I was born in 1957 in San Diego, California. My father, George Wray had served in the Armed Forces as did numerous relatives. The Korean war had been over for four years, the Vietnam War was three years away. Eisenhower was President and America was catching her breath and leaning into the race to the future. John F. Kennedy was eyeing the White House.
My childhood memories start when I was four, that’s the earliest I can recall clearly. The town I grew up in, Apollo, was deep in rural Pennsylvania northeast of Pittsburgh; squarely in the middle of the Rust Belt. Allegheny Ludlum’s Vandergrift steel manufacturing plant was still running and nightly ‘slag dumps’ into the Kiskiminetas River were still popular evening entertainment. Cautionary tales by relatives in the steel industry made it clear that men were ‘consumables’ and only the vigiliant and the lucky survived unscathed. At age six I was quite familiar with amputation scars and missing limbs – most of the adults I knew had one or the other. Coal and cargo trains ran regularly and I walked railroad tracks virtually every time my friends and I went hiking. The sound, smell and feeling of huge trains rumbling or roaring by fill my memories of that time. When I saw the movie Stand by Me I could empathize closely with the boys as they crossed a railroad bridge. Memories of the smell and feel of wood, creosote and hot metal come back sharply.
My memories of childhood are also littered with the jingo and propaganda of the Cold War. We heard in school what monsters the Communists were and television brought images of nuclear bomb tests – horrifying that our enemies had such things. More horrifying was the fact that such things existed at all. I was a smart kid (or so my teachers kept telling me); I understood what “10,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit” meant. Hot as the surface of the sun, literally ‘hell on Earth.’ Even as a boy I realized no human being should wield such force and knew without a doubt that if we ever actually used them in earnest, we’d strip this beautiful world down to naked molten rock – a giant slag dump. So I grew up living in fear that one day the madmen ‘running the world’ would go wild and kill us all. I still remember the ‘duck and cover’ drills that I knew abundantly well meant absolutely nothing – there’s no escape from an atomic attack.
My brother in law David Hill served in the Vietnam war. I remember his visits when he finished basic training and before he left to go overseas. When he came home he dealt with PTSD (usually during thunderstorms) and the depression that accompanies it. He died recently of cancer induced by exposure to Agent Orange.
In recent years I lost my wife Marilyn to lymphoma as well as my parents to aneurism and heart failure. Things weren’t going well at all. Then I met my future wife and life started getting better again.
My fiance had four children and had lost her husband to a heart attack triggered by a congenital condition likely caused by prenatal prescription drugs whose effects on mothers and children were not yet known. So death-by-industry was a very personal experience for us both.
When we decided to live together, one of the items she brought with her was a Service Flag with three stars on it- one for each family member serving. It hangs in our front window, slightly lower than our American flag as per tradition. There is no question in our home about ‘honoring the troops’ – those ‘troops’ are our family members.
To all the families in Longmont, Colorado and the rest of the United States who have family serving in the Armed Forces, you have our tribute and our comradeship. When our government decides to send troops or bring them home, we feel as you do – grief or relief since it could mean the loss or rescue of our dearest hearts.
On this day I pay homage to all my family and friends that have served our Nation – as well as the millions of servicemembers and their families. We remember you every day but most especially today – when the United States stops briefly to bow its collective head and say a prayer for the lost and those in harm’s way.
God bless the service families today, we stand with you.
May they all come home soon and may we ‘study war no more.’