It’s the day after Memorial Day, I know, but I did it this way on purpose. Everyone gives thanks on Memorial Day.
Truth is, I’m not the kind of guy folks tend to label “patriotic.” I have liberal tendencies. I’ve questioned wars, gun ownership and members of the Tea Party (I’ve actually belittled these morons). I’ve suggested freedom should not be guaranteed to all and gone so far as to say we need the government to make our choices because we can’t make good choices ourselves. But all the while, I’ve realized I wouldn’t be able to do any of it if not for the sacrifices made by our nation’s military.
I guess that’s one realization I don’t write much about.
I think often about my mother’s military-laden family, particularly my late Uncle Herb and how he’d disagree with what I say but respect it nonetheless. He was a veteran; my grandmother loved him. I miss him. My uncle Ron is much the same, although he rarely talked about his service to our country, similar to my cousin Steve (Herb’s son), whom I absolutely adored as a child.
There are more veterans in my family. Numerous more. But Uncle Herb was the veteran I admire most.
When I was 16 and had my license, Uncle Herb lived in a senior apartment complex in Smethport, Pa. I participated in no sports in the wintertime at this age, so it was not uncommon to see my little red truck sliding on the ice over the Barnum Hill from Olean, N.Y., to Smethport after school to spend some time with him. Occasionally, we’d eat dinner. More often than not, it was just us talking over his little TV in his tiny “man cave” of a living room.
He’d mess with his stuff. He had a lot of it. Some was the professional photographer’s camera equipment, which continues to interest me, and the rest was the trinkets of a lifetime. Uncle Herb had been all over, it seemed.
I loved to hear about the world. He’d find the most obscure fact about the most obscure place and share it with me, seemingly not knowing the treasure he’d passed on. His family was my family; stories about these people were stories I cherished.
And the law. He loved the law and hated it all the same. While he never got into trouble that he cared to mention, it was clear every instance of paying “useless” taxes or change of a behavior had been a learning experience to him – and he shared it with me.
I learned a lot about the world from Uncle Herb.
He’d sit in his easy chair while I sat on the sofa. He’d speak up over the TV every now and then and I’d listen. Then he’d reach the point where what he said only made sense to him and I’d pretend to listen, only thinking about it in depth as I drove home in the evening light a few hours later.
It is not uncommon for me to wonder if what I do today, as a father, member of his family and U.S. citizen, would fit into Uncle Herb’s ideology. It is not uncommon for me to get a “no.”
I used to think it was so cool to go across the street to the supermarket and buy us something to eat – usually a bag of onion crisps or something else I’d never heard of – with his MAC card. He gave me his pin number, the ultimate sign of trust, and I’d be sure not to buy more than what he said. I’d always buy a Diet Mountain Dew with my own money.
He was a man who exercised his freedom by simply living his life. He loved his family, that was clear, and I was part of his family. I felt privileged.
To this day, I hang and ink drawings made by Uncle Herb – a man of all men who was once employed by Zippo to freehand designs for their famous lighters. I am so proud to tell people who come into my home my uncle made them. The mention makes me smile.
My uncle Herb, a veteran, was an active participant in Civil War re-enactments, you know. He used to show me photographs and sketches of him in his Confederate grays. I never questioned then why he wore these colors. He was born in Texas, and Texas was a place he and several other members of my mother’s family – including my beloved grandmother – deemed a sacred land.
Years later, though, as a resident of the state where the Civil War began, I have to wonder if there was more to my uncle Herb’s decision to represent the South in these re-enactments. I have to wonder if he was truly a man of freedom. I have to wonder …
If that’s the case, and I’d like to think it is, I’m pretty sure he’d like me – even now, with my liberal views.
Thank you, Uncle Herb, for teaching me how to listen. Thank you, all veterans. You have given people in America the freedom to be Americans.