All three of the sons in my family were in the Air Force when the middle brother fatally crashed in a B-47. The year was 1961. I was overseas when I was notified and when I got to the states on emergency leave, my surviving brother had arranged for me to drive my late brother’s car home to Arkansas. Though I was weary from my transatlantic flight, I knew I couldn’t sleep and was grateful for the task of a long distance drive. I did a lot of reminiscing and praying on that lonely trip. I learned by experience along that highway, though, that thinking of others in their grief helps allay our own.
My sister was Army and all four siblings were in uniform at the funeral. You see, those who shipped the casket asked for a uniform for the deceased. When the bugle played “Taps” and the 21-gun salute resounded and the missing plane formation out of my brother’s squadron flew over, I felt alternating grief and pride. When my siblings and I went into the military, we pledged that we would make the ultimate sacrifice if called upon to do so. Death with honor is much to be venerated and those of us who have lost service men or women in our families know that keenly.
The trip back to my base in Germany was tough. I thought the pain and lack of appetite I was experiencing was grief, but soon learned it was acute appendicitis. One evening not long after I had returned to my barracks from emergency leave, I felt desperately ill. I hadn’t eaten much for the past week and my complexion was greenish. When I reported for duty after a sleepless night, Sergeant McDonald said, “Ford, you better go to the hospital. You look terrible.” I’m sure I looked like the Hulk with a tapeworm.
I obeyed my sergeant’s order and a couple of hours later, I was scheduled for surgery. My father had died of a ruptured appendix and when I told the orderlies that in response to their initial questioning, they got busy and prepped me for the event. As I was reviving afterwards, the officer who had operated on me came to my bedside and said, “Ford, you had a hot one. Got it out just in time.” I think he meant I was at death‘s door.
The recovery from surgery was also a time of recovery from grief. I remember thinking, hey, I feel better now. I have always known that we are all mortal. My faith teaches that we will live forever in Heaven. My brother is there. I will be there one day.
Of course, I didn’t keep that mindset on a constant basis, but it gave wonderful intermittent comfort. I wrote a comical illustrated letter home about my surgery and Mother kept that letter and chuckled over it for the rest of her life. She said she was alarmed to hear of the appendicitis knowing what she knew of the dangerous disorder, but when she got the funny epistle, she said, “Danny is fine.”