by Marie Fowler
Alex’s dog tags! I could see sunlight glinting off them in the green grass as I walked nearer.
His newly-minted Army dog tags. I couldn’t believe it. He’s lost them already.
I thought maybe the grueling summer spent in basic training at no-place-hotter-on-the-globe-in-summer Ft. Jackson, in Columbia, South Carolina, had taught him something.
I admit to having had grave doubts about his doing well at basic, given his recent academic struggles in college. Just because one holds an official Commonwealth of Pennsylvania certificate citing one as a “Gifted Child” and all sorts of scholarships, success in the classroom is not guaranteed.
Especially if textbooks are still in shrink wrap at semester’s end.
While Alex loved down-and-dirty, knock-about sports like lacrosse and playing goalie on the soccer field, I wouldn’t have said he was especially terrific at physical exertion.
And, really, don’t you have to make your bed at basic training?
If this boy ever made a bed, I had not seen it.
But I was happily proven wrong. Alex thrived under the scrupulous attention of his drill sergeants and did very well indeed at basic. His proud grandmother was there with us to cheer him on at the closing muster. Then, before any leave was granted, he was spirited away to Ft. Huachuca in Arizona for further training.
Thus, when Alex finally had a few days off between the Arizona desert and the mountains of Afghanistan, the first thing he wanted to do was visit his granddaddy’s grave at the Veterans Cemetery in Black Mountain, North Carolina.
I drove Alex there and left him alone, kneeling in the late November morning, in communion with the man to whom he had been so very close as a child.
Daddy had fallen ill suddenly earlier in the summer. After a pulmonary arrest, he lingered a few days, unable to speak, but we were able to say goodbye and hope he heard us.
Alex left for Harrisburg to be sworn-in to the Army and Daddy died just a few days later.
Alex wasn’t able to come to the funeral.
To see his grandmother accept the flag from Daddy’s coffin.
To hear that wrenching last bugle call of Taps.
But Alex did send a tribute to be read at the service.
“It’s incredibly difficult for me not to be able to be here today, but at the end of the day I know it’s what Granddaddy would have wanted,” he wrote. “After all, he never once in the time I knew him put his own needs above those of his family or his country.
“I never knew him as a young man, of course, but I can’t imagine it was easy for a man in his 60s to run around the backyard . . . throwing a baseball, shooting finger pistols with me, chasing dogs, or doing battle against the fictitious bird armies I would invent as a little boy (complete with mock funerals for the departed Crow Army leader . . . ), but he did it all without complaint, simply because I was his grandson and he wanted to spend time with me. I’m sure it can’t have been easy for a man who experienced all he did to patiently answer all of a little kid’s innocently inappropriate questions about his time in Europe during WWII, but he did so.
“Ironically, his inspiration is a huge part of the reason why I’m at Army Basic Training right now and not able to join you all here today. One of my earliest memories as a kid was sitting down and staring in awe for hours at the display Meme had made using his Army picture and all his medals. It was fascinating to me that my actual grandfather, the nice old man sitting over there in his favorite recliner getting upset about the Braves game, had been such a hero in his youth.
“Granddaddy – I love you, I miss you, I’ll never forget you, and if I follow the examples you set for me I’ll see you again.
Alex has been of a military bent since he came into this world.
Because he was born in California, he early on declared himself a Yankee – an avowal I have yet to come fully to terms with. All his forebears who fought were proud Rebels. They were not big plantation owners, just ornery Celtic sorts from the creeks of Southwest Virginia and the mountains of North Carolina. They hated big government – and loved and lived to fight.
Thus, with a Yankee uniform hand-tailored by his long-suffering Southern mother, Alex trooped his parents from one battlefield and one reenactment to another. You haven’t lived until you’ve visited Appomattox Court House with an exultant Yankee.
At home, Alex founded the Fowler Army, the Fowler Navy, and the Fowler Air Force – all allied to fight the horrific Crow Army. He had uniforms for each branch of his service and long requisition lists to keep them properly supplied. The Crow forces fought – loudly, as always – in their customary black feathers.
Daddy, by then retired, was conscripted into the Fowler forces, to serve at the field marshal’s direction. I shall never forget my very Southern Baptist father carrying high overhead a holy book in procession for some fallen leader’s funeral.
Now, Alex finally had real dog tags in a real Army – and he’d just lost them.
I sighed, picked them up, and counted myself lucky I’d chanced to come back here just the day after Alex had been here and inadvertently dropped them.
I called him later that afternoon, started to chide him for having lost his dog tags.
But he quickly told me he had two pairs.
And he hadn’t lost his dog tags.
He’d left them on his granddaddy’s grave on purpose.
Left them in tribute to Daddy’s long-ago service on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.
Left them as a promise that duty to country was his own inheritance from a beloved granddaddy. A family tradition honored, carried on.
Mother and I immediately returned my son’s dog tags to Daddy’s grave, Mother taking along her bulb planter so we could inter them where they’d remain forever under the tall North Carolina trees.
A bond between granddaddy and grandson – between brave Americans and their beloved country – never to be broken.