Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Excerpt from High Flight, Gillespie Magee
I attended a memorial service yesterday for an old family friend who died this past weekend at the age of ninety-one. It’s probably safe to say I knew Merle as soon as I was old enough to know anyone outside of my immediate family. My parents met Merle and his wife Betty and became fast friends when they joined our church. Betty and my parents sang in the church choir.
Merle had been a U.S. Navy aviator in WWII. He flew missions over North Africa and was shot down and rescued during a mission in Japan. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses. After the war, he went to the South Pole with Admiral Byrd and served as commanding officer on a number of ships.
The Navy and additional assignments to NATO took his family to Naples for several years, where Merle developed an interest in all things Italian. (I wrote about one of their experiences in Italy here.) After retiring from the Navy the family moved to Colorado and then to California.
But they never sold their little house in Virginia Beach and this is where they came to spend the latter years of their lives. Betty died in 2002. In the years that followed I didn’t see Merle regularly. But as I sat through his memorial service yesterday I realized that I was around him enough that his example taught me more than anyone else's about what it is to be a man, a husband, a father and responsible citizen.
Memorial services and funerals can be mixed bags. I’m least impressed by high church pageantry and most touched by sweet send-offs. I’ll admit to being a little leery of children and grandchildren speaking at such occasions. One of Merle’s daughters and three of his grandchildren, however, read poems that were both important to their grandfather and captured the parts of him that they believe will stay with them the longest. They were tearful readings. But the poems were short.
A good memorial service also needs a little humor. Merle’s grandsons both expressed amazement that they have even had the chance to know Merle in light of, as they put it, the “risks he took coupled with the primitive state of airplane technology in WWII.” His granddaughter admitted that Merle’s WWII service had seemed distant and abstract to her until she became a history teacher and realized just how daring his missions had been.
But perhaps the most touching moment of the day was when Merle’s oldest daughter Susan recalled a recent night at the hospital. Increasingly beset with dementia as his body failed him, Merle was determined to go home. It was all Susan could do to keep him in the bed. Nurses and doctors swarmed around. “It was like we were all doing our very best to catch an escaping soul.”
In the midst of this chaotic moment, the phone rang with a call from Merle’s youngest daughter, who lives in Vermont. Said Susan, “When I told Dad that Jane was on the phone, he sat up in the bed, took the receiver and greeted Jane with a hearty Buongiorno!”
I went to the memorial service out of respect for Merle. I went to see his daughters and their families, all of whom live far from here and will have little reason to return now that Merle’s gone. I knew it would be a touching occasion. But it wasn’t until the tears rolled down my cheeks that I realized just how important Merle had been in my life and how much I will miss his smile, his good humor and his embodiment of love.