Tag Archives: Henry S Campbell

The Price of Freedom

Iwo Jima landing

I know my father did his part to secure the freedom I now enjoy — with the 23rd Marines, 4th Division, and the battles to secure Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima.

What I don’t know is what it cost my father. Dad, like many vets, didn’t talk much about his experience. This week I learned a little more when I received a copy of my father’s citation for his efforts on Iwo Jima. It arrived as part of a thick bundle of papers from the National Personnel Archives that I requested a year or so ago… and promptly forgot about.

What Dad had shared came out in fragments. I’d done some research to learn what he couldn’t tell me. But the citation, which explains what Dad did to earn a gold star in lieu of a second bronze star, helped me piece together more of his story. (Excerpts from the citation appear in italics to differentiate them from Dad’s few quotes.)

Having assumed the duties of operations officer in an infantry regiment during the planning phase, Major Campbell, although confronted with many difficulties incident to the absorption of a large number of replacements and the indoctrination of inexperienced staff officers, placed all units in a high state of readiness for combat….

The “incident… of a large number of replacements” understates the reality. By the end of the second day of battle, the “Fighting Fourth” alone had lost more than 2,000 men. By the end of the second week, half the American forces were dead or wounded. The men who were sent in to reconstitute platoons, including “inexperienced staff officers,” died even faster than the men they replaced. But Dad didn’t talk about that.

…Embarking on a control vessel during the initial stages of the landing attack, he supervised the transmittal and execution of numerous orders issued during the ship to shore movement. With only a limited beachhead established and with the beach area practically untenable as a result of heavy and accurate enemy fire, he landed with the command echelon of his unit and quickly obtained contact with all units ashore, thus rendering invaluable assistance to his regimental commander….

My father began to talk about the war when he was in his 80s, but he was the storyteller who couldn’t get much past the “once upon a time.” The story began with D-Day, when he stood in his roiling landing craft with his first view of the beach:

“From up on the deck of the landing craft, the light was growing. We saw this ungodly ghostly tower rising six to seven hundred feet in the air. It was a volcanic spire, the goddamnedest thing I ever saw.”

Although he’d been ordered hold off by the Beach Master, he saw an opening in the boat traffic and ordered his landing craft to go for it.

“The island was shaped like a pork chop – a volcanic mound with steep sides, honeycombed with caves. It overlooked the beaches we landed on — the Japanese had perfect visibility.  Down at the far end was another escarpment looking the other way.”

It was eerily quiet when the Marines began to land. One of the things that intelligence didn’t know was that the beach was composed of volcanic ash. Small landing craft foundered; men sunk in the quagmire that sucked at their boots.

Then the island came to life. Mortars, rockets, machine guns and artillery cut the men on the beach to ribbons. A Saturday Evening Post headline dubbed Iwo Jima “the Red Hot Rock.”

Foxholes collapsed. There was no cover.

Dad said, “We had one fine officer who took a posthumous award for scooping up men without leaders and taking the key point.  They got all shot up.”

…Throughout the following twenty-five days, Major Campbell was required to assume progressively greater responsibility because of many casualties among leaders and staff personnel….

Dad never mentioned that. But it makes sense. More than a quarter of the original men of the Fourth who sailed out of San Diego in January 1944 became casualties (killed, wounded or missing in action). Iwo Jima was the only WWII battle in which overall American casualties exceeded those of the enemy.

…He made frequent visits to forward areas where his demonstration of coolness and courage under fire served as an inspiration to those who observed him…. 

Dad did tell one story that supports this assessment, but he told it as an amusing anecdote: “Some days later, maybe D+4, I went down to Division HQ. My job was to prepare to take over and I needed to know where everyone was, their weaponry, etc.. Enough of the island had been taken by then that you could move around. I had to walk about one mile to the other end of the island.  In the command post, the situation map was surrounded by officers and I couldn’t see anything.  Then, the Japanese started firing high velocity rounds from their position on a cliff.  Division HQ staff bailed out and I took all of the information I needed and walked out.”

When my father told this story, he smiled that wry smile of his — one lip rising higher than the other.

…His unselfish devotion to duty and superb judgment contributed to the success of the attack and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. — Roy S. Geiger, Lt. Gen., USMC

Like many vets of his generation, my father minimized his role. He turned the spotlight on the front lines.

“Iwo Jima as an overall operation was absolutely petrifying. No doubt about that. But I was not a front line trooper although there were some near misses, but the near misses are a little different. They’re come and gone before you think about it. The danger’s over from that immediate thing, or you’re dead, one of the two. Either way it’s not a problem, I guess.

“It went on a long time….I was not down on my belly in the sand taking fire from some unseen joker a hundred yards ahead. I had enormous respect for the kids that did it. I’m not a hero. But I knew some that were. If there were heroes at all they were the line troopers that actually took the brunt of this thing. That has to take enormous guts and will to go day after day after day of this stuff and your friends getting killed around you. Bad. Really bad.”

It was only when my father uttered these last two fragments that I had a sense of what the war cost him. He closed his eyes and paused. His throat tightened when he said, “Really bad.” The memory, decades later, was still too hot to touch.


Filed under Marines and those who serve, Uncategorized

Silent Drill

marine barracks change of command 1958

My father, at right, receiving temporary command of Marine Barracks, July 1958

On nights when my father was in his party mood, I begged him to do the Silent Drill. He was still too weak to go back to work in that year following his heart attack, but I liked to pretend he still wore his Marine Corps blues.

He began by standing in the archway of the dining room in our new Seattle home: stick straight, eyes forward, the tip of an umbrella resting on the floor by his right toe. Then he stepped forward, landing on his heel. He was walking, just walking, but the steps didn’t look human, slowed to half speed. He rapped the umbrella next to his foot and lifted it to his left shoulder, where his left hand caught it with a smack and pushed it to the right. As he marched, he slapped his thigh.

This percussion was the drill’s only accompaniment: the slap on the thigh, the catch on the shaft, the rap of the tip. It reminded me of the ta-ta-tee-tee-tah chant that my first grade teacher used to introduce rhythm. The steps themselves were silent, like a cat padding down the hall.

The best part came near the end: roundhouse twirls, once, twice, three times around, performed with the right hand, then with the left, over the head, in front of the body, and for the finale, a toss in the air. There my father gave up. An umbrella was too light compared to the drill rifle he was used to.

I didn’t remember the Silent Drill Platoon, the highlight of the Marine Barracks’ Evening Parade. The first time I saw it, when I visited the Capitol to arrange my father’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013, I began to understand what I’d witnessed 50 years before.

The Barracks is the spiritual home of the Marine Corps, its oldest post. Its site was chosen for its location “within marching distance of the Capitol” in 1801 by the second USMC Commandant and President Thomas Jefferson. Early in the twentieth century, the first ceremonial parades were organized to boost the post’s military preparedness. Ten years after WWII, the twentieth Commandant recognized the Barracks’ new strategic importance — fighting for the continued existence of the Marine Corps. He called the Parade his “muscle” and used it to entertain elected officials and influential guests.

The Evening Parade was established during the summer of 1957. I was born on June 15 of that year. My father came aboard as the Barracks’ Executive Officer in August. In October, the Commandant asked Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak to respond to this question: “Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?” Gen. Krulak had first addressed this question in 1946, he told the Commandant, when the USMC had last faced elimination. Playing devil’s advocate, he and a group of officers acknowledged that the Marines have no “mystical competence.” The Marines’ distinction, they concluded, lay in the country’s grassroots belief that when trouble comes, the Marines will be ready to do something useful, at once.

When the Commandant asked Gen. Krulak his question in 1957, the Marines were once again threatened by Washington’s amnesia. Nearly forgotten was the Corps’ feat during the first battle of the Korean war. The Marines’ fighting force had been reduced to six battalions and 12 aircraft squadrons by the end of the 1940s, and the Secretary of Defense had declared his intent to further cut the Marines and transfer its remains to the Army and Air Force. Then on June 25, 1950, the North Koreans invaded the south with a force of 75,000 soldiers. Within three weeks, the Marines pieced together an air-ground force of 30,000 and improvised a landing, despite tidal swells that were amplified by two typhoons prior to D-Day. The battle for Inchon, which lasted four days, was a decisive victory. Through Inchon and every other battle to which the Marines had been called, Gen. Krulak believed the USMC had earned the support of the American people. But between conflicts, the Marines foresaw the need to remind decision-makers of its value through traditions like the Evening Parade.

The memory of my father’s slow cadence seized me that first time I saw the Evening Parade.  When my father executed his gliding steps — each knee rising to regulation height, each stride stretching to regulation length — it was a solo performance, mesmerizing and weird. At the Barracks, it was like watching him multiplied in a house of mirrors, marching alongside an invisible legion.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Last Frost Call?

Scan 2

The first time a “Frost Call” landed in my inbox, I was startled. It turned out to be a death notice from a member of my father’s USMC 5th Reserve Officers Commissioning class — a group of 304 men who became second lieutenants just before the United States entered WWII. Talk about gallows humor, I thought when I looked back to the subject line.

I’d taken my father to a reunion of the the “Fighting Fifth” at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco. One of his classmates, I soon figured out, had taken on the role of communicator and regularly sent out “the poop” on gatherings and classmates. I added myself to the email list.

“Frost Calls,” which came with increasing frequency, heralded the passing of another classmate. I debated whether I should tell my father. What’s it like when the only news of old friends is of their death? When they are dropping like flies? In the end, I printed out the emails and gave them to him at the breakfast table. Some were — had been — good friends. He’d say something short like, “Good man.” Then he was quiet. I couldn’t tell if he was remembering his friend, Quantico, wondering when he might die, or refocused on the day’s paper.

Once a year, two lists were mailed out: the long list of Fifth R.O.C. members who were deceased, and the short list of those who were hanging on.

In 2009, the class was down to 38.

In 2011, 31.

In 2012, 28, then 25.

On New Year’s Dad, 2013, Dad’s classmate sent out an email with the subject “Geezers.” He announced that five classmates were 96 years old. I wrote back, asking how he was doing. He responded:

I’m doing OK, hard to get out of chairs, it’s now 14 years of living alone in a big house with pool to tend to, but no complaints.  I purchased a walker with a seat in it, works fine.  I can walk with it because it is something to hold on to, like a grocery cart. So walk with it about a mile every day without difficulty.  Knees bad, have to push with both arms to get out of chairs, and resist all stooping over to pick up things.  Result:  Clutter, but still enough room to get over it, or around it. Driving OK, with license renewal due when I’m 100 in Aug 2016.

I wrote him when Dad died on January 12, 2013, sent him the obit. He sent out my father’s Frost Call on January 15, 2013, adding, “We are all in the zone, and it is another marker for our Quantico Commissioning Class of 29 May 1941.  …Semper Fi!”

Since then, I’ve tried several times to reach Dad’s classmate. I’ve emailed and snail mailed. According to Google, he signed up for a youtube channel seven months ago. No death notice. I sent him a friend request on Facebook. He hasn’t responded.

I went back to the last list of living officers, dated 9 December 2011. As best I can tell from online search, 17 more classmates have died. Funeral notices usually show up high on the list of search results.

Fourteen members of the 5th R.O.C. remain. So few. Maybe that’s why Dad’s classmate stopped sending out Frost Calls.

Meade Whitaker, Harry Guinivan and Henry S. Campbell, USMC 5th R.O.C.

Left to right: Meade Whitaker, Harry Guinivan and Henry S. Campbell, newly promoted to Second Lieutenant, USMC, as part of the USMC 5th Reserve Officers Commissioning class, May 1941

Scan 2

Robert A. Campbell, Henry S. Campbell and J.P. Campbell on graduation day: the caption for the photo at left reads, “A la Pall Mall (cigarette) ads”

Robert A. Campbell, San Diego, CA

Robert A. Campbell (late of San Diego, CA) — the caption reads, “R.A. feeling his oats” (Graduation day of the USMC 5th R.O.C., 1941)

Scan 4

J.P. Campbell on graduation day, USMC 5th R.O.C. The caption reads “iron man of Kentucky.”

Henry S. Campbell, Robert A. Campbell, Joseph Anastasio, USMC 5th R.O.C.

Left to right, standing: Henry S. Campbell, Robert A. Campbell, J.P. Campbell, R.N. Barrett, Bill Bray, Leon Case, Cakin (?). Kneeling: Joseph Anastasio (recently late of Woodbridge, CT). Graduation day of the USMC 5th R.O.C., May 29, 1941

close-to-war officer training, Quantico, VA, 1941

Members of the USMC 5th R.O.C. The caption reads, “between classes.” Henry S. Campbell leaning against the car.

Henry S. Campbell, USMC 5th R.O.C., 1941

Henry S. Campbell, graduation day, USMC 5th R.O.C., Quantico, VA, May 29, 1941

USMC officer candidates training, 1941

The caption reads, “R.O.C. boys watch the candidates march by.” Quantico, VA, 1941

USMC 5th R.O.C., 1941

Getting ready for graduation: USMC 5th R.O.C., May 29, 1941


Filed under Uncategorized

The Intimacy of Leadership



Henry S Campbell, 1945, 23rd Marine base camp Maui

What makes young men and women willing to risk their lives on the front line? What is leadership in a military organization? How is it taught and instilled? These are some of the questions I’m pondering in preparation for some research I’m undertaking as background for a memoir.

My father, a retired Marine Corps Colonel who fought in World War II, rarely talked about his wartime experiences. Sometimes his emotions overwhelmed him, but more often, he didn’t think they were worthy of elaboration; like many of his era, he didn’t consider himself a hero. The heroes were the other guys. The ones who died.

My brother Dean recently stumbled across a video recording of his conversation with my father in 2003, ten years before his death. Talking about his officer training in Quantico in 1941, he recalled that his mother and aunt visited the base just as he came off the bayonet course. He remembered that he “ran it for blood.” Then he explained why he took the training so seriously — not because he needed to save his own skin when facing an enemy, but because, as a second lieutenant, he would likely be responsible for his platoon:

“You’re going to teach kids this stuff. You’re their mommy, you’re their daddy. They depend on you for literally everything at the platoon level, which is the message I drilled my young candidates on. It’s your monkey. It ain’t going anywhere. You better fly it.

“If you’re good at this, you’ll know their names, and if they’re married, you’ll know their wive’s names and the names of their kids, be interested in them as individuals. Because when you get into battle time, there’s no time to get an introduction. All that should be behind you. You’re familiar with the guy; you’ll know what he’ll do and what he won’t do. You’ve got to know this and that takes intimate contact. That’s a serious matter, which is why the Marine Corps is good at what they do. There’s nothing impersonal about any of it, no matter what you see in the movies.”

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Going The Distance

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

On a good night, when the wine was flowing and we were gathered as a family around the dinner table, my father told jokes. My brother Bruce and I were given to puns of the worst sort, and for a time I specialized in the foul humor I picked up from the ad agency where I worked, but Dad was the family story teller. One of us usually handed him a cue, a short sidelong reference like, “There’s a pony in there.” Off to the races he’d go.

He straightened, there at the head of the table, and made eye contact with his audience as if to ask if we really wanted to hear that old story. His pause, his expectant look, was all he needed to gather us in.

There was one about the boy who found a strange spotted creature he called a “rarey” that began to grow so fast it threatened hearth and home, prompting the boy to load it in a truck and attempt to drop it over the edge of a cliff on a high mountain peak. The punch line? “That’s a long, long way to tip a Rarey.” (Insert groan here.)

But my favorite was the one about the optimist and the pessimist.

He avoided the usual start. No “once upon a time.” My father launched right into the action of the story, setting the stage. In the setup for the optimist and the pessimist, he described a family’s problem with a pair of twins. One looked on the bright side of everything, so much so that he could imagine no problem that could not be surmounted or that wouldn’t dissipate all by itself. The other saw only gloom and doom, and no matter what wonderful opportunities arose, he felt he was sure to fail. The parents decide to engineer a resolution by giving the optimist truly terrible Christmas presents and the pessimist, truly wonderful ones. The story ends with the parents standing by, confounded, while their optimist son gleefully digs in a huge pile of horse manure, exclaiming, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!”

My father loved to tell stories, but in the end, he left me a riddle. My father, who was doled out more than his fair share of dung in life, never gave up, never became bitter, never stopped believing in the possibility that things would get better. While many people become curmudgeonly as they age, he became gentler. Why? What drove him?

If my mother had her druthers, the answer would be faith. Her faith sustained her through the loss of her father while still in her twenties, the war, the loss of her daughter to leukemia, the death of her mother, and the long frightening years of my father’s struggle with heart disease. Resting on the levee of the river during one of our many walks, I asked my father if he believed in God. I wanted to hear him say yes. I wanted that little bit of reassurance that, when the time came, he would be welcomed into heaven to join my mother, even as the little doubter in my own mind wondered if that’s what really happens after we die. “I wish I could believe,” he told me. He just couldn’t make the leap from concrete reality to ephemeral faith. The closest he ever came to saying he believed in an afterlife was to say he looked forward to seeing my mother again.

Perhaps it was love that fueled him. Love, to my father, wasn’t about what you said, it was what you did. His place in the middle of three sons, with an emotionally abusive father and a bully for an older brother, had a lasting effect on his dedication to others. My grandmother lived out her last years in a convalescent home in our community. After he ate with us, my father took her dinner every night. I’ll be honest. I didn’t like my grandmother, and she didn’t like me (she thought I was entirely too outspoken, my father confirmed much later). Why my father would want to spend time with such a sour old woman I couldn’t understand. But in his last years, I saw my grandmother as my father saw her: she was a gentle woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a philandering egotist. I remember how her face softened, how something flickered across her features, when my father spoke to her. His nightly visits were driven by more than filial duty. They were borne out of love.

Or maybe it was hope that kept him going. Within a week of his death, he still believed he could recover his strength, if he just got out there and started walking again. Anthony Scioli, a professor at Keene State College in New Hampshire, has been investigating the link between hope and health. Writing in Spirituality & Health magazine, Louise Danielle Palmer summarized his conclusion, that “…hopeful people tend to be more resilient, more trusting, more open, and more motivated than those less hopeful, so they are likely to receive more from the world, which in turn makes them more hopeful.”

I’ve used a lot of trite quips to explain my father to others. “Like a Timex, he took a licking and kept on ticking.” His health challenges alone would have flattened most men: three heart attacks, three open heart surgeries and three strokes.” While we were growing up and he still had our college educations on the horizon, I know he felt he had to recover. He had to provide. That was duty. But how do you explain his dedication to come back from strokes after my mother died, after his duty was discharged?

He did it a step at a time. With the help of a physical therapist, he learned to concentrate on swinging his weaker left leg and striking with his heel. He had to think about each step to avoid stumbling. When he was in acute rehab at the UW Medical Center, I remember how proud of himself he was when he demonstrated the new skill he had relearned with the occupational therapist: he made me a cup of instant hot cocoa. Even now, when I write about it, I cry. To be so reduced by a stroke that completing the steps – take out a cup, fill it with water, microwave it, pour in the cocoa and stir – was an accomplishment. It could have been humiliating, but it wasn’t. It was a milestone. A good day. The medical professionals predicted he would be wheelchair bound; then they revised it to “he’ll never walk independently without a walker.” But he did. For years, he just used a cane.

Every day on our walk, he set a goal. Sometimes it was to make it no farther than the third driveway down. He felt the load in his chest, was breathing hard, but he rarely stopped short of his goal. When I said that most people would quit when they started to feel the strain, he simply said, “Every day I try to go a little farther.”

My father went the distance.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Remembering One Year Ago

Dad on January 8, 2012

Dad on January 8, 2012

I awakened just before 5 this morning feeling anxious. As I flipped from one side to the other, my thoughts churned. Though I have plenty of things I could worry about and long lists of things I should get done, I can usually put those thoughts aside and go back to sleep. Not this morning. Why was I feeling unsettled?

Then I remembered one year ago. One year ago, I slept while my father’s nighttime caregiver administered hospice comfort medications at the maximum dosage.

I felt like I had hopped on a freight train that was speeding, careening, barely holding to the rails along a treacherous mountain route that cast dark shadows on our route. I held on, trying to avert disaster.

A week earlier, Dad had been on a plateau, as hospice put it. He was still getting to the table for meals, and we were still making forays for fresh air outside, albeit by wheelchair. I had begun to accept that he would not rally, as I had hoped when came on service with hospice December 20. The nurses had explained that he would likely decline in increments, alternating with periods of stability.

I was Dad’s life ring and he clung to me for security, never wanting  me to leave his side. When Todd and I went out to see a movie as a short break, Dad remained at the dinner table with the caregiver, not wanting to retire until I returned. There he stayed, exhausted, counting the minutes until I would return at 9 p.m. I was counting, too. After one brother cancelled his planned trip, I crossed off the days on my calendar until brother Dean would arrive that Wednesday.

Dad’s confusion increased. I sat next to him all day and surrounded him with pictures. At dinner that Monday night, he picked up the picture of my brothers on the kitchen table and said, “They were siblings, weren’t they?”

I broke out in hives. I wondered if it was a reaction to the antibiotic I was taking to resolve a lingering cough, or a physical manifestation of my own anxiety. First my palms itched, then the soles of my feet, then my scalp. As I sat talking to the hospice Chaplain, I furiously scratched my head, twitching from the attempt to stop.

After Dean arrived, Dad’s decline only accelerated. The afternoon of Dean’s arrival, I asked our new afternoon caregiver to make chicken cacciatore. The process turned out to be long and arduous, but the results were delicious. Dad ate heartily, displaying his best appetite in a month. The mood, for that eyelash of time, was celebratory.

But that night, the medications we had pre-dispensed for the hospice nurse weren’t adequate to control Dad’s shortness of breath and agitation. From 11 p.m. on, Dad awakened every half hour. The caregiver summoned Dean during the night to prepare more. At 6:45 a.m. Thursday, Dad attempted to get out of bed by himself, after three weeks of being unable to support his own weight. The caregiver intervened before he fell. Dad was exhausted by the effort.

On Friday, Dean supervised the final move of Dad’s belongings to my house. The afternoon was quiet, with Dad sleeping most of the time. His breathing began to sound increasingly liquid, although the hospice nurse had told us not to be concerned. Just the same, we arranged for a house call the next morning, while I would be out facilitating a strategic planning retreat and Dean would supervise Dad’s care.

When I left that morning, I told Dean to call me with whatever the nurse said. An hour and a half into the retreat, he called with the news to come home. Now. I bluntly announced, “I have to leave. My Dad is dying.” I called my son at school and asked him if he wanted to come home even though Papa might be gone by the time he arrived. He did. My brothers Scott and Bruce booked flights for hours later. As I sat calling family in the living room, I overheard my daughter comforting Dad by reading passages from his favorite poetry. I wrote about preparing. Dad was on his way.

That Friday night turned out to be Dad’s last.

Dean told the story of that evening at Dad’s memorial:

The night before his passing, he was too weak to come to the table for dinner, even in his wheel chair – so Betsy and I brought our dinner into his room. We set up a card table in front of his recliner, squeezed in next to him, and had a quiet time together. In retrospect, he was clearly starting to fade, although Betsy and I did not realize at the time how close he was to the end.  He was very sleepy during dinner, and seemed to be in a waking dream state: still connected to the physical world around him, but clearly seeing and responding to other things as well.  As we sat together, he looked at me with half-closed eyes and asked, “Dean, will you drive?” This caught me a bit off-guard, but I responded that of course I would. I wish now that I had had the wits to ask him where he wanted to go, but I did not. Afterwards, my first thought was that in his mind he thought we were sitting in our camper on one of our hunting trips, and that he wanted me to drive because he was too tired to carry on. What I’ve now come to believe is something else…. Our hospice nurse told Betsy and me that such restlessness is fairly common, and offered the belief that perhaps those close to death know they have somewhere they need to go, and are so determined to get there they will get up out of bed and walk right out the front door if you aren’t watching over them. Today when I look back on my father’s words, I think he knew it was time for him to leave, and that he wanted me to drive him there. I think he was asking me to take him home.”

Dad is home now. I miss him. But I am glad he is free.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Moved by Someone Else’s Father

Henry S. Campbell, 2011

My Dad, Henry, in 2011

I went to a funeral for a friend’s father yesterday. Now that more of my contemporaries’ parents are hitting their 80s, I seem to be attending more services for a mother or father who I never met.

This one really struck me and I’m trying to figure out why. It didn’t have the biggest attendance, held in a tiny old fashioned white frame Methodist church in the country. Nor did this father produce an unusually big family, just three daughters, eight grandchildren and a few great grandchildren.

Yet I’ve never heard so many people speak at a memorial service.

The pastor reminded people that the family’s wish was to remember and to celebrate, not to get over the loss. In the years since losing Mom and the months since losing Dad, I am still startled by the many times I hear people talk about “closure” or moving on.

The oldest sister chose as her theme how her father lived up to the Boy Scout law: trustworthy, helpful, loyal, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. She expounded on each. That, and her Dad liked desserts, especially ice cream, a lot. As she shared anecdotes, she giggled the way my friend does: head tilted back a bit, eyes sparkling, mouth slightly open and the brightest set of white teeth you’ve ever seen on full display. Joy bubbled up and out to all of us. The second sister talked about her father’s kindness and wisdom. When she was torn by a work situation and isolated from her family, she asked for his advice. He told her simply that things would work out, as they usually did, for the best. He offered his support, unconditionally, and trusted her to figure it out. And he loved ice cream.

My friend, the youngest daughter, shared little stories. Her father, brilliant as he was, never failed to see the humor in situations, even at awkward moments, like church. Her sense of humor and her father’s hummed between them like an electrical current, the kind of connection that doesn’t take much to set one of them off in a fit of giggles. Though she shared information about her Dad, what came through most was feeling. You could feel the way she felt about her Dad, and see the joy that he left with her. And he loved ice cream.

Many of the grandchildren shared. Their grandfather, they said, had a way of connecting personally with each of them. For the granddaughter with athletic talent, he was the athlete, having been a three-sport letterman back in the day when you could be good at more than one sport. The grandson with musical talent knew him as the pianist who gave him a coronet that had been handed down from the prior generation. If a grandchild liked to match wits, their grandfather was always ready to take an opposing point of view, teaching them the love of debate for the sheer enjoyment of divining a more comprehensive understanding. They played cribbage. He was handy around the house. He loved nature and the outdoors. He was a devoted and loyal husband. He adored his grandchildren. And he loved ice cream and dessert.

As the pastor promised, the family and friends — former university colleagues, neighbors, childhood classmates — stitched a more complete portrait of the man they all loved. It was a remarkably consistent portrait.

For me, listening, it was a little like watching a movie. Though chronologically disconnected, as the story unfolded, it captured me.

It also reminded me how each member of my family has similar stories of my father inside them. Although my father was greatly diminished by the time he passed away at 96, memories are tucked away, waiting to be dislodged by something one sees or does.

Maybe something as simple, in my father’s case, as eating a bowl of ice cream or chocolate cake. My Dad loved dessert, too.

Remembering isn’t like picking a scab. I get a fuzzily happy feeling when little memories of Mom and Dad flash through my mind. They do not sting; rather they leave me tingling with the knowledge that the people I loved have not truly left me. They are part of my life as long as I remember them.


Filed under Uncategorized

After: the Pull of Family, Redefined

Circa 1960 - Dean, Scott, Betsy, BruceJust before flying to Washington DC for the burial, I laughed when my son and I passed through the New Age vortex that is City of Mt. Shasta on our drive with his belongings back to college. “Amorandre’a” promised “evolutionary transformation sessions and workshops transforming the Body Mind to the level of the Atom.”

I’m remembering the “stick and ball” model of a testosterone molecule that my son had to create in 7th grade. The atoms (balls) of the model had to be connected with bonds (toothpicks) that shaped them into the angles dictated by nature: straight lines, angles and tetrahedrals. The shapes aren’t created by logic; the atoms are propelled and repelled into relationship with one another.

In the absence of Mom and Dad, we are forming new bonds across family units, relationships that seem to have an agency of their own.

After Dad died, one of the big questions that seemed to float in space before me was, “Who is my family now?” The phrase, “Friends are the family you choose,” implied to me a corollary: that family was something I could choose to define. I now think that was too simplistic.

My brothers and I are very different. We look different, we have different temperaments and we grew up in different eras. Mom and Dad’s life experience changed the way that they parented by the time my youngest brother and I entered the picture, so effectively we grew up with different parents.

In the months that have followed Dad’s death, I have increasingly felt that my brothers and I belong together, that they belong in my life and I in theirs. In the Marine Corps, you receive your “standard issue,” the equipment that you are expected to maintain. Take care of your equipment and it will take care of you. My brothers are my “issue.” I am theirs. We don’t get to exchange. We have to discover and value each other as we are.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about our weekend in D.C. – with 20 of us present – was the way that new relationships took shape.

Some of us were just plain new to each other. My nephew remarried and the weekend was the first opportunity his spouse and step-children to meet our clan. My brother’s fairly recently adopted teenage son is finding his way into the family, something that’s new to him after spending most of his life with foster families.

Family members’ messages popped up on Facebook:

The only thing I regret about my life is not having all the people I love in one place. Goodbyes are hard, so …let’s just say see you later.

one thing i hate: one day your having fun with family the next day you have to enter reality again grrrrr 

finally home whoooooo!!!!!!!! happy but sad to leave family 

At Washington National Cathedral Sunday, the jumping-off point for the sermon was a discussion of family. The Dean of the Cathedral, Dean Hall, said he was skeptical about the nuclear family; the Hebrew Bible, after all, unfolds like a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner (remember Cain and Abel?). Though the family is the structure we’ve developed for mutual support and nurture, it “contains all of the contradictions of what it means to be human.” He went on to say that family alone cannot sustain us, that Jesus alone offers us a community, “a table where all are welcome and equal.”

Mom and Dad left us all a legacy, a multi-faceted legacy of the things they so obviously believed in, through their actions. One of the most important things they stood for was family.

They felt present to me throughout the long weekend that followed the burial on Thursday. I felt their smile as they watched us stumble our way toward one another.

This message, from my niece, said it best:

A wise man once gave me advice that changed the way I thought about life. He told me that family is the meaning of life. He said to me that try as we might, most of us will never do the sort of things about which great books are written. In time, the world will forget all but a very few of us. But in the hearts of those we love, lies our chance to be remembered. 

The wise man was my grandfather. I thought of his words today as I watched the faces of my family gathered to remember. I can’t help thinking that my grandparents’ story isn’t over. They may be laid to rest among heroes, but theirs was not a war story. It was a love story, and it’s one that is still being written.

The pen is in our hands now. Let us remember well, and may we never stop writing. 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized


Photo cityoflennoxsd

I’m in a time warp. Everything at home is just as I left it, last Sunday’s paper mostly unread, the Sunday NYTimes Magazine still open to an article about the mid-career time out, cat toys on the coffee table. But the shriveled tomatoes and brown mangoes on the counter remind me that I’ve been gone for a week, as does the cat who won’t let me out of his sight.

When I see the souvenirs on my desk from a July trip to Japan, I expect to see dust. How could that have been just three weeks ago?

It feels as if I’ve been gone longer. I feel… different.

I didn’t expect to experience a greater sense of finality by burying Mom and Dad at Arlington last Thursday. “There’s a sense of closure,” a family member suggested before I left Washington, D.C.

No, that’s not it. Not it at all. Nothing felt unclosed.

This feels more like coming to the end of an enthralling book series that, in its coda, left me with certainty that my favorite characters could not return. There will be more books, but the plot will move on. New characters will be introduced. But the new protagonists will never quite equal that first story and I will not forget.

This feels final.

My role was final. At Washington National Cathedral yesterday, the second reading had this phrase: “…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” (from Hebrews 11:29-12:2)

God knows Dad ran his race with perseverance, caring about all of us, and for us, to the end.

We persevered, too.

I finished what I promised Mom when she thought she was dying in the hospital: I took care of Dad.

I finished gathering the family for this final event.

My brothers and I finished the final task set for us: Mom and Dad’s wish to be buried next to Midge at Arlington.

We did it.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Wish and a Dream Fulfilled

Fiftieth anniversary, 1991

In 1953, when my then-three-year-old sister died of leukemia, my mother and father buried her at Arlington National Cemetery, promising to join her after the two of them had seen their lives through.

Sixty years later, my family and I have now fulfilled that wish.

I don’t know quite how to explain the power of the past two days. It’s 1:15 in the morning, here in the nation’s capital, but I can’t sleep. Not yet. Not without telling a little bit of this story.

On Thursday, we gathered in the family greeting area in the Administration building at Arlington and were met by two representatives of the Marines, part of my parents’ honor burial. “Your father was a national treasure,” Colonel Steve Neary told us. He went on to recognize not only my father’s service, but my mother’s sacrifice as well.

The beautiful companion urn crafted by my brother Scott gleamed in the sunlight that cascaded through the windows, the grain dancing when you looked at it from different angles. The plaque read, “In our hearts and minds always, Scott, Bruce, Midge, Dean, Betsy.”

companion urn for Eileen and Henry

Arlington’s representative, Mr. Dixon, led us to the transfer point where a company of Marines, a contingent from the USMC Band, and a caisson awaited, drawn by six horses.

Two Marines moved toward the cemetery vehicle in such slow motion that time felt suspended. Fluid step by fluid step, they approached the drawer in the flag-draped coffin, and gently placed the urn inside. Because we created a companion urn for them, Mom joined Dad on the stately march to to grave site.

Drums led the way, followed by a company of Marines in lock step. Then the caisson, and then those family members who chose to follow the caisson on foot. We sat within view of Midge’s grave stone while the urn was placed on the pedestal. To our left, Col. Cabaniss, Commanding Officer of Marine Barracks, commanded the Marines.

The Chaplain’s remarks reflected his understanding of my parents’ story. He spoke of Dad’s valor in Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. He acknowledged Mom’s sacrifices, and the value of their service to their country. In his prayers, he spoke of them being joined with Midge for eternity.

Seven rifles fired three shots each, a 21 gun salute. Taps played. I lost it.

Agonizingly slowly in the glaring mid-day sun, the Marines folded the flag, and presented it to my brother, who passed it to me. I held the perfectly folded triangle against my stomach, like a child.

One by one, the officers dropped a knee and extended their condolences to we four siblings, we adult children who carried through the wishes of our parents.

That night, the family gathered at Siroc Restaurant on McPherson Square. Food, family and wine: all the ingredients we needed to honor my parents’ legacy.

If yesterday was the fulfillment of a wish, then tonight was the fulfillment of a dream – a chance to viscerally demonstrate my parent’s legacy of love and service by attending the Marine Baracks’ evening parade as guests of its executive officer, LtC. Tom Garnett.

“It’s not a Disney parade,” I told the grandchildren and great grandchildren in attendance. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

Two hours of riveting ritual, unfolding at a stately pace, performed perfectly under the watch of Major Sarah Armstrong, Parade Commander, and directed by Sgt. Major Angie Maness. Dad and Mom, I’m sure, were smiling, to see two such accomplished women in these roles.

The graciousness of the Barracks, in inviting us – all of us – to attend the parade as their guests, moves me  beyond words.

And if that weren’t enough, we happened to attend the annual parade hosted by the Commandant and honoring the chiefs of all of the armed forces, and were introduced by Col. Cabaniss to the Commandant, Gen. James Amos.

Though I would do anything to change the reality of losing Mom and Dad, I know that celebrating their lives has brought us together. Some branches of the family had never met before this week. We experienced something rare, together. A dream fulfilled.


Filed under Marines and those who serve, Uncategorized