A Twentieth Century Funeral Oration
July 1, 2003
He died on a Tuesday night. He was eighty-nine and went in his sleep, in his own bed. He was in good health for a man his age. His hearing had deteriorated a little, and the arthritis in his knees (no doubt aggravated by an old war injury) gave him trouble sometimes, but he had a “good death.” At least in the days following, everyone said, “we should all be so lucky to die that way.” My mother called me the next day to tell me when the funeral was scheduled, and to let me know that his daughter had asked a favor of me. I hadn’t seen my Uncle Cal (her father) in two years, not since his wife’s funeral. I saw him frequently growing up though. The family cemetery was around the corner from my old house, and Uncle Cal looked after the graves. He’d pull into our driveway with his trunk loaded up with peat moss—always peat moss, wearing his work clothes and chewing a cigar—he never smoked them, just chewed them, and he’d visit with us for an hour or so.
He told me about it only once, but everyone knew he was the family war hero—six times decorated during the European campaign of World War Two, twice for wounds received in combat, four times for meritorious acts on the field of battle. In the eighth grade, I wrote an essay about him for the American Legion. The subject was “My American Hero,” and I won a hundred dollar savings bond from the local chapter. Almost as an after thought, my mother mailed him a copy. I didn’t know it until afterwards, but he carried it in his breast pocket until the day he died. His daughter wanted me to read it at his funeral. Standing in front of the church of mourners, I realized it was appropriate to the occasion, not just as a memorial to him, but because his life tells the story of America in the twentieth century:
“Five feet, four inches tall, one hundred and thirty pounds—soaking wet. Not an impressive build, but this was the figure presented by my uncle, Cal Lawrence. He was born and raised on a small farm in rural Ohio—Lordstown to be exact. He grew up the oldest of five children. Besides twelve years of perfect school attendance, there was nothing remarkable about his childhood. But in the spring of 1942, Uncle Cal was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. He didn’t have to go. He could have avoided service by taking the farmer’s son exemption, but he answered the call, and joined the ranks of so many other young men, who, like him, joined together, determined to defeat Nazism and liberate Europe.
“Uncle Cal did more than the average GI during World War Two. After Basic Training, he volunteered for the 82nd Airborne, and was assigned to the 507th Special Operations Unit, known as the ’Black Widows.’ When he arrived in England, he began to train for a very important mission. He didn’t know it at the time, but the fate of France and the course of history would be hanging in the balance. His unit had been selected to be among the first to set up defenses and communications for the Invasion of Normandy—D-Day to us. For months, he and his unit trained, working on practice jumps and maneuvers. Finally, the invasion began. In the wee hours of June 6th, 1944, Uncle Cal boarded a plane headed for the shores of France and entrenched mass of Nazi soldiers, machine guns and tanks.
“Under the cover of darkness, he and the other liberators jumped into enemy territory. He landed on a flooded plain. Speaking of it forty years later, my uncle described, his voice choked with pain and tears, how so many of the men, some right beside him, drowned under the weight of their equipment. He himself was carrying over two hundred pounds of gear (more than he weighed). Somehow he struggled to the shore. He didn’t know why he was one of the lucky ones.
“He was engaged in heavy combat for three days. On the fourth day, after transporting some German prisoners behind the lines, he was wounded in the arm by an exploding shell. In relating the incident to me, he was a little sheepish about it, saying with a twinkle in his eye, that it’s not a good idea to stand close to Sherman tanks in a war zone since the enemy is usually aiming their heavy artillery at them. But for his sacrifice he was awarded his first Purple Heart. Fortunately, he recovered and went on to fight in the Ardennes. After the war, he returned home, got married and had two daughters.
“Unheroic decades followed. For thirty-five years he worked at the same factory, not very far from where he grew up. The years passed, and he saw his children married, and welcomed the births of his grandchildren. He was a regular at his church. He and his wife liked to travel, and they did that a lot after he retired. And, of course, he never neglected his duties at the cemetery. Most of his life was unremarkable, but this unassuming old man, through his sweat and blood, helped to save the world and build our nation into the place it is today.”
At his calling hours the night before, the funeral home was strewn with war mementos and family tokens my cousins had set out. His old uniform, his medals and pictures from the many 82nd Airborne reunions he had attended over the years. The faces of all the men in the photos bore the same expression: quiet pride in the enormity of their accomplishment, pride in the legacy they left to their children. I knew the expression. It was the same one Uncle Cal had when he told me about the war. Yes, pride, but it was pride mixed with the deepest pain, pain for the men beside him who didn’t get to come home. Maybe it was that memory that drove him so faithfully at the cemetery.
Alyssa Guthrie is a senior from Greenwood, Indiana, majoring in Political Science and Philosophy.