Posts Tagged ‘South Dakota’

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people

Extraordinary stories of ordinary people


“That’s Mary Ford,” I said, pointing to the faded image of the Army nurse on the man’s tee shirt.

He nodded.

“She was my sister. She’s in here, too,” he said, holding up a booklet.

“I know. I’m the one who put her in there.”

We shook hands and both started crying.

In September of 2006, South Dakota dedicated its Vietnam War Memorial with a three-day celebration. Today, the state observes its first “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day”, an official state holiday to honor those who served in Vietnam.

I was on the planning committee for the 2006 event, the third war memorial dedication in our state. I’d worked on the previous two as well, for the World War II Memorial in 2001 (literally days after 9/11) and the Korean War Memorial in 2004. My duties were to design, write and oversee the production of all the printed materials like invitations, signs, apparel, name badges, banners, concert tickets and so on. And the commemorative program booklet which for the Vietnam War Memorial Dedication included the pictures and stories of more than a dozen South Dakota veterans.

Thousands of veterans, along with friends and family members, submitted photos and stories for the dedication website and a book “The Vietnam War: South Dakota Remembers” that was published in conjunction with the event. I read and reviewed all of them.

I knew some of those people. Dennis Foell, Nick Roseland, Dale Christopherson, the Harford brothers (Warren, Jerry and Doug), Dale Bertsch, Francis Whitebird. Others I didn’t, like Mary Ford. But their memories and images were no less compelling or personal to me.

Some Vietnam veterans wouldn’t attend that weekend and given the reception they got when they first came home after the war, that’s to be expected. Sometimes a “Thank you and welcome home” 30 years later is too little, too late.

There are moments from that fall weekend in 2006 that I will always remember. The biker with the Vietnam Veteran patch who saw the “committee” designation on my shirt and asked if he could hug me. I said yes. The quiet man who handed me his “Find a Buddy” card to hang on the board and whose “buddy” turned out to be the older brother of one of my friends. A few quick phone calls later, they were reunited for the first time since shipping out together. And meeting Mary Ford’s brother who had brought his family to the dedication in her honor because she couldn’t attend herself. The smiling, compassionate woman who’d entered the service on Halloween 1967 and served two tours in Vietnam as an Army nurse died in 1998.

It’s March 30, “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” in South Dakota. Who are you thanking today?

On June 9, 2011, the Missouri River was steadily creeping over its banks into Pierre, South Dakota , where I live. On June 9, 1972, Rapid Creek was careening through Rapid City, South Dakota, where I briefly lived.

The floods in these two communities are separated by so much more than 40 years and 180 miles. Last year’s flood drove people from their homes, shuttered businesses, and caused millions of dollars in property damage. But we saw it coming. In fact, many watched helplessly as the Missouri River rose and rose, flowing unheeded over a span of weeks and months. There was some time to evacuate (as I related in “What Do You Take?”), fill sandbags, and construct levees.

In 1972, the residents of Rapid City didn’t know what hit them. A storm dumped 10 inches of rain over a 60-mile area, flash-flooding Rapid Creek which winds through the city. Water roared over the creek banks, sweeping buildings, vehicles, trees, and people, ahead of it. Throughout the night, residents clung to whatever they could to survive – fences, trees, light poles, the roofs of houses. They heard the screams of others being swept away, the crack of beams splintering, the groan of metal as cars collided. And above it all, the deafening rush of the water.

When the floodwaters receded on June 10, 1972, 238 people were dead. More than 1,300 homes were completely destroyed with 2,800 more damaged. Thirty-six businesses were lost with another 236 sustaining heavy damage. Five thousand vehicles became scrap metal. The recovery took years.

In the summer of 1985, I was an intern at a radio station in Rapid City and even thirteen years after the horrific events of that day, a heavy rain could still instill fear and dread among the city’s residents.

On the 40th anniversary of the Rapid Creek flood, Rapid City is a community resurrected, risen from the floodwaters that still flow in the memory of so many. And while the devastation caused by last year’s flood in my own community should not be minimized, I can’t help but think of just how lucky we are; it could have been so much worse.

In 1972, the Rapid City Journal gave the country a firsthand account of the Rapid Creek flood. Forty years later, they’re doing the same with an impressive series of interviews and images. It’s well worth a look, especially the collection “The People of the 1972 Flood”.

Headstones are the name tags the deceased wear to the afterworld. They tell who and what we were, how long we lived, and sometimes, how we died. Their epitaphs are literature’s shortest biographies and they serve as reminders that this was once a real living person worth remembering.

I’ve wandered a lot of cemeteries. My birthday is May 28 and regularly falls on Memorial Day which means as I was growing up, sprays of artificial flowers and 21-gun salutes often preceded cake and presents. In spite of, or probably, because of that, I like cemeteries. They’re quiet, peaceful, and have great stories to tell.

The headstone that, for me, started it all.

The headstones that speak the loudest to me are the children‘s. As a kid, it never dawned on me that some children never grew up, that they existed as perpetual Peter Pans in old photographs and the memories of the people who loved them in their all-too-brief lives. The first child’s headstone I ever saw was in the Presbyterian cemetery in Bancroft, IA. It’s an old cemetery by Midwest standards, with graves dating back to the 1800’s. This was one of them and what drew me to the headstone was the little lamb carved in the top. Why it sticks in my memory is because the child it honors was just over four months old.

I can’t imagine how the parents felt picking out that headstone. I was unable to have children long before I was of an age when I thought about having one so I will never be faced with that kind of loss. But so many others have, and I wonder how they ever deal with it. Here’s how one family did.

Jack and Marj Thompson are young parents, one still in college, the other a Masters graduate in 2010. They have two children, a four-year-old named Lily and a one-year-old named Cash. And in between the two, there was once another named Tehlula Lee. She died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 2010 before she was even two months old.

One day Jack and Marj were walking through Greenwood Cemetery in Brookings, SD, where Tehlula Lee was laid to rest and they noticed something unusual. Many of the gravesites for children had only temporary markers, some of them decades old. They decided to do something about that.

In July of 2010, Jack and Marj formed the Tehlula Lee Foundation. Its goals are simple: to provide permanent headstones for the graves of children and to educate people about SIDS. To date, they’ve purchased 90 headstones for children’s graves at Greenwood Cemetery, and are now working on doing the same for cemeteries in other area communities like Volga, White and Toronto. In addition to the name of the child buried in each grave, each headstone contains an image of Tehlula’s footprint and the epitaph “Every soul leaves a footprint”.

The Thompsons never questioned why the temporary markers at Greenwood Cemetery were not replaced before with permanent stones. Brookings is a college town with a somewhat transient population set in a rural area with an economy that booms and busts. Nor did they judge the parents and families, some of whom have thanked them for the gesture. Jack and Marj just saw a need and made the effort to fill it, creating an incredible legacy for a special little girl and honoring generations of lost lambs before her.

It’s a Sunday morning as I post this and while the urge to get all preachy is there, I won’t. Instead, I’ll say this: There are people in this world doing amazing selfless things, and thank God for that.

To find out more about the Tehlula Lee Foundation or to make a donation, visit their website or the foundation’s Facebook page.