It all began with a story I had recorded prior to Memorial Day for the national radio program Our American Stories. The piece featured my boss, an ex-marine, telling the incredible story of the war-torn WWII veteran who became his best friend.
Last year, it ended with my one-chance-in-a-million discovery of this man’s gravestone in an enormous cemetery on Memorial Day. So this year, I find it fitting to look back, not only on this particular experience, but also on the story of this man’s (and many others’) survival, loss, and sacrifice—but ultimately on his gift to the people he encountered.
And when he gets going about his time in the marines, it almost always comes back to the man he met after eight years of active duty: Forrie. I love story time. It gives me a window into a life so different from my own, while reminding me that even a Special Ops service member had lessons to learn. And so many of them he learned from Forrie—a man over fifty years his senior.
Do you ever feel like you know someone because of everything you’ve heard about them? That’s how I felt about Forrie. After conducting this interview and listening to hours of “story time” that revolved around this man, I felt like I had personally known him. Heard his laugh. Seen his smile. Heard his stories from his own lips. And above all, I wanted to do something to honor him, however small that might be.
So I went to visit his grave on Memorial Day.
I went looking for Forrie’s grave in the cemetery where my boss said he was buried. Little did I know when I arrived at the cemetery that there were hundreds upon hundreds of headstones, all without any particular alphabetical or chronological order. I decided I would drive to the furthest corner, park, and start my search there, expecting it would take several hours to find Forrie. I did just that: I parked, got out of the car, and began walking toward the first row of graves in the furthest corner. I was mostly watching where I stepped because the ground was somewhat uneven and I had worn completely unsuitable footwear for a cross-country graveyard expedition. But as soon as I turned my head, there it was: FORREST L. JOHNSON. Located directly in front of my car. Next to his headstone was that of his four-year-old son, who passed shortly after he returned from the war.
It could have taken hours to find that one out of perhaps a thousand or so gravestones. My first words were, “Thank you, God.” After standing by the grave for a while, twisting together a clumsy dandelion bouquet, and recalling the hours of stories I’d heard about him, my last words were, “Thank you, Forrie.”
Somehow his children heard the radio piece. And thanks to Facebook and social media, I was able to reach out and tell them what an honor it was learning about their father and how I wished I’d known him. The story has basically gone viral within their family and friend circle. To think of all those people gathering around the story of their father—the man who served his country and nearly lost his life, the man who poured his heart and soul into those around him—to think of these people coming together in shared grief, memory, and gratitude is the greatest reward I could have hoped for.
Who do you know who has served? How did that experience shape them?
In what ways have people of older generations (veterans or not) impacted your life?