I walked through a local cemetery today, Memorial Day. Two girls in bike helmets were picking dandelions and sticking them on the graves of Civil War soldiers.
I was about to leave but I stopped myself and sat on a stone at the entrance. One moment, one day to think about war, about soldiers who die for their countries, for their governments, sometimes for reasons that are big and clear and noble and often for murkier ones that are hard to justify. The Civil War will never lose its sting. Brother fighting brother.
But my mind went to another continent, another era and I thought about my grandfather who commanded a battalion of tanks in WWII in the North African desert under British commander Monty then went on to fight in Italy. I never knew him, he died years later, still young, of Lou Gehrig's disease. I have a beautiful picture of him and my grandmother in my kitchen.
Growing up I had a favorite glass. It was small with a pattern of painted black stars. One day I broke it. My mother sighed, then she told me my grandfather had carried it all through the war.
He wrote her letters, often with little sketches of his surroundings - his tent, his boots - and cheerful stories. I've seen the letters in his rapid inscrutable hand, double-sided on thin lined paper in fountain pen.
After the war he took his family to Italy. My mother tells how at a battlefield cemetery where he had fought he looked at the names of the men and wept. He was a big proud handsome man and she had never seen him cry before. She said he would never talk about it.
How do you thank someone for risking his life for country, family, for you and everything you know and hold dear, for fighting in one of the greatest struggles between good and evil the world has ever seen?
Dear Major Barker, grandpa Reg, thank you. Sorry I broke your lucky glass.