Send letters to the editor and other submissions to: Editor@RNYmedia.com.
GUEST COLUMN: The parade
The cemetery on the outskirts of a small southern town sits in a valley bisected by a gently flowing stream.
GUEST COLUMN: The parade
The cemetery on the outskirts of a small southern town sits in a valley bisected by a gently flowing stream. Several gravestones and crosses line its banks. In the spring, the blooms of lavender and white lilacs transform once bland surroundings into a scene of breathtaking beauty. A worn sign over its entrance reminds visitors that it is a “Negro Cemetery.”
Near a spot where the creek bends at a right angle grow the only dark purple lilacs in the place. Beneath them are three headstones bearing the names of Harold Jackson (1895-1925), Harold Jackson, Jr. (1922-1944) and James Jackson (1944-1969).
Harold Jackson probably never read Wilfred Owen’s haunting World War I poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” but he surely lived it. Referring to a mustard gas attack, Owens wrote, “But someone still was yelling out and stumbling and flound’ring like a man on fire or lime. Dim through misty panes and green light, as under a green sun, I saw him drowning.”
Jackson didn’t drown, but he inhaled enough poison to ruin his lungs and thus ensure a premature death.
Harold Sr. fought with the “Fighting Hell Cats of the 369th,” an all Black regiment so accomplished on the killing fields of France that the entire unit was given that country’s highest military award, the Croix de Guerre.
Ironically and tellingly, no Hell Cat received anything equivalent from his own country.
After the war, Jackson returned to those cotton fields back home to work tedious hours as a sharecropper. But not for long. His damaged lungs couldn’t hold up to the grind of 12-hour workdays. Before he died, he fathered a son, thus realizing one of his dreams. Another, marching in the Memorial Day parade with his French medal of honor pinned to his uniform, went unfulfilled. “No colored allowed.”
Harold Jr. never got to know his father, but family members made sure to educate him about Senior. With his dad’s memory preserved by the medal he carried always and a loving mother providing the inspiration, he beat the odds not once, but three times. He graduated from high school, an all-Black college and a flight training program.
During World War II, he became one of a handful of Blacks to see combat.
Before each mission, he’d take out Senior’s medal and place it on his bunk atop the photograph of his newborn son. He scored nine kills before he was shot down somewhere in the Pacific. All that returned home was a picture and a medal. Uncle Sam showed his gratitude by sending Junior’s widow the Distinguished Flying Cross. He died a hero, like his dad, and like his dad he never got to march in that parade.
James Jackson had large shoes to fill. Too large. The family now had two legends to preserve, and though their banter at holiday gatherings was innocent enough, it penetrated deeply into the youngster’s psyche. It seemed the boy always tried too hard to please and, in the process, he’d come up a yard or two short. “Jimmer” managed to struggle through high school and the day after graduation he enlisted in the Marines. The family thought the kid was carrying on the memories of his pop and “grandpap.”
In reality, he was trying to get as far away from them as possible. And though the Corps was reputed to be tough, it was “cake” compared to having to fill those dadgum shoes.
Halfway through tour No. 2 he was on recon when the Viet Cong sprang an ambush.
The kid hauled three of his wounded mates to cover and took out the Charlie machine gunner before a grenade exploded sending shards of metal into his back. The rest of the story reads like Ron Kovic’s book, “Born on the Fourth of July.”
After shoddy treatment at a VA hospital, he returned to a family that hadn’t been trained to deal with PTSD and to a wife who, unable to handle the rage and backhands, walked out for good, taking James Jr. with her. Alone and in a pain immune to drugs, his legs dead and those large shoes still waiting to be filled, he took the .38 caliber cure. They sent his possessions to his grieving mother. Two medals — an old DFC and a shiny Silver Star — and a color photo of a newborn baby boy. He couldn’t have marched if he wanted to.
This Memorial Day, as they’ve done for years, the Jackson women will visit the cemetery to perform their annual ritual: remove the weeds, lay three wreaths, kneel, say a prayer and depart more slowly than when they entered. James Jr. will leave his law office and return to his roots. He’ll squeeze into his dress uniform and pin proudly to his chest the medals he earned in the Gulf War along with the three awarded to his forebears.
Family members will ask him about James III, presently serving in the Corps, and later that day he’ll march in a parade. One Black man marching for three others whose sacrifices to this nation, along with those of so many like them, have gone unnoticed and underappreciated for too long.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Raymond Lenarcic is a professor emeritus at Herkimer County Community College. He received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1980. He has donated several bound collections of his published stories and columns written over nearly five decades to the college, including a Joys and Sorrows, a compilation of published columns in area newspapers dealing with the various holidays and other topics.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here