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Several towns in South Dakota have created memorials to remember the local men and women who have fought in our nation's wars.
Several towns in South Dakota have created memorials to remember the local men and women who have fought in our nation's wars.

Four Stars and Two Shoes

Aug 16, 2017

Carolyn and I are at the grandma and grandpa stage of life, which is a time of both joy and trepidation. Is there anything sweeter in heaven or Earth than a little girl whose face lights up when she sees you? On the other hand, I worry because she can look at wild animals and hear them roar on an iPad. Will she be content to read an animal book with grandpa and listen to his imperfect impersonation of an elephant? Such are the questions that keep me awake at night.

This is also a time of life when I sometimes read only the headlines in our daily newspaper; the stories seem to be on some sort of dreary loop in which the names change and little else. Something similar can be found on the comics page — Beetle Bailey is forever getting horribly mangled by Sergeant Snorkel, yet he always recovers by the next day, and Dagwood remains skinny as a fence post despite consuming heroic amounts of food — yet I never miss a day or a panel. This probably means something. Drop me a line if you know what it might be.

When I’m done with the comics I glance through the obituaries. Not to see if I’m dead, as the old joke goes, but because people close to my age, some of whom I have known for years, are occasionally showing up there.

Several years ago, my parents entered the downsizing stage of life. They moved out of their house and into an apartment, which necessitated getting rid of everything from snow blowers to boxes of photos and mementos they no longer had room to store. My dad, my brother and I were going through some of these land found countless treasures, along with the usual fare unearthed in such places. Lamentable wardrobe choices. Embarrassing haircuts. People nobody recognized. Then we came across a small, framed flag of four stars. Dad lifted it from the box and stared at it for a moment with faraway eyes.

“This was hanging in the window of Mom and Dad’s house when I got home after the war,” he said at last. “There was a star for each of us in the service.”

Uncle Ed, the eldest of Alphonse and Mary Holtzmann’s four boys, got drafted into the Army in 1941. He started out in the cavalry. It seems odd that the Army still had horses at that time, but in any event, the generals soon reassigned him to an artillery unit. Ed served in Europe.

Dad, next in line, enlisted in the Coast Guard. He trained as a radioman, and spent most of his time afloat on small weather ships in the North Atlantic. Convoys and aircraft on the way to Europe needed up to date weather information, so he and his shipmates bobbed among the U-boats to obtain it. Oliver, dad’s younger brother, was part of Patton’s fabled Third Army. Its combat arms earned that fame, but they did so with the support of men like Oliver. He was a cook.

Uncle George graduated from high school in May 1943, and was drafted a month later. He ended up in the Army Air Corps as a radioman/cryptographer, and took part in the invasion of Luzon and subsequent campaigns in the Philippines.

“Mom and Dad said the rosary every night for us,” said Dad, and their prayers were answered. All four of the stars on their flag were blue; families that lost a son in combat had gold stars instead of blue.

My dad’s story brought to mind something I heard from an acquaintance. Her son joined the Marines right out of high school, and he is now stationed in Afghanistan. After being in country for some months he came home on leave and got married. All too soon, I’m sure, he returned to the war zone and she settled into base housing in North Carolina. She leaves a pair of his shoes by the door, as if he has just stepped out and will be back soon.

“They also serve who only stand and wait,” wrote John Milton in a different context, but the sentiment applies. Most of us may never truly understand what it feels like to look at shoes by the door or count rosary beads like the days until loved ones return. That does not relieve us of the obligation to try.

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the November/December 2013 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

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