Memorial Day is probably one of our most benign holidays. Yes, there are parades, but they’re smaller than their July 4th counterparts and certainly cannot match the Thanksgiving/Christmas affairs. No, Memorial Day for me is just the briefest of nods to its original purpose: to remember those who died so we can have our freedom. Even as I write those words I realize that they ring hollow, the quick cliche so I don’t have to appear totally unappreciative. But as I pause to write this, there are ones very close to me and to my story that I would like to remember with my words.
The first is Stanley Andrew Bakke who served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Private Bakke saw action in Africa and Europe and, among other action, landed and fought the brutal battle of Anzio for months of a stalemate that saw the death of over 5,000 GI’s. He was awarded the American Defense Service Medal, the European/African/Middle Eastern Service Medal, one Silver Service Star and 3 Bronze Stars. He was the prototypical citizen-soldier who, without complaint or hesitation fought valiantly to rid the world of the Nazi and Fascist plague of the 20th Century.
The second is Joseph Ayers. He was a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps and fought with distinction in Europe as well. After months of arduous service flying combat sorties, Ayers was shot down over Germany and lost his life in April 1945, just one month before the war ended. He was the beloved son of Cecil and Jane Ayers and was mourned for decades, his silent, handsome picture framed on the mantle of their Michigan home.
The third is Jacob Keller, a Petty Officer First Class in the United Sates Navy. He was a Seabee and served on the islands of the South Pacific, preparing airstrips and roads for the successful defeat of the Japanese Army. He was later transferred to Point Barrow, Alaska, where he served until the Pacific conflict ended in August of 1945.
Three ordinary/extraordinary men who put their own personal agendas and safety aside for a cause greater than themselves. Keller contracted malaria in the South Pacific and came home suffering for years with recurring bouts of that disease. Bakke returned home physically spent and suffered greatly from the physical scars that the years of privation had left on him. And of course Ayers never came home…
Three men, two of whom I’ve never had the pleasure of personally meeting. Joseph Ayers was my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother. I call him that even though I wasn’t even born when he met his untimely death. I remember looking at his picture in his flight jacket, smiling the smile of a kind and intelligent man, and remember even as a boy being sad that I would never know him this side of eternity. Stan Bakke was my father-in-law, and I call him that even though I hadn’t even met let alone married his daughter when he died in his 50’s, too young, too soon. He also was a kind and gentle man, one who loved well and lived appreciating the gifts of family and friends. And the third I knew very well: my father, Jacob Keller, honestly the best man I have ever known. When this group of men, those World War II GI’s, were called The Greatest Generation, these three men would have been just the models they were describing: brave, humble, strong, and thankful.
So this Memorial Day, I am pausing to be thankful not just in general for all the brave men and women who fought for our right to live as a free people, but I am pausing to give thanks that these three men intersected my life, indirectly and directly, and gave me gifts that live out their immeasurable value even to this day. I remember and am humbled.