Veterans’ Tales by Vassar Bushmills
The return of the remains of 50 soldiers’ remains from North Korea put me in mind of my first encounter parades for military heroes. It was a parade in my town for a returning POW from Korea. His name was John Gallagher.
And I was 9.
I knew about the Korean War then, had two uncles who’d served, and came home alive…my mother was always praying them home. So that was the sort of thing a kid would know. But I didn’t really know the war was over.
It my first year of Little League, which is why I know I was 9, mid summer ’54. My Little League coach sent one of his sons around to the houses of his players, (not everyone had phones) telling us to meet up in front of the Big Store (the mining company’s store) wearing our baseball uniforms on Saturday. We were going to march in a parade, so don’t bring a glove.
His name was John Gallagher, from way up Machine Shop Hollow, had a bunch of brothers, sisters and uncles, spread out the entire length of Looney Creek, stretching all the way to where the creek flushed into the Poor Fork of the Cumberland in the next town down the line. I think they had a teenager my sister’s age and one of their kinfolk owned a gas station and garage in the next town. That gas station owner, Dennis and his wife were well-known since that was where everyone with a Packard or Harley took them to be worked on. We passed by it every time we’d go to the A & P, and every time we passed it, Mom would look over and say “Heathen” under her breath, sort of the way Catholics cross themselves when they see something satanic. You see, Dennis Gallagher’s wife, Martha, was notorious for her foul tongue. My dad said she could make a mule-skinner blush, which was really some undertaking, I Iater came to learn.
At the Big Store there was the high school band lined up, with their majorettes, followed by a small contingent of veterans from the VFW, in their uniforms…the War had only been over 9 years, then our four Little League teams, and bringing up the rear was a DeSoto or Dodge convertible with four little girls in church dresses walking in front, and John sitting on top of the back seat.
Nobody had confetti, but people could only stand on one-side of the street and clap since the railroad tracks followed the road the whole length of town on the other. But I guess everyone in town showed up to line the street. Roadblocks were set up at both ends of town.
The band played the only four patriotic marches they knew, plus Dixie, and finally had to launch into the school fight song. I remember it was hot, the pavement even hotter, our uniforms were wool and we had to keep a steady pace. I’m guessing they told the town officials up-creek and down-creek that they’d keep the road blocked for only an hour, so no one dilly-dallied.
The school football field was at the end of town, and that’s where we all took a “Right-turn ‘Harch!” into the parking lot across the tracks. Everyone turned to watch the convertible carrying John Gallagher continue along the highway til it came to the big bridge crossing the creek and the tracks, and then disappear.
There was no one there to meet us with water cups like in a 10K race, nobody’d thought of that, so we simply turned and walked back up the highway to our various houses, drenched and thirsty.
The Rest of the Story
While I was in the Army in Japan. my dad retired from the mines and bought a little brick house in an old mining town in central Arizona, then fixed it up. He was only 52. So when I left Japan I extended a year and took a JAG slot at Ft Huachuca down on the Mexican border. It was over 250 miles away, but it was closer, and I knew he was very ill. He would later become one of the first six patients to have a heart by-pass, in 1976, back in the day when every little ordinary procedure was a life-and-death test.
He had a patio in the back, where at night you could see the lights of Sedona 20 miles north and the old mining town Jerome, high up on the mountain, about 10 miles to the south. My wife and the kids and I would drive up at least two weekends a month, and while they played indoors Dad and I would sit on the back and follow satellites, which he believed, til the day he died, to be the most amazing marvel of history. The Arizona sky up there in that high valley was magnificent.
I don’t know how the topic of that parade for John Gallagher came up, we were just reminiscing about that little town on Looney Creek we both still considered home. I think it was Martha Gallagher’s foul mouth for I recall him saying, “Boy, she sure could cuss a cat!”
Then, as he lit up the one-millionth Camel cigarette that would eventually kill him, he went on…
“I don’t think you ever knew the rest of that story about Gallagher’s parade. You see, we took that convertible on down to Golf Course Road, to Old Whit’s house (a retired engineer who’d mentored Dad), where a squad of MP’s and military paddy wagon met them and took custody of John, and then ferried him to I don’t know where.
“You see, when John was released from that camp in (North) Korea and returned to military control, his family was notified that he would be coming home after a week or so of medical exams and out-processing. So the town immediately began making preparations for a returning hero. But after several days of debriefing of the other men in that camp the Army learned John had been a collaborator with the Reds.”
Beyond that Dad never knew what happened, only it was a serious offense in his eyes. “They shot people like that in Italy.” He never knew what the exact crime was, or a court-martial, jail time, dishonorable discharge, he just never came back to town. And his family eventually moved.
“But our little town had corporate friends in high places with the Army, and the military allowed the parade to proceed.”
Dad said he never knew how many people in the town actually knew the rest of that story.
In any case I offer this little cartoon from Bill Mauldin in WWII, only with a totally different meaning.