Bicycle Diaries: Memorial Day

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Memorial Day

ghosts at the barbecue

It's Memorial Day here in Lincoln Square. Folks are getting together to enjoy the first really good weekend in Chicago. It's 66 degrees and cloudy. Anywhere you go, a wonderful barbecue smell wafts up from backyards, porches, and decks. And anyone doing a little shopping near the corner of Western and Leland won't miss the neighborhood's ongoing memorial to our soldiers killed in Iraq.

The Chicago Printmakers Collaborative has been putting these pictures in the upper windows of their building since August 2004. The memorial is very powerful because you can't possibly avoid the pictures. You can see them if you bike north on the east side of Western Ave. You can see them if you're waiting for a city bound train on the platform of the Brownline station. When the pictures started going up there there was only enough space for 648 pictures. Now the windows on each of the three floors are completely covered. And as of Sunday, the total number of our soldiers killed in Iraq has reached 4300 and the wounded now total 31,285.

Each time I pass it I'm reminded of two relatives who died in WWII. Robert Klippel, my mother's brother, flew P-51s out of Iwo Jima in 1945. This photo was taken a few days before he shipped out to the Pacific. On 1 June 1945, a little over two months before Japan surrendered, he flew escort for the B-29s called up on a last minute bombing mission. Before they reached their targets over Osaka, a tsunami engulfed the planes. Only a few ever returned. My uncle was one of the unlucky ones. He and his plane were never found. In 1946 his Missing in Action status was changed to Killed in Action.

Some of his friends who survived visited my mother's family soon after the war. They said that the last time they saw his plane it was trying to climb out over the storm. Years later I got my hands on the afteraction report from a veterans' organization. It states that this mission was the largest loss of life and equipment in the Pacific Theater.

The other relative on my mother's side of the family, Frederick Klippel, was killed in the European Theater. As you can probably tell from the photo here (he's the one with the canteen), Frederick served in the German Wehrmacht. In 1942, his infantry reserve battalion arrived in western Ukraine to consolidate the huge gains made by the German invasion of the Soviet Union the previous year. He was killed by Russian artillery fire on 12 February 1943 when the Wehrmacht retook Kharkov.

As as a young boy, every time we visited my grandmother she would show us Robert's Army Air Corps insignia and medals. The stuff was always cool to look at; in fact, I've had a bit of an obsession with this uncle who had died 17 years before I was born. Thanks to the web, I've done a lot of research on his squadron and fighter group. A couple of years ago, I even made contact with the veterans from the figher group. But they were in different squadrons and didn't remember my uncle. It wasn't until I was an adult, many years later, that I realized that Robert's death had torn the heart out of my mother's family. My grandmother firmly believed that he was still alive somewhere on Pacific island or in Japan. Her eldest daughter, my aunt, started to suffer from bipolar disorder at the end of the war. And my mother still can't talk about my uncle with getting extremely emotional.

As for Frederick's family, I don't really know how much his death has affected them. I've never met them myself. I didn't even know they or Frederick existed until I googled Klippel. One of the results was a Klippel genealogy posted by a distant cousin who lives on Stanton Island. Since then I've visited him several times. Just like with my grandmother, we look at the pictures and documents he got in Germany when he visited Frederick's family.

But I do know that once a soldier's ghost sits down at the dinner table it doesn't ever really go away. The one that started sitting with my mother's family in 1945 now sits with me as well as with my cousins and their children. This is why those 648 faces staring out of the windows of the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative have become an important part of my bike travels along Western Ave.

Today there are too many ghosts sitting at dinner tables or in backyards or on porches and decks around Chicago and the country.

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Anonymous theboy said...

Lovely and moving.

The windows of a building slowly being covered with pictures of dead soldiers and then describing how the death of an airman in a "good" war, in a heroic way, "tore the heart out of a family." Very sad.

26/5/09 07:53  
Blogger Da' Square Wheelman, said...


27/5/09 10:54  
Blogger Lynn said...

What a wonderful tribute you've written. My family has a similar story. My father's cousin (also of German descent) was lost on June 5, 1944, in a B-29 that ran out of fuel over the Bay of Bengal. He was an only child and left behind a wife and 2 yr old daughter. His wife remarried and did not keep in contact with his parents, depriving them of their only grandchild. I have about 6 letters that he wrote to his parents while stationed in Chicago, Florida and India, and they really make me feel the loss, though I'd never met him. In his last letter written 3 days before his plane went down, he reassured his mother that there was no need to worry about him; the work he was doing was not dangerous at all. It is covered with his mother's tear stains.

3/6/09 23:29  

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