“Not one person shook my hand.” That’s what my aunt Heide told me on the phone the other day. “Not one!” Aunt Heide doesn’t usually go to Memorial Day services because she is usually up at our family cabin in the Sierra Nevada, chainsawing dead pine trees that fell over the winter or cleaning up the mess made by forest mice trying to stay warm in our cabins. She might be 83 years old, but no one gets as much done as my aunt Heide.
When she went to that Memorial Day service a few years back, she was wearing her Gold Star sweatshirt. A big gold star– you couldn’t miss it!” she said. I have to admit that I didn’t know what the star signified either until Heide told me a story recently. “My grandson was getting the oil changed on his car up in Reno and he has a Gold Star license plate,” she said. “When he went to pay, the owner said, “It’s on me. Thank you for your sacrifice.” Every Gold Star family has lost someone in the line of duty.
When aunt Heide was in her mid 30s, the war in Vietnam was raging. She worked for Governor Ronald Reagan, writing his personal letters, some to grieving families. Her husband, my uncle Royce, was serving his second tour of duty, and because she had three children under the age of ten, Heide tried not to think about how easily the worst could happen. But one day, two weeks before Major Dave Royce Kingsbury was supposed to come home, she got a knock at the door. His helicopter had crashed under enemy fire and because uncle Royce was the navigator and responsible for radio contact with the base, he didn’t take the time to strap in for impact. He did, however, radio their coordinates to his commanders as the chopper spun and fell, and the rest of his unit (strapped in, all of them survived) was rescued. For this act of bravery, he received all the medals that are supposed to make those left behind feel better.
It’s been almost 50 years since uncle Royce died and although I don’t remember him, he looms large in my imagination. On Memorial Day this year, aunt Heide told me she’ll once again go to the service in Sacramento. Once again, she’ll be wearing her Gold Star sweatshirt. I’m sure she’d rather be at the cabin, with her living, breathing family, but she just had open heart surgery six weeks ago–a triple bypass and a pacemaker, plus one of her valves replaced with that of a pig. She oinks now and then to make us laugh but she’s not quite ready to pick up a chainsaw. But she will be soon. And I’m grateful to be able to thank her again this Memorial Day for all she has sacrificed for this great nation I call home, The United States of America.