I mentioned my brother’s death in Naming My Characters. He lost his life while in the military but not while he was actually in battle or even in uniform; nevertheless, I thought of him and other friends who have gone on ahead, as they say, on this special day of remembrance.
My brother Gil’s funeral service took place in our Baptist church in Amsterdam, Missouri but interment was about twenty miles away in Butler, the county seat of Bates County. Our procession traveled the local J Highway to State Highway 52 while en route. Every vehicle we met, without exception, pulled to the side of the road and stopped as a show of respect for the hearse and all the vehicles that followed. That memory is meaningful and even precious to me yet today.
I recognize that traffic volumes are greater now than they were in rural areas in 1968 and that stopping on highways now would pose a traffic hazard but it also seems to me that we have lost respect as a society for our fellow men. If we could do so safely, would we bother to stop if we met a hearse leading a funeral procession today? Would I?
A moment of confusion began as we neared Butler’s only traffic light at the intersection of Highway 52 with U.S. Highway 71. Policemen controlled the intersection but, believe it or not, we arrived at that spot precisely as a second funeral procession also got there. Our two, independent routes of travel could be thought of as an X. Our paths crossed at the choke point, to use military terminology, at the mid-point of the X. Whose procession should be allowed to pass and whose should be held up?
It turns out the other procession (as I was told later) was going from Holden to Rich Hill to bury Eddie Hirni, a first and second grade classmate of mine. He had been killed on the first day of the Tet Offensive in Gia Dinh Province, South Vietnam, 31 January 1968. We stopped for them (and were glad to do so) since they were on the larger highway. What are the odds? Two flag-draped coffins of young men kept company by two sets of grieving parents?
Eddie’s father was the Superintendent of Schools in Holden, where I lived my earliest years and attended my first two years of school. Our families attended church together but, unlike me, Eddie and his older brother sometimes had to fight their way home simply because some ruffian didn’t appreciate the job their father had.
Eddie won the Outstanding Soldier award when he completed Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood. He married and his wife became pregnant before he shipped over to Vietnam. He never even got to hold his baby, his son. He earned two Purple Hearts in the Mekong Delta during the summer of 1967 plus, of course, a third the following January at Tet. Needless to say, I was glad to show respect to my friend and I was glad so many local farmers had shown respect to my brother.
On this Memorial Day, I pray that citizens of this proud country show respect to each other and honor the heritage our soldiers, sailors and fly boys have passed on to us. As Abraham Lincoln so famously said many years ago, may they not have died in vain.