Since returning home in September 1989, I haven’t missed a Memorial Day service. That is, with the exception of 2004. That year I was winging my way to London the Sunday night before to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Looking back, it was altogether fitting that such a momentous pilgrimage began on Memorial Day.
But that’s been it. 2004 was the only year I missed since 1990. Like a homing pigeon, every year was the same. Every year I gravitated towards the local Memorial Day service on Monday morning of the unofficial holiday weekend kickoff to the summer season.
The ritual has been the same. I always went to Bellevue Cemetery in Ontario, California. Two reasons dictated this practice. First, it’s in the neighborhood. It’s a five-minute drive from home. Second, and more significantly, I have a friend buried there. No, not a friend, not exactly. Not even a passing acquaintance. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s not Arlington Cemetery. In fact, it pretty humble fare at Bellevue. It’s an old park by California standards, but simple and dignified. Each year, the crosses somehow get painted, the flags get planted, and the place takes on a quiet air of reverence this time of year that befits the mood of the time and the significance of events.
Every year was the same in other ways as well. Like clockwork I would fall into a mental and spiritual funk sometime around the middle of May as the holiday approached. It manifested itself in a number of predictable patterns. Lack of energy; inability to concentrate; loss of short-term memory; a sense of preoccupation; and just a general sense of listlessness. Fortunately, this condition was always short-lived. By Monday afternoon, as the weekend wound down, things started to look up, and by Tuesday morning, I was right as rain.
This did, however, cause problems for those around me. My wife just couldn’t fathom it. She was particularly frustrated by my unconditional insistence that we go nowhere and do nothing on this first extended weekend of summer. There was a reason we had a three-day weekend this time of year, I insisted, and it wasn’t to go to the beach, visit the mountains, or throw a barbeque.
But this year was going to be different. I wasn’t going to set myself up for an early-summer bought of temporary depression. Who needs it? The country is falling apart. There’s no sense of national identity or local community. The whole thing was a mockery and a sham. And I was going to have no part of it anymore. There were better things to do on a holiday weekend, and I was going to partake of as many as I could cram into a three-day weekend.
Ah, the best laid plans. . .
My own military service didn’t add up to much. Mostly, it consisted of marking time and not becoming the last casualty in a Southeast Asian adventure the country was tired of fighting and the leadership no longer wanted to win, as if they ever did. But this time of year, it’s impossible not to reflect on the men, more than the experience. And that, more than anything else was the source of my lethargy, remembering those who came home and those who didn’t. This year was no different. Some habits are not easily broken. Some habits shouldn’t be.
In recent years, the quality of speakers at this service has deteriorated. Last year, we had a woman – an Annapolis graduate, no less – who passionately espoused the lesbianization of the armed forces as the only way to overcome the inherent bigotry and hate of America which led to the tragic events of 9/11.
The year before, it was a retired Halliburton executive who praised the globalist vision of George W. Bush, and his commitment to the war on terror which threatened the financial health of the Fortune 500. He triumphantly pointed out that under the president’s courageous leadership, Halliburton’s financial performance had reached record levels.
In 2003, it was a La Raza spokesman whose theme was the global village, how the battle was just beginning, and how the real fight was for increased opportunities in America for the oppressed peoples of color of the third world.
2002 gave us some stump speech for Hillary Clinton’s proposed legislation of unlimited lifetime healthcare and financial benefits for any undocumented migrants who served in the armed forces,.
So this year, I expected more of the same. The last time we had a speaker who actually honored the fallen had to be 2001 or before. And because this year I came to personally honor one of those fallen warriors, as in past years, I was prepared to grit my teeth and endure yet another political hack getting up on the podium to push whatever agenda they had in mind: from open borders for the oppressed peoples of color of the third world, to the maximization of global profits for the Fortune 500, to everything in between.
This year, I was pleasantly surprised. This year, Gary Ovitt,, former mayor of Ontario and current San Bernardino County Supervisor was a surprise speaker, replacing State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod who failed to show for some reason.
It was a fortuitous turn of events.
Ovitt was outstanding. He spoke with a quiet eloquence of the “idea of America”. He spoke of a nation that went out of its way to provide opportunity for all, that went to great lengths to right its own wrongs, however long, hard and imperfect that process was and when called upon to defend the world from barbarism, met that challenge with skill, determination and commitment.
He spoke of generations of young Americans who, throughout our history, came to the sober realization that when the nation was threatened, they themselves would have to meet that threat and destroy it. He spoke of the sobriety with which young boys became men as they embraced such challenges. And he spoke of the humbling grief that overwhelms families when they absorb the news that their loved ones have paid the ultimate price for the country to survive, endure and thrive.
He did not talk about the virtue of a one-world, global utopia, corporate profits, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.
It was a page right out of yesterday’s playbook. It was also a welcome respite, a cool summer breeze amidst the stifling heat of a nation in the process of a slow, painful implosion.
So, with the playing of taps, I was off to honor a fallen warrior. And so we come to Tom Eckl, KIA 20 February 1968, Republic of Vietnam.
I never knew him. I didn’t serve with him. I knew him only by reputation. He was older than I was, and among the first casualties of the Vietnam War at our local high school. He was certainly the very first, at least in my memory, for whom the administration held a memorial service.
Tom Eckl was a gifted athlete. He was a big, strong-armed quarterback with great mobility and tremendous throwing accuracy for the mid-1960s. Who knows what his athletic career would have looked like but for a knee injury bad enough to keep him from a major Division I college football scholarship? It was not, however, bad enough to keep him out of the Army.
He served in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade from 1967 to 1968. He was killed in action February 20 of that year. Reports of his death are as conflicted as the war in which he fought. One such report indicated he was killed by friendly fire – one of our own mortar rounds fell short and got him. Another suggests a breach failure in a 105mm howitzer resulted in an explosion that killed him.
Either way, Tom Eckl died for nothing. No strategic objective was seized (as if there were any in that war). No lives were saved. Just another casualty among thousands. A life cut short. A body bag coming home to a grieving family.
It’s tempting to idealize the dead. Especially those who die young and tragically. However, in later years, I became acquainted with Tom’s family to a certain extent. In 1990, I brought a tracing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC to his brother, then living in South Orange County, CA. I came to learn about Tom’s family of origin.
He came from a big family whose children were raised right by a strong, loving father, and a compassionate, nurturing mother. Tom’s brother and his wife themselves had six kids, and they were being raised right, with the same solid values. These kids are now young adults, some of whom are starting families of their own. Just as bad upbringing poisons the water of the community, solid values also ring true. His other siblings have similar tales of accomplishment. This family was one of the ever-diminishing points of light in their community and their country. There is no doubt that Tom would have left a similar legacy given the chance.
So, I keep the vigil every year. As far as I know, nobody else shows up on this day. And somebody should. It’s little enough to do for a good man who should have come home. Like the many who came before, and countless more who will come after.
Survivor’s guilt runs rampant on this day, particularly since I was delivered from the fate Tom Eckl met in Vietnam. And even more so, considering my almost two score years of living since those days haven’t amounted to much.
It’s very tempting to ask why and rage against the unfairness of life. Such an exercise is pointless. Romans 8:28 tells us:
That’s a particularly bitter verse to embrace on a day like Memorial Day. But, like all absolute truth, embrace it we must, if we walk by faith.
We can also rest in the sure and certain knowledge that the ultimate restoration is yet to come. We don’t know when, or how, and we may get no respite this side of the resurrection to eternal life. But we can hope that there will be a special place of honor for those who met their obligations with integrity and courage, regardless of the personal cost to themselves or their loved ones. Until then, we can lick our wounds, mourn our losses, rejoice in our loved ones and get on with the business of living.
After the service, I went out to lunch with a group from my local church who just happened to be in attendance. It was a gathering of friends and family on a day that was turning out to be magnificent. Clear, warm and dry. A perfect day to usher in the long, carefree days of summer.
It was a sad day, but a good one. A day that hurt, but it was a nice kind of hurt. Everybody was going about various summer activities – going to the beach, visiting the mountains, lounging in a backyard hammock to up the burgeoning summer sun. Some were even throwing a barbeque.
Who knows, maybe Tom Eckl’s death wasn’t in vain after all.