A memorable Memorial Day

Over the past eleven years Memorial Day has become more of a real holiday for me. We have been at war and it has directly touched many of us.  Memorial Day is a holiday to say thank you for the past, present and future sacrifice.

I always feel as though I have two real regrets in my life. One was a fight I was involved in in college which left an outnumbered kid badly beaten, and the other is that I never joined the military.
Unfortunately, I come from a direct line of “close but no cigar soldiers.” My grandfather was a Marine during WWII but was injured before seeing any action and my father was a reservist in Vietnam but he too never saw any war fronts. One of the only things I have of his is his army jacket with the faded black letters of Crowley across the pocket. I’ve always been aware of my family’s lack of duty. An “all bark and no bite” area for the patriarchs of my line. There was Uncle Bick who I always thought was the coolest growing up. He drove a Harley in my youth, and the stories of his two tours in Nam are whispered through the hallways of our heritage. He came back from his first tour, heard his younger brother might be drafted, and signed up again to take his place.  He was the one beacon, the one story I could tell about how my family contributed to the American cause.

My uncle Bick, Vietnam 1969

Now the family I married into is much different. Katherine’s father, one the greatest guys you have ever met, served in the Navy for over twenty years with action in Vietnam. His father was a Commander in the Navy who served in WWII and Korea and his two brothers spent time in Vietnam as a Marine and an Army soldier. My wife was born in Japan and really didn’t get to see her father for the first two years of her life. Over the seven years of my time with Katherine I have become privy to the military family. Not only do I get to hear the stories but I get to see first hand the sacrifices that are made by our soldiers and their families generation after generation. Now the combat is one thing, but the trials of the young families at home are equally impressive and important. Could I have done it? Could I have sacrificed my time, my youth, my life?  It’s easy to say “yes” from the beaches of California but it takes a real hero to board that plane or ship and say goodbye to the soil from which he sprouted.
This Memorial Day, Katherine and I flew to Louisiana and Mississippi to visit her father’s side of the family. Her grandmom, Grandma Dunlap, has become a very important person to me and has helped ease the void of the loss of my grandparents. Grandma Dunlap calls me an old soul. She and I correspond through letters and she makes me feel close to something, at peace with myself. On March 12, she turned 90, so Katherine and I took the long weekend to celebrate her birthday.
We flew into New Orleans at night, the most romantic American city in my opinion, and upon feeling that thick air we knew we were in the South. At the car rental counter, a pretty little Southern belle upgraded us to a 2012 Ford Mustang.

“Will thet be okayyy?” she asked in her Louisiana drawl. Katherine said the change was because they were out of smaller cars but I couldn’t help thinking it was my Yankee smile.

I do love the South: I love fried chicken, I love storytelling, I love history, I love Southern charm and I love vampires. Real ones, not emo ones.

We spent that first night and the following day in the crescent city, walking along the levee to Jackson Square, the French Market along Bourbon Street.
We drove out to the Garden District and Katherine without complaint followed me to the Lafayette Cemetery. This poor girl has followed me through at least 20 cemeteries over our years together. I find them beautiful, quiet, sad. We walked the shaded streets desperate to evade the heat and I led her to Anne Rice’s old house. I had brought “Interview with a Vampire” to read on the trip.

The secret garden at Lafayette cemetery

Lafayette cemetery # 1

My patient wife

Anne Rice’s old house. Yes, I have Interview with a Vampire in hand

We left town in the early evening and drove through the Southern night. I rolled down my window. Fuck, it’s humid. I rolled it back up.

We were on our way to spend the next few days visiting with Grandma Dunlap and Katherine’s uncle and aunt, Charles and Anita.

The first day in Mississippi, we drove Grandma down to the coast for some R & R on Saturday (that’s rest and recreation for all of you that don’t know the military lingo.)
Katherine’s grandmom lost her second house in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 after losing one in Camille in 1969. Katrina took her house that was a block from the beach in Gulfport, Mississippi. She owns the land still and after lunch and a quick swim in the Gulf, we went to see where it once stood. Grandma walked us around the lot, pointing at areas, telling us stories. Her pear tree was one of the few things to outlast the powerful storm and now flourished with 100 pears. Grandma and I picked four for me to take back to California and plant at our new house. These I wrapped securely as if treasure, something we will always have from her old house.

Grandma and the pear tree

Katherine and Grandma, a the space that used to have a house












Some neighbors noticed we were there and the next thing I knew we were surrounded by her old friends. “Miss Susan is here.” “We miss you Miss Susan.” The afternoon was spent listening to pre-Katrina stories while a little girl of five, Abigail, followed me around taking pictures of me on her mom’s Iphone.
We said our goodbyes and headed back to Hattiesburg in the Mustang.  Grandma Dunlap insisted we take it for our adventure.

Grandma in the good old American Mustang

As an extra surprise Katherine’s Uncle Dave and cousin Howard drove down from Alabama. I could see the joy gleam in Grandma’s eyes as her family sat around her talking, catching up. We moved down the road to Aunt Anita and Uncle Charles’s house to make room for Dave and Howard which was okay by me because they live in a country mansion. Set on 10+ acres it has two ponds, a barn with stables and tons of space, freedom and wildlife. Uncle Charles took me fishing the next morning and I was like a regular old angler catching 15 fish in an hour. I even got Katherine in on the action (after her morning workout of course.) This chick is going to drop out a baby and hit a 5 mile jog that same day–I just know it.

Free advertising for my trainer

Katherine pulling up her first large mouth bass











We spent the afternoon lazily lounging around reading our books. I kept feeling like I could get used to this Southern gentlemen lifestyle, complete with drinking sweet tea and chewing sugar cain.
A good friend from college, Houser, drove down with his girl from Tuscaloosa where they are both in grad school for writing. Matter of fact he’s probably critiquing this right now and shaking his head. They came for dinner. I had not seen him since he was a groomsman in my wedding. He and I went to walk the grounds and catch up. The twilight had come and the sounds of the insects surrounded us as the air cooled. Two old friends, pals, living different lives on different coasts. The madness of the time we ran together trailing behind us as we walked through the woods.
“Do you want to sit on the dock?” he suggested.
We made our way out onto the old rotted dock. We thought we were smart because we only went about seven feet out as the planks got worse the farther out they were. No one had been on this dock since Reagan had been in office. We sat and drank our beers to a symphony of frogs, talking about old times, new times. Katherine appeared about 50 yards away. “Dinner is ready boys.” We stood up and started walking in. The second my foot was on solid land, I heard cracking. I looked back and there Houser stood, chest deep in the pond, holding his beer above water. We started cracking up as I helped him out. He was soaked, a whole section of five boards had collapsed. I managed to snap a picture after we got him, his phone and his smokes safely to land.

Indiana Greg

The dinner was wonderful, a shrimp boil and beef brisket. We all had a good laugh at Houser’s pre-dinner dip. The evening was spent as you’d expect. Cocktails on the porch, stories of the South, the military, future dreams and plans. The night closing in on us, reminding us that this could not last forever. Grandma told us of her life as a military wife with four young kids. Uncle Dave told us of his nights spent in the jungles of Vietnam where he would sleep almost naked so the lizards and termites couldn’t crawl up his clothes. Aunt Anita told us how much she always worried for her brothers when they were away at war and how important letters were. Jesus man, I hope people stop and consider sacrifice.We ended the night with some laughs and some hugs. It was midnight and everyone was tired except Grandma.

Our final morning was slow, Southern. Pancakes at Grandma’s, soft conversation and promises to return soon. Uncle Dave and I fixed her garage door. She gave me some books and some kisses on my cheek. We said our goodbyes and I hit it towards New Orleans. We had looked for a VA hospital to stop by and leave some cookies. When I was at Penn State on Memorial Day, I would bake cookies and take a hot girl or two to hand those cookies out at the VA hospital. The old vets loved it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any on our route so Katherine promised me we could do it in June, when they weren’t expecting it. Basically I’m going to sneak attack some vets with a pretty girl and some cookies.  Also, I wanted to go to the Oak Alley plantation which was about 45 minutes past the airport towards Baton Rouge. This was the plantation in the film version of “Interview with a Vampire.” Plus, it looked beautiful online. I was flying in the Mustang until all of the sudden I saw the blue and red lights behind me. It wasn’t a Memorial Day parade either.
“License and insurance.”
“It’s a rental,” I said as I handed him my California license. He looked once at my license, once at the car and once at my gorgeous wife and he didn’t say another word. Four minutes later, he handed me a 300.00 ticket. Whatever. I looked at his name and it was Eddie Howie and I couldn’t help thinking of Ricky Bobby. We laughed and continued on.
The plantation was beautiful and, after getting some mint juleps, we walked the grounds. I love history and I love big houses, castles, manors and the like. We took the tour of the inside and the cool of the air condition was a relief. Although I grew up in humid Philly summers, my pretty wife wilts and melts.
Time was running out. Katherine said she would get our steed and pick me up at the top of the Oak Alley. I wanted to walk it once. I made my way down it, turning to take pictures. I crossed the road and climbed the hill that holds the Mississippi River in.  I looked down at the plantation and its beauty. A black guy was there with his young daughter and son. They played and giggled on the hillside.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” He said.
“Absolutely amazing,” I replied.
“I was here with my wife last year and I wanted to bring the kids to show them.”
“I can’t get over the beauty of it,” I said still staring at the plantation house. He and I sat next to each other on the hillside, the great Mississippi river blowing a sweet breeze across the back of our necks.
I thought about him, his children, this house, this country. I remembered all the lives we’ve given for Freedom. I remembered the pain and pride it is to be an American. I was glad to share this sight with this guy as it gave me hope. Hope for our country, our people and our memory of all our soldiers and their families that have lived and died so I could sit here, on this bank, next to this man, free.
Katherine pulled up in the Mustang and I stood to go. He stood quickly too as if I had awakened him from a dream. He held out his hand. “Travel safe,” he said. “You too,” I said, and we shook on it.

Oak alley plantation,

In the Oak Alley, mint juleps in hand










In dedication to my father-in-law Lieutenant Commander Phil Dunlap, Uncle Steve Bickell, Patrick Igo and Sgt. Dan Mealing, as well all the men and women and their precious families, thank you.


1 Response to “A memorable Memorial Day”

  1. 1 chrisy thompson
    July 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    You’re awesome.

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