In one of my very earliest memories, I am standing by Grandpa at the train station in American Fork. It is 1947 and I am 5 years old.
A big door opens on the side of a baggage car, and Uncle Louis' casket is rolled out onto the platform. It is draped with an American flag, and accompanied by a soldier with pure white hair. Someone says his hair turned white overnight. That image makes a deep impression on me. The white-haired soldier, I have learned since, was one of only three who survived the artillery barrage that killed the rest of Uncle Louis' unit on Jan. 3, 1944, as they rode in transport trucks toward the front to fight in the Battle of the Bulge.Though both my parents were at the station when Uncle Louis' body came home, I don't remember them being there. I do remember Grandpa, though, and a deep sense of sorrow. It was as if Grandpa's sorrow covered the world.
Uncle Louis had been buried in a military cemetery in Liege, Belgium for the three years before that. Many years later, in 1976, I visited a cemetery very similar to the one at Liege. I happened across it by coincidence at Osterbeek, Holland. As the sun was setting, I walked through long rows of fallen British and American soldiers. I remember dark silhouettes of tall cypresses, well-groomed beds of flowers flaming in the last light of day, and countless marble headstones with names engraved on them of men and boys from all over England and the United States.
I thought a lot that evening about Uncle Louis and the three years his body lay in a lonely Belgium cemetery.
This morning I visited Georgia Lou, Uncle Louis' widow, and her husband, Howard Turnbow. Georgia Lou and Howard have been married 42 years, 10 times longer than she even knew Uncle Louis. Besides Delina and Raymond, Uncle Louis' children, they have had six children of their own. Theirs is a whole different world from that which I picture when I think of Uncle Louis. It is as if Uncle Louis happened in a different life. I guess he did.
Georgia Lou has the flag that covered Uncle Louis' casket when he arrived at the train station in American Fork. She has kept it on a shelf in her bedroom closet all these years, and vows to keep it the rest of her life. It is a part of her life that never goes away.
But life does go on.
Raymond, Uncle Louis' son, is a machinist and lives in West Valley City. Whenever I see him, I know I must have known his father. There is a familiarity about him that reminds me of someone more than himself. My mother says he looks a lot like Uncle Louis.
Raymond and his wife, Colleen, have four children, three boys and a girl. All three boys are in the military. The oldest, David, is a gunner's mate on the Frigate Thomas C. Hart, steaming at this moment somewhere off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Mike is part of a tank crew in a National Guard unit based in Richfield that expects to be called up at any moment. Justin, who is still in high school, joined the National Guard last July and wants to be a medical technician.
I wonder what they tell their buddies about my Uncle Louis . . . their paternal grandfather . . . who died in Belgium a generation before they were born.
Strictly speaking, Howard is the grandpa they know, not Uncle Louis. Uncle Louis, their other Grandpa, is almost a mythical figure frozen in time by the tragedy of war . . . a photograph, a trunk of mementos in the basement, a carefully folded flag in Grandma's closet, a watch that has become a family heirloom reminding them of a time so far back that it exists only as a story Grandma tells from time to time in bits and pieces.
For there are plenty of stories. Howard, their living Grandpa, comes from a family that has also known war closehand.
"Because of the Gulf crisis the last few months," says Georgia Lou, "the stories seem to come up more often than usual."
"War," she continues, with a tone of resignation, "is just another hurt."
As I search for Uncle Louis, I find the world closes around his memory like a pond absorbs a stone that has been thrown. In time, even the ripples fade, and the surface is left as if no stone had ever been thrown . . . except for those who remember. I realized from my visit with Georgia Lou and her family that war leaves nothing but dead ends on the roads to all our fondest hopes and our brightest dreams.