bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sleep Baby, Sleep

by Amy Herting

The words reach out through the years to touch the heart of every parent in any age. The grave is weathered, ornate and stands out in stark contrast to the precise military markers that surround it. It catches my eye and I am compelled to pull over and take a look. Marjorie Graves sleeps forever in the company of soldiers at Ft. Logan National Cemetery. She lived from 1892-1894, the daughter of William S. and Katherine Graves. On her left lies her brother in a grave simply marked “Infant 1891”. The loss is so enormous that I can feel the echo of grief calling across a century. Not able to think of him as “Infant”, I decide to call him Billy—in honor of his father while also remembering mine.

I have come on this crisp fall day to visit my dad, Robert J. Cooper, who has been resting at Ft. Logan since July of 2005. He died a peaceful, premature death in his sleep at 63. As I drive past Marjorie and the endless white rows of heroes, I’m thankful that Dad is joined with them in the still beauty of this place. His military service had a profound effect upon his life and—as seems fitting—his death. After a raucous youth, my father found purpose in the special brotherhood of the US Marine Corps. At 17, he was introduced to an exciting new life that was worlds away from the concrete existence of his Chicago upbringing. He served as a guard at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was a Marine escort for John Glenn’s 1962 Homecoming Parade and stood watch at the fence of Guantanamo Bay on the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He went to Vietnam in the early days of that conflict and was wounded in the line of duty—all before the age of 25. He received a medal for that service but never felt it was necessary for “just doing his job.” He eventually left the Corps, started a career and fell in love. He led a full life but never lost the pride of being a Marine. My childhood was filled with Chesty Puller, “The D.I.”, and the amazing feats of the brave Devil Dogs who are always the first to arrive on the field of battle. At first it seemed a shame that his only child was a girl, but he loved me with the fierce intensity that was his nature.

Fathers and daughters hold a special bond. I wonder about William S. Graves and his Marjorie. Did he cherish her all the more for having lost his son the year before? Did they delight in her first wobbly steps on the frontier military outpost that was Colorado? What claimed the life of little Marjorie, beloved baby eternally sleeping? I think of the faces of my own two daughters and the blue eyes of my precious baby boy. I remember my dad and how I still miss him every day. I drive away from Marjorie and Billy, but I cannot forget them. They haunt my dreams, and I must try to find out who they were. Maybe I can also find a salve for my grief in the process. 

I learn that Major General William Sidney Graves had quite a distinguished career in the US Army. Starting out as a teacher, he later decided to attend West Point Academy in 1884. Recognized for his leadership potential, he was posted to Ft. Logan in 1891 where he met his wife, Katherine Boyd, and had four children. He served in many capacities throughout his career, always steadily rising in rank. He was promoted to Captain of Infantry in 1899 and was cited for gallantry fighting insurgents in the Philippine Island battle of Caloocan in 1901. He helped with relief efforts after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Later on he would become secretary of the General Staff in Washington as well as Assistant Chief of Staff of the Army. At the onset of war, he was chosen by President Woodrow Wilson for a covert European mission that would pave the way for our involvement in World War I. By then, Brigadier General Graves became Major General Graves as he took over the command of the 8th Infantry Division in 1917. President Wilson, under pressure from the Allies, decided to send troops to Russia in order to open up an “Eastern Front” that would serve to divert the Germans from the main front in Europe. He sent Major General Graves to Siberia to guard the Trans-Siberian Railway and serve US interests with all the different factions there. It was a difficult post requiring diplomatic skills and restraint. Later on he would write a book about his experiences and concerns about the mission there called America’s Siberian Adventure 1918-1920. He would retire from his final post as commander of the Panama Canal Zone in 1928. He died in 1940 at 74. Katherine would join him at Arlington National Cemetery in 1957. He died on the eve of our entrance into World War II while my Dad would be born at its fiery beginning in 1941. Two men who served their country in very different times, bonded together through their valor. So much is owed to all those brave souls in a thousand Arlingtons and Ft. Logans, who laid down their lives or lived to tell the tales as old veterans. All the William S. Graves and Robert J. Coopers down through the centuries of America’s bold experiment will live on through their bravery and service—we must never forget them.

There is no mention in any of the biographies on William S. Graves of his lost children. I know that death was very common then—especially on the Colorado frontier of the 1890’s. His obituary listed his survivors as his wife and two children, a daughter,r Dorothy Orton (wife of Colonel William R. Orton) and a son, Sidney C. Graves. I find a picture of his grave at Arlington and wonder about his children who lived. What did they grow up to become? How many grandchildren did they give him? Did they hear stories of their brother and sister still at Ft. Logan?  I know that what happened to Marjorie has probably been lost forever in the mists of time. She and Billy would have been in the original Ft. Logan cemetery and moved to their present location years ago. What I do know as sure as anything, is the love of her parents found in the simple plea to “Sleep Baby, Sleep”. It’s enough for me to share that timeless love with my own children and also recognize it in the inscription added by my mom to dad’s headstone: “My Life, My Love”. We are all linked together in the human experience by that love that transcends death and in a way, conquers it. I bring flowers to Marjorie and Billy every time now when I visit dad. I look down the long, clean rows of graves and am filled with admiration for them. For all of us who are their families, for America. I leave a single pink rose at the grave of my father and say “Goodnight Chesty, wherever you are.”

Amy Herting is a busy mom of three from Colorado who loves to write stories, copywriting, and show scripts in her spare time. When not chasing kids around and writing, she also sings/performs in a ladies barbershop chorus of 150 and a quartet called Déjà vu.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Black and White and Red All Over

by Kristin Troyer

The tour was meant to deter us grade-schoolers, I guess, from slipping checkout-aisle candy bars in our pockets or from letting our friends drive drunk or from doing something truly terrible like joining the Mafia. Or maybe it was just to instill in us that cooperative attitude known to teachers as “appreciation” for our local law enforcement. A policeman (maybe his actual role was different, but I remember a uniform) let us peer through the unbreakable glass to the small colorless cement room with a toilet where arrestees stayed initially. Maybe there was a cot or a board in the wall for a bed, or maybe my memory is confusing the school tour with pictures I’ve seen of torture chambers.
No one is in the cell now, but my memory has juxtaposed this dull chamber with an image of my brother that I have never seen—bruised, stumbling, confused, belligerent, ratty t-shirt, ripped jeans slung low on his pelvis, laughing, arguing, shoulder-length curls matted together in a rubber band—a lot of detail for a scene conjured from imagination. I must imagine because no one ever told me, and I need the details. I wondered whether he was still unable to see straight when they shoved him in here to wait out the first night, or if the impact had shaken some of the alcohol from his brain. Did anyone watch behind the wide window as he stumbled up against the naked toilet and there vomited (or maybe it was already out of his system by that point)? What a terrible place for a hangover, with the gray cement converging on an already spinning head.
Funny how gray is a mixture of black and white, and yet its monotony bears no witness to the harsh contrast between light and dark. If white is all colors and black, the absence of color, then is gray a color? It can’t be. Colors spark and bite and whisper and mew and protest. Gray simply drones on in endless blah.
On days that my shirt is black or white or gray I usually add a colorful headband or a flower in my hair. Somehow a touch of red makes me feel more alive.
All Mom and Dad told us was that we had to pick up Stevan’s truck in town. I thought then that I hadn’t seen him in several days, but that was hardly unusual since he was often out late. My six-year-old sister and I rode along to the courthouse, curious as to our mission but sensing the need for silence with a childish intuition. Like any courthouse, ours has imposing stone steps and carved letters with U’s that look like V’s, imprinting on my mind words such as eqvvs, eqvitas, and vnitas, probably none of which were actually etched in stone marquee around the basilica that held my brother.
Dad got out of the van, and when I thought Mom’s forehead crease had lightened, I quietly asked why we were picking up Stevan’s truck. I took her answer in stride, as I’ve taken most news since then, because I could think of no other response. “Oh. Okay. Is he okay?” Since we were uptown, we probably ate at Kewpee for lunch, the squashed greasy burgers and thick salty chili that had been the forerunner to Wendy’s sloshing indigestibly in disillusioned stomachs.
I vacillated between which of my brothers was my favorite. Brent, nine years older than me, was closest to my age and let me play with his Micro Machines and would swing me by my arms through dizzying circles. Stevan and Seth were twins twelve years my elder. Stevan was funnier, but Seth taught me wrestling moves. Both let me play their Nintendo on occasion.
The truck, if I remember correctly, was peeling navy, with a band of skinny multi-colored stripes, dilapidated to begin with and completely mutilated after its rendezvous with an oak tree.

Everyone knows the old joke that goes, “What is black and white and red all over?” Children are quite young when they first hear it, and when they confess their ignorance, the time has come for the wiser child or capricious adult to crow, “A newspaper! Get it? It’s read all over!” And the child blushes and wonders how she has missed such an obvious answer, secretly considering it unfair that the joke must be heard rather than seen. In ink the solution presents itself plainly, with stamped-out letters. Out loud, anyone could have made the same mistake.
In time I would learn to associate black-white-red with pleasanter things, like music. The ebony and ivory of piano keys, the crimson roses or carnations from my family, the satin sheen of concert black, the warmth of faces under hot stage lights: cool elegance and sharp contrast to stimulate the eye as well as the ear. The black and white are sensible, the red, exotic. For my high school senior recital, my outfit was red and white, and my sister left some of my curls in dark ringlets around my face. It was my time, my show, and I was beautiful. My brothers, of course, wouldn’t notice.

Stevan’s six months were marked for us by “pay to stay” bills from the jail, white envelopes with cobalt writing that I handed to Dad without comment. This is the only incarceration I remember, though I have since gathered that he was in and out of jail for DUIs and drug possession for several years. My older sister mentions this casually, as if our brother’s record is common knowledge. It is not. Sometimes at family dinners I can hear Seth or Brent toss out a suggestion of past trouble from the other end of the twelve-foot table, but a glower from Stevan usually terminates the sentiment. My sister’s nonchalance sends a crawling, wormy sensation into my stomach.
I don’t remember any doors clanging behind us, like in the movies, but there was a small waiting room with black padded chairs, where we bounced until the guards finally escorted us through even though my sister and I were technically too young. Aren’t jumpsuits orange? Maybe Stevan actually wore orange when he appeared at the window booth, his sandy hair tangled into a snarling tight ponytail, but I remember stripes. Black and white. Good and bad. But now just bad. No crisp, clean distinction between colors, just dirty smudges where white faded into black and back into light again, over and over, numbing in its repetition.
Recently Stevan asked if I remembered coming to visit him in jail. “Of course.” He was really mad at Dad, he said, for bringing his kid sisters to see him in jail. If the goal was to shame him, it worked. I was eight, I think, and Megan was six, and it was summer because I told Stevan over the echoing phone about my birthday. Between awkward pauses we made polite conversation, ignoring the black plastic wood of the cubicle and the muffled metallic clink of voices across the phone and the cigarette smoke wafting from the visitors flanking us, the families of actual criminals. The phone was black. The walls were white. My pale arms glowed against the dark cubicle. The stripes on his suit went black-white-whack-blite, like a straight-line version of those spiraling optical illusions. Strawberries. I had just turned eight. Was it a strawberry pie I had for my birthday, or chocolate cake with strawberries?
Strawberries were my favorite fruit and they seemed safe to talk about. Sun-burnt skins, miniscule hairy seeds that lodged in your molars, their oozing sugary juice would have contrasted richly against the white of the pie crust or the almost-black of chocolate cake, redeeming the bland non-colors into rich vibrant taste. Stevan said my birthday dessert sounded delicious, and I envisioned myself rolling the pin over the wax paper and dough, lifting the round into its shallow dish and crimping the edges, stirring the mashed berries and cornstarch over medium heat until the mixture was clear, at last sliding the glowing pastry into the fridge to cool. One glance at its ruddy radiance and the grumpy officers would wave it on through in dazed silence, mindless of any opiates it may contain. My pie’s presence would vivify this entire dingy institution, and return my family to normal.

Kristin is an undergraduate student at Cedarville University, pursuing interests in music, theatre, and writing. Whether you call her a bookworm or a nerd, listening to and telling stories have been an important part of her life since she was small. This is her first publication.