Last week, I covered my rhubarb twice. It is large and leafy, bursting ripe and blushing pink. It is ready to harvest, but harvests are my father’s business.
I called my dad the first week of March. We talked about potatoes. I was a farm kid. He told me to dig a hole, or store them cool. I told him we’d gone to the locker. He told me he’d seen people shopping, carts piled high with frozen pizzas and Hungry Man dinners. “Those people would never have survived the Depression,” he said. My father is a survivor.
This past week I worked with a former professor, Dr. Harland Nelson, on his submitted piece timed with Memorial Day. His piece, in our Tuesday Public Opinion, speaks to his military days. He pondered its relevance to Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day. I told him I believed the stories of the living honor our memories of the dead. A living witness is a powerful thing. We humans are flawed and forgetful beings.
While my own father is certainly flawed, he’s not forgetful. He grew up on the original O’Connor homestead in Carimona Township near Preston, Minn. His name is Kenneth, but he’s called Buzz, based on the noises he made riding his trike as a toddler, or so I’ve heard. He did farm chores, played pretty good football and was a great shot.
Dad joined the Army and wound up in the 101st Airborne Division. Years later, in my mother’s walnut bureau, in her drawer of ‘special things,’ rested a black and white photograph of paratrooper landings I would sneak out and look at in wonder. I asked Dad as a kid what it felt like to jump out of a helicopter. He told me to rig up a bed sheet and jump off our silo.
My Dad has made most of his military memories his own business. I do know he jumped out of a helicopter as a young man and fell into a jungle. I know he survived. I know it is somehow tied into the amount of canned goods he still keeps on hand. I know he was Special Ops. I know that had something to do with him being a crack shot. I know he was deployed to Little Rock in 1957. I know he was the jeep driver for his commander. I know he was guarding the steps of the high school the day the Little Rock Nine made their memorable walk. I know he was bound for other places, and other operations, that were called off. I know all of this because he has given priceless stalks of oral history, like my adolescent rhubarb growing toward
The author’s father at his home in Harmony, Minn. Photo courtesy of Indigo Fish.
bloom, to his grandchildren. My Dad doesn’t seem, at first glance,
much of a soldier. He’s never attended Veterans events, or joined a club or used the VA. Yet he is. He is absolutely a soldier. He is humble. He is stoic. He is fastidious. He is disciplined. He’s a creature of ritual. He’s a do not let that flag hit the ground and remove your damn hat in a parade kind of soldier. My Dad’s just a soldier with secrets. But he fed us some pretty good shit on a shingle when mom was busy. And it’s because of him I remain convinced I’m the only one in my immediate family who can properly make a bed.
Dad’s future resting spot lies next to my mother in my hometown of Spring Grove, Minn. My mom made sure she got buried next to the spot waiting for her best friend Sheila. They fancy future conversations, akin to the stretched phone cord I’d trip over in my kitchen as a kid. The Roveruds are in front of them. Back toward the entrance is my high school friend, Aaron, who died young. My social studies teacher, Mrs. Holm, is there. There are so many more. As I grow older, this cemetery becomes a living piece of the sum of me.
This Memorial Day, many will honor those who have fallen defending what we are left to preserve. Some will awaken the graves of other loved ones from winter, with baskets and statues and flowers. It will be done quietly this year, without ceremony and without fanfare. Yet it will be done nonetheless.
We miss my Dad in our office. He’s a frequent flyer, and pops in with wit, wisdom and a story or two. These stories frequently involve places out west he wants to escape to without ‘that daughter tracking device’ called a cell phone, or reported sightings of mountain lions and black bears in his vicinity. We look forward to seeing him again. Meanwhile, I honor him. I honor him as a living witness to history. I honor his survival, and the rich harvest of his voice. I honor the value of such voices in our future. A steadfast Memorial Day to us all.