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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

A great debt

Remembering those whose love of country cost them and their families dearly

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

My husband was buried the day after Memorial Day. It was also our firstborn's 18th birthday. Sometimes I went to the cemetery afterward and sat, with Route 263 faint in the background, which was surreal: My name and half-dates in granite, begging resolution like an incomplete musical scale. To what purpose rejoin that mindless traffic, when the road leads back here? It had better be a noble one.

From one perspective, life is what I have done between cemetery visits. I always accompanied my grandmother on Memorial Days to "see Norman." Of course Norman wasn't there at all, just a VFW American flag in a patch of flags. The backstory on Norman, learned years later, is that he couldn't wait to sign up but he was only 17 and his mom refused. Behind her back, my grandfather gave his John Hancock and Norman hitched to Providence. They got hit first time out by Japanese dive bombers; he was down in the engine room. When the envelope came, my mother happened to be home from elementary school for lunch and the carrier handed it to her on the steps of their tenement house. She ran up excited to show her father such official-looking mail. He knew what was in that black-bordered greeting and broke down.

My father was at Camp Breckenridge in Maryland when he got a letter from his older brother Ray in Europe. Ray said the rule was 25 flights before you were allowed to take a breather. Completion seemed doubtful. On number 23 his crew was hit by 88mm anti-aircraft artillery over Holland and parachuted out. Nine years later, polio accomplished what the German army could not. He was gone in a week, sucked into the earth before he knew what hit him, barking orders to his brothers in the end from an iron lung: "Take a hammer and get me out of this cage!"

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Behind my and Anne Marie Guay's houses, growing up, were unkempt fields, trees, and overgrowth covering a very old cemetery we discovered and didn't talk about with adults. One of the names on those small crooked grave markers was "Ballou."

Decades later I got the backstory on that one too, at least on one Major Sullivan Ballou from North Smithfield, just up the road. It was a letter he wrote his wife a week before he was killed in the Battle of Bull Run. Many people know that letter by now, but I like to remember it once in a while anyway:

"Dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more. . . .

. . . Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes and future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. . . .

Forgive my faults, and the pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have been! . . . But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night . . . always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again" (Ken Burns, The Civil War PBS documentary).

How great a debt. 


Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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