My family’s history includes very little military service. But that doesn’t change the fact that Memorial Day is for all Americans, even those like me who can’t point to any known fallen war heroes.
It’s easy to dismiss this weekend as little more than the starting gun for Summer, like I did through most of my youth. My memories of Memorial Day weekend include no particular traditions or events of noteworthiness. A camping trip some years, a home BBQ others. But as I’ve grown older I felt I might be missing something. I feel such respect and appreciation for servicemen and woman I selfishly craved it for myself and my family.
I never served. It’s something I have regretted my entire adult life; sort of a “Why didn’t I put my money where my mouth is?” regret. I almost enlisted. When I was 18 a high school friend and I decided we would. We then decided to cheer our decision by downing a few shots of my Dad’s Canadian Club Whiskey. While thoroughly buzzed we then jumped in our cars and drove to Redmond to the nearest Army recruiting office. Only, we couldn’t find it. After driving around a short while (remember no GPS back then. No Mapquest either. And asking directions is just something we guys never do) we decided we would sober up and make our commitment to serve official the next day. The next day came and went, as did the next, and the next and the next…on and on.
My Uncle Wayne Schuett and I were driving North to Blaine, WA last November 30 on a mission to spread my father’s ashes at Birch Bay when my Uncle enlightened me on his own service. I never knew he was a Marine. It’s something he simply never talked about in all the years of my life. Turns out there wasn’t much to talk about. He served between the time of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, so he had no conflict in which to fight.
My Papa (Grandfather) Arthur Anderson, on my Mom’s side of the family, served in World War II; as did Harold Lilly (my Step-Grandfather on Dad’s side). To my knowledge the only blood relative I had to serve in World War I, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam was my Great-Uncle Wilbur Schuett. He survived service in WWII. His gravestone says PFC 4 721 Field Artillery Battalion WWII. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know what that means. Wilbur, who was known as Bill, survived the war, but not the drinking and carousing life he led in Bellingham, WA after the war; dying at age 42.
My Nana’s (Dad’s Mom) Grandfather Augustus C. Mathis is honored in Polk County, Arkansas with a Confederate Civil War headstone for serving in the 12 Tennessee Cavalry during the war between the states. He spent most of the war as a prisoner of the north. Too me, it seems odd to honor service for those who fought for the dissolution of this country and the continued life long imprisonment of slaves, but I’m not from the South. Down there the memory of Confederate veterans is held in very high esteem.
Perhaps the ancestor for whom I’m proudest is my Great x 4 Grandfather, on my Mother’s side, Jesse P. Starkey 1780-1830. At 32 years of age he fought for the United States in the War of 1812 against the invading British. Like others who served, the Virginia born Starkey was awarded a land grant in 1814 in what is now southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.
Populating the soon to be established state and paying the soldiers of the U.S. military was a goal of the James Madison administration. By the time Illinois achieved statehood in December 1818 only 35,000 inhabited the whole state. And thanks to my Great-great-great-great-Grandfather my family was well represented. 128 years later my Mom was born only a few miles away from the original Starkey family land grant, in Alton, IL. In the 21st century Starkeys widely populate Madison and other neighboring counties across The Big Muddy from The Gateway to the West.
My research has determined that branches of my family tree on both my Mom and Dad’s side resided in what is now the United States dating back to nearly Jamestown. And while ancestry.com has sent numerous notices to me informing me I have several ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War and make me eligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution, I’ve not found the time to confirm these proud connections.
Indulging me a trip through my ancestors military service was all for the purpose of arriving here. I am damned proud of those who wore our countries uniform whose DNA I share. But I am equally proud of the many hundreds-of-thousands in our nation’s history who spent time in their lives devoted to the strength and lasting endurance of this country and the ideals embodied in that document presented for signature in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.
In looking back to my youth at why I never penned my name to a military commitment to serve my nation in one of the branches, I have to admit fear prevented me from following through on that desire. Not necessarily fear of dying in a war; just fear of the unknown, fear of the commitment required, and fear that it wouldn’t take me to where I wanted to ultimately end up. I wonder how many others never serve for similar reasons. I can’t be the only one.
So I salute those who had the courage that I did not, and helped shape this country. We all benefit from YOU overcoming whatever fear you possessed. Thank you.
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