An Unforgettable Memorial Day Memory
By Brad McEwen
I must confess. Like a lot of folks, a good portion of each early Spring is spent thinking about the impending end of the school year, the coming summer break, and what my family's plans might be for the long, holiday weekend that brings each May to a close.
But in the days approaching each Memorial Day my thoughts also inevitably drift away from beach trips and cookouts and settle squarely on the reason we recognize that holiday each year.
As I've mentioned previously, I have never served in the armed forces, and military service is not something that I'd consider a hallmark of McEwen history. My grandfather, and three of my great uncles served this country proudly, as did my great, great grandfather, but aside from that, military service was just not a focal point of my life growing up.
And to be completely honest, for most of my existence I never really considered the importance of Memorial Day. When I was a kid it marked the start of summer vacation and once I started working it was an extra day off. I just didn’t spend much time thinking about why it mattered.
That is until 2001 while I was working my first newspaper job at the Toccoa Record in Toccoa, Ga.
I joined that paper in late 2000--my first real job after leaving the University of Georgia--so by the time Spring rolled around I was just starting to get my feet under me as a fledgling newspaper reporter. Because of the small staff size, and the fact that we only published twice a week, my time at the Record was the perfect learning environment.
In the roughly two years I was there I got a crash-course in being a staff writer as I was tasked with covering everything from the crime beat, general news, local sports, the Stephens County Board of Education, the City of Toccoa, and the Stephens County Board of Commissioners, to local business, economic development and human interest features. Heck I was even a columnist that wrote about government, sports and various slice of life stuff.
Additionally I was responsible for taking all of my own pictures, and handling the design and layout of two pages a week. Oh, and I was also the guy who had to make the 45 minute drive to the printing press in Hartsville two days a week to deliver the (get this) "disc" that contained the page designs and the actual developed pictures that we used in each edition.
Really and truly, during my stint at the Record I did just about every job there was to do in a turn of the century news operation.
And I loved every minute of.
But for all the awesome stuff I learned, and the incredibly interesting things I got to do, perhaps none had as profound an effect on me as the events that unfolded after the paper received news in the Spring of 2001 that HBO was coming to Stephens County for a very special event.
That special event, it turned out, was the United States premiere of HBO’s World War II miniseries "Band of Brothers," which was produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and followed the exploits of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
And while it was infinitely cool that I had a chance to cover an event that saw HBO execs, industry types, then Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, several of the cast members, and the veterans they portrayed, as they descended on sleepy Stephens County, it was something that happened during the build up to that premiere which made a lasting impression on the cub reporter.
Those of you who haven't seen that excellent miniseries, based on Stephen Ambrose’s famous book of the same name, you're probably wondering why an event of this magnitude was held in Stephens County. Well to be fair, the "big," world premiere happened a few weeks prior with a special showing on Normandy Beach, where the real-life men of Easy Company literally jumped into the action that would take them through some of the major events of the European and Pacific theaters.
But despite seeing action a world away, Easy Company's story actually began in Toccoa, at an Army installation known as Camp Toombs, at the base of Toccoa's Currahee Mountain, where the paratroopers trained before deployment.
Needless to say, Camp Toccoa, as it was later renamed before finally shuttering after the war, held a special place in the hearts of the men of Easy Company and it was also a cherished fixture of Toccoa's history.
Thus it made sense that the "Band of Brothers" miniseries' journey should also begin under the shadow of Currahee Mountain.
Given the importance of the event, it also made sense for the voice of the community to focus on Stephens County's rich military histor--a history that extended beyond the 101st Airborne Division.
Like many small towns in Georgia and across the country, Toccoa and its surrounding area were home to a sizable population of veterans who had served their country proudly in many conflicts, so the leadership at the Record, rightly, decided to run a series of features focusing on the community's veterans during the run up to the "Band of Brothers" premiere.
Naturally, that meant turning lose its young staff writer to help with the interviews--interviews that would have a profound impact on the one asking the questions and taking notes.
Although some of the specifics of my encounters with a few Toccoa-area veterans are now lost to time, the impact of those encounters cannot be understated. I keenly remember one man I was interviewing, whose name sadly escapes me all these years later, quietly telling me of the time he spent in the Pacific, specifically during the battle for Okinawa, which historians consider one of the bloodiest battles fought in the Pacific theater.
Even today, I can clearly see this gentlemen sitting in his well-appointed living room, surrounded by medals, pictures, books and other relics of his time in the service, wiping the tears from his eyes as he recalled the fear that gripped him as his unit raced to unload munitions from a Naval transport before the enemy had a chance to launch another kamikaze into the defenseless ship.
I can still recall the far-off look in his eyes as a he told me about the deafening silence that would envelop his mind during the brief intermissions between the near-constant artillery bombardment that was a hallmark of that particular battle.
Even today, I can still hear the catch in his voice as he steadied himself and finished telling me how his unit suffered terrible loses as they fought their way up some unknown hill using nothing but grenades, bayonets and their bare hands once all the bullets were spent.
Those memories have remained crisp in my mind's eye now for 17 years and I finally have some inkling of how that man was able to recall 60 year old events as if they had transpired just days before.
Vivid too were the memories of Robert Scott--another World War II veteran who I had the pleasure of interviewing that Spring--and mine of him.
I can still remember Robert emerging from his little row house in downtown Toccoa, wiping sweat from his brow with an orange kerchief he tucked swiftly into the pocket of his Dickies coveralls.
When I met him, Robert Scott, along with this brother Major, lived a quiet life, farming the family’s half acre plot that sat between their homes in the middle of an almost entirely urban area. It seemed like such a quaint existence in a tiny southern town, but it belied the tale I was to ultimately hear that day.
After greeting me with a warm and inviting smile and a still-firm handshake, Robert asked me inside and offered me a cold glass of water and a seat on his well-worn recliner that sat just inside the front door before you tumbled into his kitchen.
Unlike my previous interview, my chat with Robert took place in his cozy little den adorned not by medals and trophies of his military glory, but by artifacts and treasures of a full and rich life outside of his time in the Army. Pictures of his family--his mom and dad, his brother, his dearly departed wife and the grown children they had supported into adulthood--and mementos of times spent with friends watched over us as we sat.
Among those pictures were also images of a younger Robert--not dressed in his blues or his fatigues, but in the suit and badge he wore daily during his post-military career guarding federal courthouses in San Francisco and Hawaii.
But I was not there to discuss his days as a federal marshal. Rather I was there to profile a veteran--one who lied about his age in 1944 so he could get out of tiny Toccoa and go fight against the growing evil in Europe before ultimately seeing combat in both Korea and Vietnam as well.
In truth I didn't know what to expect as sat in Robert's modest home, surrounded by the visual memory of a life well-lived. But I wasn't shocked when that same far-away, misty-eyed look I had experienced the day before stole across his countenance.
I don't remember everything Robert shared with me that day, but I can recall a great deal of it.
I can still hear him telling me of his childhood growing up in a racially divided south and of how, as a teenager, he worked on the crew that paved the roughly 20 miles of Highway 17 between Lavonia and Toccoa for 17 cents a day, and about his decision to leave that life behind in order to help the country he loved fight for the freedom of all people.
But it's the stories of the hellish combat he experienced and the pain of losing so many of his friends and brothers that have left such an indelible mark on my mind.
I can still feel the gut-punch of Robert gently wiping a tear from his eye and matter-of-factly turning to that 24 year-old, novice reporter and uttering a quote that still resonates with me nearly two decades later.
"I don't want to get into; it hurts," he said. "I’ve seen more people dead than you've seen living."
To say that was a sobering thing to hear is gross understatement.
I had certainly taken my history classes and had read about the human toll that is the true cost of war, but it was something altogether different to sit in the presence of that man--who decades later could still hear the gunfire and see the bodies of the fallen patriots who gave their very lives for what they believed in--and hear those words.
A few days after those interviews, my editor sent me to cover the Memorial Day service held outside the Stephens County courthouse, where local officials and leaders praised the heroism of the dozens of native sons and daughters who had left the comfort of their Stephens County homes to gladly serve this country and never returned.
As I stood there, thinking about all those heroes that fought and died during the course of our nation's history, I caught a glimpse of Robert, standing somberly at the edge of the crowd, his hat held firmly across his chest.
And I'd like to think I knew what was on his mind and his heart.
I don't believe that the man I had spent a short bit of time with just a few days earlier was thinking about his own military career and how fortunate he was to have survived three wars. No, I believe he was reflecting on his brothers in arms, and the lives they laid down half a world away so that he and Major could freely farm the small plot of land that had been in their family for generations.
In his eyes I could see the gratitude, not that he had lived to see another Memorial Day, but that he had another chance to honor the ultimate sacrifices that have ensured our freedom. That he has another opportunity to thank you.
I have no doubt that it will be nice to have a break from work this Memorial Day and that I'll enjoy spending time with my friends and family, grilling burgers in the backyard.
But I also know that I will take a moment, as I've done since that Memorial Day ceremony beneath the shadow of the historic courthouse in downtown Toccoa, to offer a prayer of thanks to all those brave souls who are responsible for my freedom.
And I will ask God to watch over and protect those men and women who are prepared to make that same sacrifice today.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen