All of them put their butts on the line so people like me could live in a free, democratic country and plop our safe butts down in comfy chairs in air-conditioned homes.
I am an outlier among the warriors, a pacifist who takes it to extremes. When spotting an insect crawling in my house, I run for the nearest magazine. Not to kill it, mind you, but to shoo it safely outside.
And yet, my heroes have always been soldiers. I cheered loudest for John Wayne and Clint Eastwood whenever they donned military garb. My favorite toy as a child was my G.I. Joe with Kung Fu Grip. And, while I may not agree with all the wars we fight, I support the men (and women) who fight them.
Today we recognize 21.8 million living veterans of the U.S. armed forces. I want to recognize one who is no longer with us.
The Lad from the Deep South
In 1982, Arbor House published one of the great books about Marines, Henry Berry’s “Semper Fi, Mac.” One chapter of that book is seen through the eyes of my uncle, Dick Franklin, who grew up rawboned in Moss Point, Mississippi.
As Berry writes, “Dick Franklin, known as Frank in the Pacific, was one of the thousands of young southerners in the seventeen-to-eighteen-year-old age bracket who joined the Corps during World War II. He served with the Marines in the Guam and Okinawa campaigns. In the latter fight, he was very seriously wounded and for a while it was feared he would never walk again.”
In 1980, Berry interviewed him at one of the 6th Marine Division’s many reunions. As my uncle told him: “I feel get-togethers like this are apt to become more precious to you as you grow older. Most of our men no longer have the financial burden of raising their families. They can afford to come here and spend a few days with their buddies with whom they share so many memories, some good, others horrifying. But whatever those memories may be, they sure as hell will never leave us.”
Years later, Uncle Dick would pass away in his sleep while attending one of those reunions — his wife by side, his brothers in arms in nearby rooms in the hotel where they were staying.
Man and Superman
The veil of time can make liars of us all, but what doesn’t lie is what we see in pictures. I don’t know my uncle’s actual height, but what I remember is a rail thin figure who, like his scrawny little sister, never could put on any good weight. And what I see in the photographs is a towering figure who has grown mythological to me in the decades since his death.
But he was flesh and blood just like the rest of us – a man whose love for country was only exceeded by his love for family.
In the Kenner, Louisiana home where his wife Helen still lives, there’s a room upstairs where the walls are covered in pictures. There’s no room in there for aesthetics or Feng Shui. Instead it’s a tribute to lives lived with every image having a story of its own.
I’ve never counted the pictures on the walls. There must be a hundred of them. But I have a favorite. In the photo, Uncle Dick is wearing a Superman costume that wouldn’t fit a man half his size. He doesn’t seem to mind. He’s with two of his grandkids and in that moment he’s the happiest man on Earth.
Even if he didn’t know it, that’s why he fought, that’s why they all fight, so they can come home to the kiss of a spouse, the hug of a child or grandchild, so they can spend a goofy afternoon playing superhero to their family.
It’s great that we have so many Clark Kents in the world. I should know; I’m one of them. But sometimes we need that other guy, too.
Thank you for your service, Superman.