THE SADDEST TWENTY MILES

With Veterans” Day approaching, I wanted to share these thoughts with you today. No one gives more than our military servicemen and women do.  So today, I digress from our customary discussion of books and cowboys to honor these special people by telling the story of one, 2nd Lieutenant Joe Cunningham, who would say he”s no hero…but we know better.

People say all small towns look the same.  The old brick buildings guarding the streets silently speak of the past, when they were new and full of life. The traffic light on Main Street measures the slow pace of life in increments of green, yellow and red.  Most times, the Christmas decorations go up on the streetlights after Halloween and don’t come down until the first warm day of spring.

The flag at the courthouse is no odd sight; flags in small towns are common and patriotism runs high along with societal values. The speed limit is no more than 35, and everyone knows that.  There’s no reason to rush, anyway.

My first clue that something was different about Madill that August day was the sign.  On the very far northern edge of the “city” limits someone had placed a huge banner by the side of the two-lane highway.  It stood unfurled between two wooden poles. 

“A TRUE AMERICAN HERO,” the lettering read, and below that, “2ND LT. JOE CUNNINGHAM.”  Red and blue magic marker starbursts filled the white void of the background around the letters, leaving no doubt that the banner had taken hours of loving, painstaking precision to create.

And the rockets” red glare,

The bombs bursting in air…

The banner stood as the beginning of what was to be a somber twenty miles of driving for me that day.  Only a few feet from where the banner had been placed, small roadside flags were planted in the parched Oklahoma soil. There had been no rain for weeks, and with our record-breaking number of triple-digit days, I could only imagine how hard it must have been to push those small, fragile twelve-inch sticks into the rock-hard ground at such measured intervals.

If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know Saturday mornings are the liveliest, busiest times of the week.  Not so on this Saturday morning.  As I topped the hill and the main part of town came into view, my heart skipped a beat. I had never seen such a profusion of color.  Red, white and blue—everywhere.  Flags flew from every porch, every small business, every conceivable place visible…and that could only mean one very tragic thing.

Gave proof through the night

That our flag was still there…

I slowed down to twenty-five as tears blurred my eyes.  A car pulled out in front of me a little further down the road, and I looked to my right.  The side road had been blocked off.  There were at least two hundred motorcycles parked beside the First Baptist Church.  The Patriot Guard Riders had come to pay their respects—and to be certain that everyone else did, too, should a certain crazy group of fanatics from Kansas decide to make an appearance.

Across from the motorcycles, a huge, beautiful American flag was unfurled, the field of blue lending its stars to heaven, the stripes perpendicular to the ground.  In front of that flag stood perhaps fifty lawmen of every type, a mix from both sides of the Red River, Texans and Oklahomans.

The parking lots for the businesses in the immediate area were full to overflowing, even though none of those businesses were open.  Signs filled the windows under where the flags flew: “CLOSED.  BACK AT 1:00 P.M.  REST IN PEACE, JOE.”

I stopped at the light on Main Street.  The courthouse flag was, of course, flying at half-mast.  There were no other cars on the road.  The one that had pulled out in front of me earlier had turned off a block back, at the first available parking place, a long, half-mile hike away from the church.  I was driving through a ghost town.

The signboard at the Grab & Go read, “OBAMA MAY BE PRESIDENT, BUT GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE.” Any other time, I might have smiled, but not with that small picket of flags that still sporadically lined the road, reminding me of the terrible loss this town was reeling from.

Another hand-lettered sign by the road:  “WE’LL MISS YOU, JOE.  GO WITH GOD.”

And yet, another:  “REST IN PEACE, JOE.  WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”

I drove out of Madill, headed for Kingston, another small town, a few short miles away.

Small towns, close together, are usually rivals on the high school football field and in most other things, but when all is said and done, we remember that we are, all of us, citizens of the same wonderful country, and that’s what matters—more than who wins the game on Friday night, more than which town has the best point guard on the basketball court, and more than which quarterback has better chances with the big college scouts.  As Americans, we all have equal ‘bragging rights’—we are Americans, and no other country pulls together as we do when the going gets tough.

I couldn’t think of anything, anywhere, any time being tougher than losing even one of our young men to war.  A bright smile that would never be seen again, coming through his parents’ door; two arms that could never open to hug his best girl again; the echoing sound of emptiness forever where once his steps fell—an aching, empty hole in the lives of every person he ever knew that could never, never be filled.

My thoughts rolled over one another as I drove.  I wondered about him, about his family—about what he’d left behind, and how the people he’d known would ever manage to survive without him in their lives forevermore.

I was on the fringes of Kingston when the roadside flags started up in earnest again—though they’d never completely stopped.  But now, it looked as if someone had planted a beautiful garden of red, white, and blue flowers in the cracked, dry Oklahoma soil.

As Kingston came into view ahead, flags fluttered in the wind at every business.  Some buildings had bunting on their storefronts.

It doesn’t take long to cover the few miles from one end of Kingston to the other.  But with every inch of ground I traveled, there was no doubt that 2nd Lieutenant Joe Cunningham was remembered, respected, and revered.

As I drove out of town, yellow ribbons tied around several branches of a tree in someone’s yard caught my eye.

“HE IS HOME.  REST IN PEACE.”

No small town rivalry, now.  As Americans all, we share only a unified, joint loss of a shining star; the precious, irreplaceable light of someone’s life.

He was 27.  He loved to hunt and fish.  He had dreams of becoming a highway patrol officer and finishing his degree.  He always wore a smile. 

I will never drive that sad stretch of road again without remembering a man I never met.  A hometown hero is gone forever, but he will never, never be forgotten.

 

Cheryl Pierson
A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
I live in Oklahoma City with my husband of 40 years. I love to hear from readers and other authors--you can contact me here: fabkat_edit@yahoo.com
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45 Comments

  1. Thank you, Cheryl, what a beautiful post. I’m sitting at my desk trying not to cry as I read your touching post and watch the Navy and Marine Honor Guards practice outside my window. The men and women who serve this country astound me. I’ve had the honor, since moving out here, to volunteer at Walter Reed and now Fort Belvoir and Bethesda and every time I think I’m going to cheer up the wounded warriors they end up inspiring me. Just an outstanding group of individuals. And the young Sailors and Marines I walk past daily are a constant reminder of the heroism and sacrifice that is still very much alive in our country.

    –Kirsten

  2. This is a wonderful tribute.

    My prayers for all who are serving and my thanks for all who have served.

    SOS Aloha had a blog post about Operation Paperback, which send “gently used books” to US troops deployed overseas and in military and veterans hospitals here.
    http://www.operationpaperback.org/

  3. Cheryl, I felt tears. Your wonderful, moving post should be shared and read everywhere.
    We owe our young men and women in the service a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid.

  4. What a wonderful, moving tribute Cheryl. And how fitting with Veterans’ Day this week. My own husband is a Navy vet so we never think of this remembrance day lightly.

  5. Wnderful post. The 45th Division has really been hit hard this year. Two more died last week. I talked with a young lady the other day in Afton, Oklahoma and her husband is in the 45th. She said not only have there been deaths but a lot have been injured. God Bless them all.

  6. Just Beautiful, Cheryl. I read most it through tears and at times had to stop for a minute so I could continue. When most people think of Veterans Day they remember the old vets who have gray in their hair. Most don’t think of these young warriors with as gallant a heart and tough spirit who gave their life for their country.

    Rest in peace, Joe!

  7. Cheryl, what a beautiful post. I have a niece who’s done two tours in war zones and this strikes so close to home. The price so many of the finest young men and women pay to serve our country. And the highest price that they are willing to pay even if they make it home in good shape.
    Beautiful.

  8. I’m involved with Operation Paperback, too. I just sent a book off two days ago.

  9. Hi Kirsten,
    I would love to volunteer as you do! How wonderful! I probably couldn’t walk through the doors without dissolving into a big ol’ heap of tears. My husband is a Viet Nam vet, so this time of the year really is a reminder of that time. War changes people permanently, and I think the very least we can do is remember that sacrifice and thank them for it. Kudos to you for taking it a step further and volunteering. That’s awesome!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  10. Tracy, you’re welcome. It was my privilege to try to put this into words.
    Cheryl

  11. Hi Liz,
    Thank you so much. Operation Paperback is a great cause! I’ve heard a lot of good things about them. Thanks so much for sharing the link where we can check it out.
    Cheryl

  12. Elizabeth, thank you. If you or anyone wants to repost this blog post, please feel free to do so. My wish is that it would be read by many and hopefully bring the realization to some that these men and women are PEOPLE and not just statistics. They all belong to someone, whose life will be forever changed by their loss. Thanks again so much for your very kind words.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  13. Winnie,
    My husband is a Navy vet too–Viet Nam era. Please tell your husband THANK YOU from me, will you? We must never forget all the sacrifices through the years. Thanks so much for your comment!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  14. Hi Goldie, my fellow Oklahoman! You are so right. I saw on the news last week where the 45th lost those last two and one of them was a 19 year old girl. A young mom. I am sure the injuries are just being glossed over and not mentioned. Thank you so much for coming by and commenting. I appreciate you.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  15. Linda,
    You are so right. I remember the Jackson Browne song, “The Pretender” — one line is “Where the veterans dream of the fight, fast asleep at the traffic light…” But there are a lot of young veterans, too, and we mustn’t forget them, or the ones like Joe Cunningham who didn’t live to be a veteran. When I was driving through those small towns, I was bawling like a baby by the time I got to the other side. I had about 17 miles to pull myself together before I got to my sister’s house. I knew then I had to write about it, and it was on my mind the entire weekend. Thanks so much for your comment, Linda.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  16. Oh, Cheryl. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    You have blessed so many this day.

    Ruthy

  17. Mary,
    Please thank your niece for me, will you? Thank you is something a lot of vets don’t hear very often, and I think it really means a lot to them. Bless you for taking part in Operation Paperback! I need to check them out and see what I can do. Thanks for your comments.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  18. Ruthy…I am speechless. That is so sweet of you to say. Putting that trip into words was something I knew I had to do, but for the most part, just having the doubts that I’d be able to make people see what I saw was the hardest. Thank you so much!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  19. Cheryl, what a beautiful blog and great tribute to a fallen soldier. I “saw” what you saw and it touched me deeply. This is a three-hanky blog and I’m still sniffling.

    Thank you for sharing.
    Hugs!

  20. Margaret,
    Thank you so much for letting me know. I’m so glad, not that it made you cry, but that it touched you in that emotional way that I hoped to be able to convey to anyone who read it. I get teary every time I remember what that drive was like. I have never been through anything like that in my life. And I won’t ever forget it, either.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  21. Such a beautiful tribute, Cheryl. Thank you for making it personal. They truly give their all, don’t they?

    We have a lady in our local writer’s guild who collects “Paperbacks for Patriots” year round. All those books that don’t quite make it to my keeper shelf are gladly donated. She tells stories of how cartons and cartons of these books are dropped off and within minutes are gone. Doesn’t matter what genre. Our servicemen and women are hungry for something to distract them from the ugliness of their reality. I pray that our books will bring them a smile, an escape, an ease to their stress so that when they must focus to preserve the lives of others as well as their own, they will be able.

  22. Thank you for the tribute to our servicemen and women, Cheryl. For those who made the ultimate sacrifice and to those who live on forever changed. God bless them all.

  23. I pray our nation never stops honoring our military, both living and dead. Thank you for reminding us that life is so precious. Freedom is as well.

    God bless the USA, and the men and women in uniform who serve so that we can continue to be the land of the free and the home of the brave!

  24. Cheryl, I don’t see how you made it those 20 miles! Thank you for sharing with us…although I’m sniffling here at my desk, and it’s not the pepper I added to my vegetable soup either!

    My son would be in Iraq right now if he hadn’t had surgery for a broken clavicle. His entire unit was deployed last summer.

    We’re praising God that some of them are already home with the rest expected before Christmas!

    Thank you to all our servicemen and women who put their lives on the line for America. True heroes!

  25. Karen,
    Thanks so much for your comments. I’m glad to know about Paperbacks for Patriots. I think any of these organizations to provide books for our service people are great–what a service to our troops. Thanks for letting us know about that. You are so right, as far as the reading helping to relieve the stress. That’s such a small thing, but to them it is huge!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  26. Wiping my eyes now, Cheryl. This is is so fitting and beautiful. My niece’s fiance spent two tours in Irag. It’s the one thing he can’t talk about even when we thank him for his service.

    Thank you to all our service-people and veterans. God bless America.

  27. Janet,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I wish there was more we could do to let them know how much we appreciate them.
    Cheryl

  28. Absolutely, Debby! I wholeheartedly agree with you. Here’s hoping we always honor and respect our military as a nation.
    Cheryl

  29. Pam, I know you are relieved that your son wasn’t deployed with the rest of his group–everything happens for a reason, I believe. I tell you, it was hard, hard, driving through those towns and seeing those banners and flags and ribbons. That scene will live in my heart and mind forever. Thanks so much for your comment.
    Cheryl

  30. Aw, Tanya. I know that’s gotta be hard. Maybe he will at least open up and talk to your niece. My husband tells me I’m his lifesaver. At first, he couldn’t talk about things that happened either, but over the years, he’s opened up. Understanding and listening goes a long long way. Hope things get easier for him, too with the passage of time.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  31. What a wonderfully beautiful post. My father, a purple heart vetern from WWII passed away last spring. Recieving the flag was such an emotional honor. I wish my father would have shared more of his stories with me.

  32. Cheryl, thank you for an absolutely beautiful post! Your story is the true essence of what Veterans Day is about. I wish everybody in the US and around the world could read your lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing, fellow Filly. Hugs, P

  33. Connie, I know how hard that is to lose your dad. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of mine. I know receiving that flag had to be so emotional for you. I’m so sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing with us here today.
    Cheryl

  34. Phyliss,
    Thank you, my filly sis. Those are very kind words, and it means so much to me coming from you–thank you.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  35. Cheryl – this was a beautifully worded, loving tribute to Joe and to all the military families who have suffered the loss of a loved one. We honor our soldiers on Veteran’s Day and I know, ALL the flags at our house, will be flying proudly that day. (We always have at least one flag flying every day)
    Thank you…

  36. Cheryl, this is beautiful. Thank you for reminding us of what Veteran’s Day is really, truly about. You’ve honored a hero today, and it’s a privilege to share that journey with you.

  37. Cheryl you have paid a loving tribute to a young man who service his country well I am sure. Our family truly honours our fallen no matter what the war. If they fought to keep us free, then we respect their sacrifice in everyway.
    God Bless Joe, and may he watch over the country he fought and died for.
    We Will Remember Them…
    Thank you Cheryl

  38. Char, thank you so much. We fly a flag, too all the time! Thank God for our veterans. We will never forget them.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  39. Aw, thanks so much, Vicki. That’s what I was hoping for–Joe and all the others like him need to be honored. They should never be forgotten!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  40. Kathleen,
    Yes, God bless Joe and all the others like him. I’m sure he is watching over his country tonight. What a huge sacrifice for his entire family.
    Thanks for coming by and commenting, Kathleen.
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  41. What a lovely tribute to all our fallen military. I really think the word hero and tragedy are overused today on the larger scale. On the personal level, they very much apply to the impact a person’s life and its loss have on those they knew. Their loss is a hole in our lives that will never be filled. The best we can do is to try to fill that hole with the good memories.

    I do not understand the church group from Kansas. I don’t know what god they worship other than the god of self-promotion. A god of love, forgiveness, and understanding would not condone what they are doing. They attempted to picket a funeral here and the local Rolling Thunder motorcycle group made certain they stayed far away.

    Thank you for a touching post. I have been sharing it with my family and friends.

  42. Patricia,
    Thank you so very much for your comments. You always have such insightful thoughts and ideas about everything. I am like you–I totally do NOT understand that church group that feels they have to come and barge in on what is the most terrible time in those families’ lives and spread their hate. I thank GOD for the different motorcycle groups that have made it their mission to divert them and not let them near. What a blessing for those families.

    Yes, please pass this on and share it as much as you want. I appreciate that so much, and hopefully it will bring more awareness and thoughtfulness on the part of “everyday people.”

    Thanks again, Patricia. I appreciate you!
    Hugs,
    Cheryl

  43. Thanks for one of the most beautiful, yet one of
    the saddest posts. Prayers and positive thoughts
    are sent to all fallen military, and their families, who have made that ultimate sacrifice. God bless those who protect us and God bless
    America!!

    Pat Cochran

  44. Thank you, Pat. I appreciate you!
    Cheryl

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