In Loving Memory of Dave Church
There have been a few times in my life when stories have found me, not the other way around. Usually, I have to dig the words out of hard rock after a fair amount of research, then work to drive home an environmental or humanitarian point. Not this time.
This time the story shook me awake in the middle of the night like a raging thunderstorm, and left me so devastated, I felt like I had been struck by lightning. This story is about Dave Church — and it is my apology to him.
What I am about to tell you about Dave may not be entirely factual. I may have misheard it or misremembered it, or the person who told it to me may have exaggerated a little. I don’t know. The facts are hazy at best, but the story is deeply etched in my heart and mind. I cannot corroborate the facts and, quite frankly, I don’t care to. If you prefer to read only facts, then don’t read this. This is a story of emotion.
Dave was an old man when I met him, in his mid to late 70s. He walked feebly, carefully choosing each step. I remember helping him open the heavy door to my warehouse one morning. He looked me in the eyes and shook my hand and asked me for a job. “I’m a pretty handy guy,” he said. “I can fix things and clean things.” When he saw my hesitation, he gripped my hand a little harder and looked at me a little deeper.
“I really need a job, sir. My Social Security only covers my rent, and I hate eating that crap at the shelter kitchen. Really, I’ll work hard, and you can count on me. I’ll always be on time, and I’ll never complain. I’ve fought in three wars, so I’m a pretty tough guy.”
I was dumbstruck. Three wars? I am a pretty good history buff. Contemplating whether he had fought in WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam, my first thought was not, Is this possible? but rather, Is this guy nuts?
The next thing he said was, “I ain’t crazy. I just loved the military.”
And I replied, “You’re hired.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. On that day, I was the last person to wave a flag, any flag. I was not military — actually, I was averse to it, and still am. I felt lucky to miss Vietnam, due to a college deferment and a high draft number. I’ve been a protester against every military action our country has undertaken in the last forty years. I was, on that day, the polar opposite of what Dave Church stood for.
But I liked him. I can’t say why, I just did. He had a grit and tooth about him very similar to my father, who would have been about Dave’s age, had he still been alive. My father was also weaned on the military.
Dave worked out well at his new job. He was never late, often working with considerable pain in his old joints. I was careful to give him light duties, but he always did more than I asked. He was a good custodian and repairman for my store. He related well to the older patrons, eventually becoming the official greeter at the cash register.
Over time, Dave began to loosen up, talking more, telling me stories of the wars he had fought. Because of his earlier work in restaurants, he had become a Marine cook. Because he could shoot well, he had been a sniper. And because he was small and could run fast, he had been a message runner. He taught me how to salute properly, and we often exchanged salutes when greeting each other. He allowed me to be the superior officer.
He had seen a lot of men die, and he remembered every man he had ever killed. He was not happy about what he’d had to do, but he was proud to be a Marine. He wore his red “Chosin Few” Marine cap like a medal, often stirring up conversations with other seniors who saw it.
Dave Church was a warrior. He was not affectionate or personable, he was not a man who had many friends. He was, as he said, “Exactly what the military wanted. I am a doer, not a thinker. If you analyze everything too much, you’ll never get anything done.”
And, Dave Church was my friend. I enjoyed his odd sense of humor. He had a way of using malapropisms, twisting the use of words in sentences. We called them “Churchisms.”
He became one of my family, sort of the grumpy old uncle who came to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. For such times, he was grateful; his own family had abandoned him — or he had driven them away — some time before I knew him. “I can’t help it,” he once said, “The military never taught me how to love.”
In time, I had to let Dave go from the warehouse. His increasing physical frailty, and his instability even on his motorized scooter, made him too great a liability in a place where tons of furniture were in constant motion. But, we kept in touch, first weekly, then monthly. When he lost his ability to live independently, he was moved to the Veterans Home in Marshalltown, Iowa, where we exchanged letters and phone calls.
I called him every Memorial Day weekend for the time he lived there, and last year he thanked me repeatedly for our friendship. He said I was the only one who ever remembered to call him. We cried openly on the phone for a few minutes and then stumbled into the words, “I love you, Old Man,” and “I love you, too, Kid.”
I called him yesterday for the Memorial Day weekend. The receptionist who answered the phone said, “I’m sorry, we have no Dave Church living here.”
“Of course, you do. I’ve called him at this number many times.”
“No, I’m sorry, I’ve checked the resident list twice.”
Immediately, I knew he had passed away. I could feel him missing from my reach. “May I speak to your supervisor?”
Because I was not an immediate family member, I got no further with the supervisor, despite his obvious compassion. He said he’d check the roster for me, and let me know if he found Dave’s date of discharge. For someone without funds or family resources, discharge from the state’s only veterans’ home had only two possible meanings: Dave was either in Hospice care or he had already died.
The supervisor called an hour later. “Dave Church was discharged in the month of December,” he said.
Discharged. I checked the Marshalltown obituaries for the month of December. There it was, a single sentence covering an entire lifetime.
“David Church, 83, of the Iowa Veterans Home died Dec. 21, 2008, at Marshalltown Medical & Surgical Center.”
There was no mention of his military service. No mention that he had served his country proudly in three wars. No mention of his estranged family or where to send a card in remembrance. Dave had walked out of my life as quietly as he had walked into it.
Until last night when he woke me up.
He had a message for me. He was happy, without pain. But he wanted me to write something today. “Tell everyone to remember the vets in the vets homes. There are so many of us who never, ever get any visitors. We deserve better.”
We shook hands and hugged in my dream. We once again said we loved each other. I told him I was sorry I wasn’t there when he died, and he said, “That’s okay. I was just waiting for you to call today.” Then he was gone. I woke to tears and a strong sense of his presence.
I now have nothing but respect for this nation’s soldiers. I may not agree with the politicians who place such a low value on human life, but to all the soldiers who have fought and died and are fighting and dying as I write this, I respect you for your service.
And, to you, Dave Church, three time war veteran with an honorable record, I am grateful for what you have done for me and my country. I salute you.
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