He asked me the oddest question. He was such a quiet kid… you’d hardly notice him. Most didn’t. We hadn’t really had any lengthy conversations that I can recall. I just remember that he was always nice and seemed (in an odd way) to be appreciative when I said ‘Hi’ to him.
We ran into each other a number of times at graduation parties that summer. I vaguely remember that he mentioned something about the Marines, but I couldn’t imagine him as a soldier. It was 1969.
One day he came to the Sears store I where I was working and during a coffee break he told me he was leaving for boot camp. Then he said it….”Would be o.k. if we could be friends and that maybe when I come back we could ‘hang out?” No one ever asked me to be his friend before. “Of course”, I said.
When word came that he had been killed in action and that ‘calling hours’ would be held at the funeral home, it all seemed surreal. Then I along with some of the guys from our class went as a group to the funeral home. As I beheld his waxen frame. dressed in his impeccably prepared dress blue uniform, I thought to myself…A boy left Youngstown, Ohio and this…this was a man in a sealed coffin.
As I approached his mother, I froze… “What was there to say?” I teared up and choked on my words as I said, “I will never forget what he did.” then I said, “I will tell his story as long as I live…” Perhaps that may have seemed a little melodramatic. But I can report that there has been no Memorial Day since that day but that I celebrate and publicly honor the memory of Mike Courtney.
Who knows how his life may have played out? Would he have married…had children? He would be in his mid sixties now. Perhaps he like me would be reflecting on all that happened since 1969…what sort of world we have now.
As it is, he will be forever be a teenager and yet so much more. He endured the unendurable, went to a war no one wanted, and gave his life wearing the uniform of the nation that he loved.
In WWI there was a Canadian physician named John McRae who was given the sad duty of conducting memorial services for soldiers in the absence of a chaplain. His friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer died in the gun positions near Ypres, May 2,1915. It is believed that the evening after McRae conducted the service for his friend He wrote
In Flanders fields the poppies grow
between the crosses row by row
that mark our place, and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders fields
How is it that we could break faith with those who die? At the very least, I think it would involve getting careless about remembering them, or worse, revising the history to such an extent that the next generation will never know what the times were like and what it was that led to such a precious sacrifice. All I know is that I for one won’t break faith.