From My Father's Grave - A Memorial Day Meditation
I'm writing this from my father's grave site.
When I visit here, I come alone. It's always an intensely personal moment of silent communion, beholding the patch of grass and soil where your parent was laid to rest.
My father, Frank, was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery over 44-years ago after a tour in Vietnam. He died at Wilford Hall Hospital on February 17, 1965. He flew B-17s in World War II and B-47s during the Cold War.
I was four-years-old when my father died. The youngest of five children, I can still vividly remember the funeral, the flag-draped casket, the 21-gun salute and the bugler blowing Taps at the cemetery while my mother cried.
Since that day, my mother, Katherine, sisters Kathy, Rosemary and Beth and my brother Greg have visited this spot countless times.
Like my father, my brother Greg felt the lure of the skies and became an Air Force pilot. I think of the times he must have spent here at our father's eternal patch of earth. Certainly, Greg came here on many Memorial Days. He was here shortly after earning his pilot's wings at nearby Randolph Air Force Base in 1972. And knowing Greg, he probably came here when he achieved his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.
He couldn't pick up the phone and call our dad. But he could come to the cemetery and talk with him. There's something about being at your father's grave site that helps you feel closer. You feel like he can hear you better. And sometimes you feel as though you can hear him respond.
After an October day in 1980, Greg would no longer visit our father's grave site.
I don't know when Greg came here for the last time. But I do know that when he did, and every time he did, there was something just over his shoulder that he could not imagine. As Greg stood or knelt at our father's headstone, just twelve grave plots behind him and three rows over was his future, final resting place.
Greg was killed on October 22, 1980 at Ellington Field near Houston as he piloted an F-101 fighter jet.
Seconds after takeoff, the jet's engines flamed out. Four hundred feet in the air, Greg and his navigator, Jerry, made an instantaneous decision.
While reflex and training told them to eject immediately, there was a housing development and schoolyard in the direct flight path of the crippled, sputtering jet.
Instead of ejecting and sending the pilotless aircraft on a collision course with the neighborhood below, Greg pulled the jet sharply to the left, into an open field where it crashed, exploded and burned safely away from the houses and school.
Greg was 32-years-old and left behind a wife, a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.
Two days later, he was buried here at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
No one in our family knew or asked that Greg would be buried so close to our father. It just somehow happened that way.
Today, when I visit my father's grave site, I look over my shoulder and see my brother's headstone. I walk over to Greg's grave site, so close that I can stand there and read the words inscribed on my father's headstone across the cemetery.
Sometimes I can see a vision of my brother standing at my father's grave. I want to tap him on the shoulder and talk with him about the irony of the father and son pilots buried so close together.
But just then, I realize that he already knows this. And I wonder, what might be beyond space and time over my own shoulder.
May 24, 2009