2017-02-16 / Opinions

Dad saw the birth of radio, and of computers; my brother served his country with distinction


It’s been 40 years ago this week since my dad, Charles Clayton Burke died on St. Valentine’s Day, and 15 years since the day my big brother, Charles Clayton Burke Jr., died of pancreatic cancer after a long struggle.

I couldn’t help thinking of them this week; I wondered what they were experiencing in the Great Beyond just now and, honestly, looking forward to when I may be able to join them there.

It’s not that I want to go anytime soon, it’s just the circle of life.

Charles Clayton Burke was born in 1911 and the arc of his life covered the birth of radio to the birth of computers, the early days of air flight to the first men to walk on the moon.

As a young man, Charlie Burke lived through the Roaring 20s, worked through the Great Depression and the hard-scrabble 1930s. He was a 30-year-old father of two at the outbreak of World War II, and spent the war years working in hush-hush projects at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

As a sales executive in the postwar years, his travels sometimes took him up North, where Green Bay Packer fans mobbed him because he was a dead ringer for Coach Vince Lombardi. Dad said it amused him no end to have drunk Yankees buying him a beer, as long as they didn’t blaspheme Bear Bryant. He admitted it was wrong to actually pretend to be Coach Vince Lombardi, but he admits he was lavishly entertained in Chicago one evening as Lombardi’s Southern cousin, Charlie Lombardi.

The man could tell some stories. I wish I’d been smart enough at the time to commit them all to memory, but I’ve got most of them.

Now I know that the living history stored in the brains of our elders is a fragile thing. I was blessed to have a couple of years at the end of Dad’s life to hear his stories, his history, and to store them away in my heart to pass on to my sons and all Dad’s many descendants.

My brother Charlie was the eldest of the four of us, more than 20 years my senior, and he grew up during the big war. By the time young men were being drafted for Korea, he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Alabama, madly in love with Dorothy McCutchen, whose family was full of Presbyterian ministers and missionaries. In his letters, you can see that his love for her weighed heavily on him as he faced battle himself. He’d seen the effect war had on men; they’d come back from war as very different men, and I’m sure he feared going off to war and coming back a man that his dear Dottie wouldn’t recognize.

He wound up serving as a combat medic in the U.S. Army, hoping to save lives rather than taking them. He served with distinction in that bloody role, earning two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star for gallantry in battle, and a Purple Heart for wounds he sustained while saving his fellow soldiers.

For years, he told few details about his time in battle, only talking about the hellish cold and the interminable marching up one mountain and then another. Only after I came back from the first Gulf War, and only when he was well-lubricated by Wild Turkey, did he admit that he’d had to put down his medic’s bag to man a machine gun and help keep the waves of Red Chinese soldiers from overrunning him and his fellow soldiers. It tore at him to have mowed down rows of charging Chinese, but his duty was to save his buddies any way he could, and he did so. Even after decades, in his dreams Charlie heard the screams of charging Chinese soldiers, waking up in terror. It never left him alone.

Sixty-four years ago this week, the warring parties agreed to end hostilities. Back home, Charlie married his dear Dottie, and they had three fine sons. He went to work, was very prosperous, and those sons gave them grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He and Dottie were blessed to celebrate their 50th anniversary together, surrounded by family and a lifetime of friends, but just a few weeks later on Valentine’s Day, he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, much too young. We’ll never forget him, not for the service he rendered as a young soldier, but for the fine man he became.

So forgive me if I use this space to remember the fine men of my family, on this the anniversaries of their deaths. They were the finest of fathers and men, and I never want them to be forgotten.

Thanks everyone for your calls and cards.

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