Dinner at a fine restaurant in Little Rock with my wife, who looks and is the happiest she has ever been, her uncle Bob Denman, brother of my late war hero father-in-law, Col. Dale Denman, Jr., Alex’s cousins, Bob, Jr. and Stan, and their lovely wives, Peggy and La Donna.
I had the honor of sitting next to Uncle Bob as we ate.
“How soon after you got to Korea did you go into combat?” I asked him.
“Two days,” he said in his soft Arkansas accent.
“Two days?” I asked incredulously.
“We landed at Pusan and a train took us to the forward lines and then a truck took us to the outpost, and as soon as we got there, I got into a sandbag bunker, and artillery and mortars were exploding all around us.”
“What went through your mind?”
“The first thought I had was that I prayed to God that I would not be a coward,” he answered. This was exactly what Col. Denman told me his first thoughts had been when he entered combat in Germany. It must have been something the Denmans were raised with. Maybe all Southerners are raised that way.
“What happened after that?” I asked.
“We moved steadily north, and then we were at some trenches that had been built by Ethiopian troops we were relieving. And intelligence told us we were about to get attacked by the Chinese in large numbers. So then there were these bugles and next thing you knew, the Chinese were charging at us. I just took my carbine and kept shooting back. I wished I had an M-1 but as an officer, I had a carbine.”
“Then what were you thinking?”
“I was scared to death but I just kept firing,” he said, “and then we got hit by napalm from our own planes. These shiny aluminum canisters would just drift down and then they exploded and there was fire everywhere. I never got any on me, but I got white phosphorous from the Chinese and that burned.”
I didn’t think I should grill him all through the meal, so I let him eat in peace for about ten minutes and then I said, “We are so proud of you. You really cannot know. In our hearts. All of the time.”
Across the table, Peggy, Bob Jr.’s wife, started to talk about her 90-year-old father. “He was at Normandy,” she said. “His family didn’t have a lot of money. They had eight children. They needed help. So my father, at age 17, lied about his age and joined the Army. He trained for a long time and then he went to Normandy. He had two Purple Hearts and a lot of other medals. He never talks about it and when he does, he cries about his friends who died.”
My Lord, what men and women these are.
There was a moment of silence and Uncle Bob leaned forward towards me. He had tears in his eyes the way he always does when he talks about his family, especially, his late wife, Mary Evelyn, whom we all loved so much, and who died about four years ago. He will never be the same. They were together since they were teenagers.
“Every night when I go to sleep,” he said, “I say my prayers and I ask God, ‘Why have you been so good to me? I have my sons and their families and you and Alex and my fine place to live and my friends, and why have you been so good to me?’
“And God answers back, ‘Because I love you.’ And that’s the way I feel about you. I love you. I love all of you,” he said, motioning with his head to everyone at the table. “And if only Mary Evelyn and Dale were here, it would all be perfect.”
My head is still swimming. The Denmans. The salt of the earth. “But if the salt shall lose its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?” The Denmans. The salt of the earth.
I watched Skyfall for the 17th time tonight when we got back to our fabulous rooms at the Capital in Little Rock and somehow my heart was not in it, but back with Bob Denman and all of the Denmans. I love you, too. And if your family is still living, be thankful. Be very, very thankful. And for every breath you take as free men and women, because men and women just as good as the Denmans died and suffered so you could breathe free air.