Yesterday, my family laid to rest a true hero.
My great-uncle, Warren G. Watson, was born in a holler in Knott County in 1923. From those humble roots, he'd go on to lead a big, big life. At the age of 19, he began a career in education. Soon after, he was called to serve his country in European Theater of World War II. At the Battle of the Bulge, Uncle Warren caught sniper fire in the throat, and was left for dead. A member of his battalion disobeyed orders and rescued him; upon returning home to the mountains, he had to re-learn to talk and eat. For his bravery in battle, my uncle was awarded the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the Validi Milites, and the Croix de guerre, although he'd always humbly shrug and say "yeah, I got some medals in The War." This Memorial Day, I mourn my uncle the World War II soldier, a heroic man who made unbelievable sacrifices for the sake of worldwide freedom. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for him -- barely more than a boy himself and having never left the remote corners of Eastern Kentucky -- being sent to the European battlefields to liberate France. Even for the most patriotic and fair-minded, it must have been terrifying and surreal and invigorating. And, even for someone who believed as strongly in God, and freedom, and a general sense of what's right as my uncle did, I can't imagine how hard the road to recovery must have been, both physically and emotionally.
As a native Appalachian, with the strong sense of family as tribe that my heritage entails, I mourn my uncle as the last of my grandfather's siblings. With his passing, our family loses so many ties to the old-time mountain culture that once defined us. My granddaddy and his brother were incredibly talented musicians who played what they called "mountain music." There was a distinct regional variation that separated their genre from traditional bluegrass, they'd argue. Bill Monroe's sound was a musical dialect of Western Kentucky, while our family made the music of Kentucky's Appalachian towns. It's a distinction that, two generations removed and totally devoid of my family's signature musical gift, I can't begin to understand. My uncle loved music; he carved his own elaborate fiddles and he possessed the rare gift of perfect pitch.
In passing, my uncle takes with him his time-tested recipe for white corn liquor (Any Appalachian-American who claims to not have moonshiners in their family tree is, quite frankly, lying...) and the method his own father (a WWI veteran and fellow educator) taught him for extracting cube roots by hand.
This Decoration Day, as we mourn my family's loss, I also think of Uncle Warren's contemporaries among America's World War II veterans -- those often known as the Greatest Generation. I think not only of their sacrifices of safety, well-being and even their own lives; I think of the way that, as the last few members of this generation pass on, they take with them knowledge and insights from a pre-digital world. Like Uncle Warren, they possessed knowledge of a world we can't begin to imagine.
To my uncle and all who sacrificed health, comfort, safety, and their lives fighting for freedom and justice, there aren't sufficient words to express my gratitude and respect. I hope we all pause to remember the veterans in our own lives today.