In search of my lost soldier cousin

[These blogs and stories are unpublished, but all are in some way connected to Wingspread: Of Faith and Flying, Booklocker Press, http://Booklocker.com  ]

It’s 2011 and Eddie’s been dead for over 50 years—I’ve never even seen his picture. I wonder, Why don’t my relatives ever talk about him? Why do I seek his grave today?

Early on, I discovered that our family was strange—a peculiar, small island among our extended family kin. We were Fundamentalists—no one else was. So, I seek Eddie’s grave today to learn more about the rest of the family.

Dad told me, “Your Uncle Everett trained in Texas to fly B-29s. One day, he was marching in formation when he saw his cousin Eddie from Minnesota marching right in front of him—he didn’t even know he’d enlisted! Everett came home and lived into his 80s, but Eddie was fed as fodder into the military machine, and, when he was 29, German guns cut him down.” That was all Dad said. Today, I search for Eddie’s grave. Why? I wonder. What will I do if I find him?

During the war, Dad wanted to be an army chaplain, but lacked seminary education, so he turned to carpentering. By the time I was three years old, it was clear the Allies were winning. Dad would call me outside when he’d hear a plane’s roar. “Look! That’s a B-36 bomber. It has eight engines.” I loved to watch the bulbous sub-spotting blimps floating over Newport harbor. They hangared in two 1000-foot-long, wooden structures near Santa Ana. Dad said, “I worked on every rafter in that building.” For Dad and me, WWII was a beautiful thing—all patriotic and exciting.

Dad had grown up near Eddie’s Minnesota home, but in 1920, Dad’s family abandoned Minnesota for California. Dad said, “My dad went west and got rich, but Eddie’s dad stayed in Minnesota and got poor.” The families rarely contacted each other.

In 1982 I moved back to Minnesota with my own family. I talked on the phone with Dad’s cousins, but never met them. Now that they’re all gone, I can’t heal the breach between our families, but if I find Eddie’s grave, perhaps I can at least honor his memory.

The search

Dad never seemed that interested in his Minnesota relatives. Years ago when Dad visited us, we walked the grasses of Winnebago’s North cemetery, but didn’t find Eddie’s grave—in fact, we found no Hurd graves at all. I knew that Eddie’s grandparents had died in the “Old Soldier’s Home” in Minneapolis. Suddenly it dawned on me—Eddie was in the army; I’ll bet he’s buried at Ft. Snelling!

Today Barbara and I lurch along the Hiawatha light rail line, get off at the airport stop, then walk a few hundred yards to Ft. Snelling’s iron gates. I am briefly overwhelmed. I think of Dante’s “I had not thought death had undone so many.” It’s the size of a city, with identical headstones stretching to the horizon. I see no person—just row upon endless row of stones planted in fresh-mown grass. Two hundred thousand military dead are planted here, and, to avoid digging winter’s frozen ground, workers prepare 1000 new graves every fall for the winter’s new crop. Today, only the mute stones speak for those who can speak no longer.

We stop a worker roaring by on a small garden tractor. He tells us, “There’s a large kiosk at the far end that lists all the burials.” We walk about a quarter mile to the kiosk and I browse the records. Most of the Hurds listed were buried since the 90s—I recognize none of the names, and no “Eddie Hurd.”  Then I remember Edwin, Eddie’s grandfather. Was Eddie’s name “Edwin?” I find him immediately—“Edwin Kenneth Hurd, Section B-1, Site 360N.” I never knew his middle name. But I’m puzzled by the interment date—December 11, 1947, exactly three years after his death.

Ft. Snelling opened in 1939, and the first burials must have been at this end. We walk a short distance and find section B. Stones here date from 1940-44, probably WWII deaths. I had read that the Battle of the Bulge, America’s bloodiest battle of the war, lasted from November 11, 1944 to January 25, 1945. Now we’re passing many graves from December, 1944. Was Eddie part of December’s harvest?

The stone                                                    

We read the little numbers on the backs of identical stones—362, 361…—and stop before 360N. There it is! I kneel and touch the small, white, granite stone, rounded on top, with a little cross carved inside a circle. I trace the letters with my finger:

Edwin K. Hurd
Minnesota
Staff Sgt Infantry
World War II
November 27 1915
December 11 1944

That is all. He lies under a fragrant cypress tree, one insignificant drop of blood among the 52 million civilians and military who perished in WWII.

I imagine Verna waiting in Minneapolis for her husband’s return, searching the papers, looking for any news. But never would she embrace him again. Undoubtedly they buried him where he fell in Belgium (a country his parents had never seen) along with 19,000 other American dead. When did his parents, Nelson and Mary, first receive the death telegram?

It must have taken three three years to ship his body back home. Would the family have traveled up from Winnebago for the interment that bitter December winter? It must have seemed like a second death. His sister Gladys, 25 at the time, would have been there. I almost met her in the 80s, but just as we planned a road trip to Medelia, she died. I wonder how long it’s been since anyone visited the grave? Did Eddie’s brother or sisters ever come here later? I visualize Verna’s wan face as she makes a later, solitary visit, perhaps to offer a Memorial Day bouquet. How soon we forget.

* * * *

Curious—why do I seek healing here among the dead? I cannot staunch my anger, and my heavy spirit savors the bitter swill of war—this early death, the loss of memory, severed family ties. How make amends? How reconcile? I can’t unring the bell.

I hesitate—then, fingering the thin stem, I lean against the stone a penitentiary flower–then we depart.

5 thoughts on “In search of my lost soldier cousin

  1. Our soldier, living or deceased, deserve special honor. Families, friends, relatives have lost a golden element in the chain of life. Only a change in the heart will cause man to turn from war and seriously consider the sanctity of life. Vee P.S. Please note my new Email address. Thank You

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  2. Jim, I really enjoyed your stories, I can identify with some of your growing up stories and your story about Eddie made me want to cry. Your growing up stories made laugh so hard as I grew up about the same time in a small town in southeastern Colorado first on a small ranch , then moving into town when my dad became too ill to work there . I was thirteen years old and it was quite a change for me. As a senior I moved to a small town near Fort Carson and graduated there. That small town is now what you would call a suburb of Colorado Springs. That was an even bigger change in my life. Thank you James, keep writing those stories.

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    1. Severed ties are far apart. One often does not know why. What caused the rope of family to unravel? Has forgiveness hidden in the shadows? Eddie was a man God loved along with his family. Are these no longer important?
      For some unknown reason one has severed their family tie. I pray that if a wrong has been done, there will be repentance so the salve can be applied to the wound and healing can begin.

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