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Repost: My Memorial Day

I grew up in a small community in central California. The two major industries (if you can call them that) were farming and the Navy. It might seem odd to people that there would be a Navy base far from the water, but the San Joaquin Valley provided the Navy with clear skies for the pilots to get lots of air time and practice. In my small neighborhood most of my friends had fathers who were Navy pilots.

As a young boy, I remember listening to a conversation between my father and a next door neighbor who had just returned from a tour in Vietnam. The neighbor described what was happening over there as “hell,” an image that was very vivid in my mind as a child growing up in the church. Even though the war in Vietnam was thousands of miles away, it was a very real part of my community, so much so that I had friends who had fathers who were POWs and MIAs. These men loved flying, but they also loved their country in a time when service to their country was not too popular.

I also remember talking to one of my friends about his father, who was a pilot, who had been awarded a medal for bombing a building. My friend said to me, “I guess my dad has killed people.” My friend seemed to have trouble with the dual images of father and soldier.

The life of a Navy family didn’t change much after Vietnam, because the fathers were often gone on long cruises around the world. These cruises could last as long as 6 months and were very difficult for my friends who were without a father during that time. It is an incredible sacrifice for a family to make and it is one that continues today.

One of the most memorable people that grew up on my block was another kid: Vincent “Otis” Tolbert was a few years older than me and his father was also a Navy pilot. Otis was a large kid and grew into an even larger man. When he was a senior in high school, I was a freshman. He was the star fullback on the football team, and tossed the discus for the track team. He eventually went to Fresno State on a football scholarship.

One day Otis dropped by my house to talk to my older sister, she wasn’t home. Otis saw that I had a Risk game out and asked if I wanted to play. We played for a few hours, they were memorable hours for me, because Otis was all of those things I longed to be: popular, athletic, and intelligent. For him to sit down and play a game with me, meant so much. It was as if a personal hero had dropped by my house just to spend time with me.

I followed his career at Fresno State until I moved away and lost touch with where he was and what he was doing.

I know now that Otis was serving his country in the Navy, like his father. He served in Desert Storm and then took a job serving his country at the Pentagon. On September 11th, Otis was at work when a high jacked airplane slammed into his office killing him.

I found out Otis had been killed when I read a list of 9/11 victims, at first it was hard to believe that someone as strong and athletic as Otis had died. He was one of those people I assumed would live on beyond me because of his vitality and strength, but he didn’t.

I am not a flag waving American, but I do believe in the ideals that the United States represents. Otis also believed in the ideals of our country, so much so that he was willing to serve his country as a soldier. His sacrifice is what Memorial Day is all about. It is about him and the thousands like him who have died in the line of duty. With Otis, Memorial Day has become more personal for me. I will think of him this weekend, I will think of his family, I will think of the other families I grew up with who had fathers serving in the Navy and I will thank them for what they have done for all of us who practice our freedoms daily. I will also hope for the day when people like Otis Tolbert will not have to give their lives for freedom. I will hope for world peace and I will hope for a day where we celebrate an end to all war.

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3 replies »

  1. Very touching Jon. I’m sorry that you lost your friend.
    I’m an Australian citizen but earlier I was somewhere else. If I must, I will defend my current country and die for it to show my gratitude.
    But sad to say, I don’t have that zealous patriotism on memorial days, here or anywhere, because one thing I’ve learnt from country-hopping is the things the local media and the local history teach you aren’t always the truth of what have happened.
    For example long ago my Russian teacher could not understand why the west hated Russia. I could clearly see that her government had brainwashed her that communism was the best way to live, and she truly believed in it, rejoicing in it and freely contributing for its advancement. Because that was the limit of her knowledge.
    Next, in my earlier country, during a university holiday I returned to my high-school city and met my old friend. “Where’s your boyfriend?” I asked her, because her army boyfriend had once been very helpful to me. “Come with me,” she said, and she drove me to a… graveyard of the fallen. And I hadn’t even know there was a war 2000 miles away in our country, because the local government made sure the media could not leak any news. A few years later I accompanied another friend to make a hospital visit. Little did I know that we were going to visit an army hospital – with the patients showing proofs of the horrendous war. So if I had not personally come in contact with these two friends, I’d never hear of this war. After I left that country I found out that foreign media had free coverage about what had been happening, while the locals were blissfully unaware.
    Enter Australia. We have our memorial day too. It isn’t to remember those who had fallen in this country in defense against foreign attacks – it’s to remember those fallen while attacking a free country half the globe away. So on memorial days I can’t help wondering the stance of the other country. All I can feel is sadness for the perhaps-unnecessary loss of many lives.

    • Ia-
      Thanks for the response. I agree that our nationalities cloud our vision. I lived in New Zealand for a year and went to school there. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. Seeing that there wasn’t one true version of history really shocked me. I think that travel solves many of the mis-understandings in the world. If more people stepped outside of their comfort zone they would see the world differently. Travel has definitely challenged many of my beliefs. I told my daughter recently that I didn’t want to ever travel to the American South (Alabama, Mississippi…) because it would destroy my notions of the area.
      It is too bad that many people place their national identity before their human identity. If we were human brothers and sisters before we were Americans, Australians or Iranians the world would be a better place.

  2. Jon, I believe parents who can afford it should send their kids to Children International Summer Vacation http://www.cisv.org/ ( Building Global Friendship – CISV educates and inspires action for a more just and peaceful world).
    I met my best friend for over 3 decades when she was an exchange student in my previous country, and she is one of the broadest minded people on the planet.

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