A few years back my sister moved to Knoxville, IA. It’s a small town in south central Iowa, an hour from Des Moines. If you’ve ever heard of Knoxville it’s because you’re a sprint car racing fan. Knoxville has a prominent track, and hosts the sprint car nationals every year. The nationals were last week, as it happens, and I’m glad my familial visit this week missed the chaos.
I have a fairly new nephew, a couple months old, and this week was the trip down to go visit and meet the kid. My kids love these visits, not only because they love trips, love hotels, and love eating in restaurants, but because they truly love playing with their cousins. My niece is now about 20 months old, more or less, and walks and talks and plays. The new kid is the least fussy baby I have ever met, and consented to be held by his adoring cousins with only a mildly Churchillian expression on his face.
It was a good visit all around.
Part of the interest in the driving, though, was from unexpected stops and unexpected memorials. Between the five people in the car, and the road food, we made a number of bathroom stops. This means occasionally pulling off of Interstate 35 onto a two-lane county road and turning in the direction of the distant grain-mill tower, betting that a gas station will be in the vicinity. But these little forays are usually rewarding.
At one stop we pulled up to the gas station and couldn’t help noticing the war memorial across the street. It was fairly new, and very well kept. On it were the names of all the armed forces servicepersons from that town. The town could not have been more than five hundred people. And on these four black marble slabs were hundreds of names. The last names, we saw kept repeating. Generations of men and women who kept enlisting to serve. One name was marked as a P.O.W.-M.I.A. Around five had been killed in action. Those who served as nurses were marked, too, showing who chose to serve by doing their best to heal.
I went inside the gas station and remarked to the woman behind the counter that the memorial was very nice.
“Where are you from?” she asked me.
“Minneapolis,” I replied. My out-of-town status was evident from the question, clearly.
“It is,” she said. “I have two uncles, my grandfather, my father, three brothers, and two sons on that.”
I nodded. There wasn’t a lot to say to that. “It’s lovely,” I repeated.
She nodded and went into the back as my kids came out of the bathroom. J and I took the kids over to look at the names, to pay our respects.
On the drive home we pulled off at a rest area which turned out to the be Franklin County Civil War Memorial. This memorial remembers the soldiers who served, regardless of what side they fought on. Walking paths are marked with marble stones engraved with excerpts from letters the soldiers sent home, back to their families in Iowa. Iowa “lost more soldiers per capita than any other state, north or south,” according to the plaque. Again, J and I walked the kids around the paths. We read the letters aloud to the kids — or, rather, J read them aloud. I was sniffling too much.
There’s a line, in one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, where she has a military person say, “it was around that time that soldiers began looking like children to me.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist. I look at the Civil War Memorial and I think of the woman in the gas station, of her whole family going for soldiers of one sort or another. It’s not a choice I could ever make — I have never, in my life, been able to meet the health requirements. Nor have I ever pined to be told what to do without thinking about it. And, I can’t say I want my kids to choose military service, either. I don’t really want them to pick a profession whose stated purposes involve someone’s death.
But I do want my kids to grow up with a sense of service. I want them to be adults who understand that we are stronger together than alone, that there are things in one’s life that cannot be done by one’s self, that require the effort of the group. That, sometimes, they will be on the receiving end of that effort. And that sometimes it will be their turn to give. Maybe they’ll send a check to a charity a couple times a year. Maybe they’ll volunteer to read books to seniors, or to kids in hospitals. Maybe they’ll foster rescue animals. Or maybe they’ll end up working for Medicine Sans Frontier, and find themselves in exactly the sort of danger I hope they would avoid by avoiding military service.
So we get out of the car in the heat of midday, in Dows, IA, and we walk past the sculptures of giant bullets made to look like ears of corn, and we tell the kids that the world is full of people who do impossibly amazing things, just because they think such things are important. Because the thing needs doing; and because they can.