Remembering the Quiet Man by Carlos E. Cortés

Sometimes writers just have to write. Hm, that’s the same line I used to begin my previous column about how I was driven to write about the death of our beloved kitty, Tigger. But that time the “have to” was propelled internally. This time the impetus came from the outside.

This “have to” began a few weeks ago with a phone call from my wife’s sister, Joy. Her husband, Bill, had just died after years of declining health. A proud 85-year-old retired lieutenant colonel, Bill wanted a formal Marine burial in Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego.

As Joy explained to me by telephone, the cemetery allotted a strict thirty minutes for such events: a ten-minute Marine ceremony; ten minutes for the family; and ten minutes for the burial itself. Then came Joy’s request: would I be willing to present a ten-minute eulogy about Bill as part of the ceremony? Of course, I answered. This was one of those “have to” moments, one that created a formidable writer’s challenge.

I’d never given a funeral eulogy. Plenty of talks at celebrations of life, but never at a funeral. In fact, I had never even attended a military funeral. As I thought about my eulogy, the word, “appropriate,” hung threateningly over my head.

I also was never a Marine. Just two years doing public relations as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where my major assignment was writing press releases for social events of the Officers’ Wives Club.

On top of that, I didn’t know Bill all that well. I saw him occasionally, mainly at large gatherings of the Vermilyeas, my wife Laurel’s casual, sprawling (eight siblings), outgoing family. During those boisterous Vermilyea events, Bill, a friendly but innately reserved man, tended to share little about himself. Over the course of forty years, he and I probably hadn’t spent 60 minutes total in one-on-one conversation. As I thought about my challenge, those ten minutes kept getting longer and longer.

Fortunately, in his last years Bill had written down a few of his memories of growing up in Mariposa, California. That was a start.

Then there was his family. Besides Joy, Bill had five daughters, now spread from Nebraska to New Zealand. So I wrote to his daughters, asking if they would briefly share with me some stories about their dad. Three responded with charming reminiscences. Now, how to put it all together?

Compared to most creative writing endeavors, preparing an imminent funeral eulogy is truly high pressure. There is no waiting until you’re in the mood, no gracious time to let your ideas gestate, no ruminating about who might read it, no opportunity for second chances. With a funeral eulogy, you’ve got one shot at it. Opening night is also closing night.

And you know your audience. In this case, there were six people I wanted to please: Joy and Bill’s five daughters at a time of supreme loss. Anyone else was a bonus.

My writing predisposition is to choose a single image and then build a story around that. So I began the eulogy with an image: “When I think of Bill Stewart, I remember him as The Quiet Man.” From there I constructed a narrative about Bill, integrating some of his own written childhood reminiscences as well as stories from his daughters.

How I labored over those six pages! Draft after draft. Laurel remarked that she had never seen me work so hard on a piece of writing.

The ceremony began with the Marines conducting a profoundly moving American flag ceremony in front of Bill’s ashes and firing 21 shots in honor of their deceased comrade. When I got up to speak, I felt as much pressure as I ever have in my long public lecturing career.

I think the eulogy went well. Joy and one daughter hugged me. Two others sent me very nice thank you letters. Maybe best of all, my sense is that The Quiet Man would have been happy, too.

Carlos E. Cortés is professor emeritus of history at UC Riverside and author of a memoir, “Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time.”

Gratefully Yours: Remembering the Veterans in My Family by Joan Koerper

I was told he never heard it coming. The bomb careening through the sky over the fields of France, the morning of September 18, 1944 killing William Edward Asman. The man we all affectionately called Big Eddie was Hollywood-handsome, tall, slim, and graceful with a smile that lit up a room. He courted my mother for four years, saving every penny to buy them a home. He would not ask for her hand in marriage until he could carry her over the threshold. They married August 23, 1941. Big Eddie knew his son, Edward Gordon Asman, my half-brother, only fourteen months before he was shipped overseas.

Big Eddie’s photo stood as one of three men in uniform on his mother’s side table. Granny Jenny Bell Asman’s other two sons made it home.

The story that Big Eddie never knew what hit him, and that it was a direct hit, made it palatable to my young ears as Mother and I shared his photos and letters, not yet curled up at the edges, and her stories. The knock on the door. The telegram. How I cried for their loss.

My father, William George Koerper, also served in WWII. A child prodigy and educated performance musician, he was with the USO providing desperately needed R&R, and entertainment, for the troops.

Many men and women in my family have served in the military. More than I can recount here. Their stories came alive in songs, over card tables, in whispers, and flamboyant parties.

We never glorified war, pain, or suffering. Rather, we honored duty and sacrifice.

My father and his siblings vividly remembered the photo of their maternal grandfather, Michael McLaughlin, hanging on the wall of the family home. In it, he stands in a garden, U.S. flag flying behind him, holding the rifle he carried, and decorated with the medals he earned in 1865, fighting in the Illinois Cavalry during the Civil War. He received land in return for his service, and later returned to County Kerry, Ireland, to rest in peace.

Full size portraits of my mother’s only sibling, Gordon Burrell, and his wife, Mary Patricia, a WW II WAC, both in Navy dress uniforms, proudly hung over their living room sofa. They hold the same place of honor today in their daughter’s living room. Their only son, Thomas Burrell, a genius eligible for Mensa, was drafted during the Vietnam War. He returned so emotionally and physically crippled he was lucky to make a living driving a taxi until he succumbed to throat cancer in his forties.

In my brother’s home two photos sit on a marble topped table in the living room. One proudly displays my brother in his Army uniform. Beside it, Big Eddie’s grandson, Navy Captain Leo Edward Asman, an Annapolis graduate and pilot, is pictured beside his grandfather’s grave in France, sixty years later. The honoring continues.

As I grew up I learned, of course, that Big Eddie heard the bomb that killed him. And his death was probably not instantaneous. I’m deeply grateful to my parents and elders for making his story one of swift heroism to my then-innocent ears rather than the terror it really was. Truth is unveiled soon enough.

I still cry for all that was lost, and those memories of all who served silently carried with them.

Blessings and gratitude to you all.

Veterans Day, 2015