My Uncle Ed was laid to rest yesterday beside his loving wife, Mabel. Although, everyone called her Tabby. For as long as I can remember, most everyone called him Ralph or Ralphie. Ed was the sixth child of my maternal grandparents Joe and Erma Smith. Ed was born in 1945 and after graduating from White High School in tiny White, South Dakota he enlisted in the Army.
Four years later, he found himself in
Vietnam where he had volunteered to be a door gunner. He flew eight missions in
the most dangerous position one could have in combat. For those of you that do
not know what a door gunner is, they were the guys on the doors of the
helicopters firing machine guns into the jungle as the choppers came in to
rescue the wounded and other soldiers after an encounter with the Viet Cong.
Only 8% of door gunners came home!
We have all heard the phrase, “I’ve got
your back.” Being a door gunner is the epitome of having your brothers in arms
backs! Door gunners saved many lives and had an incredibly high mortality rate
because the VC were aiming at them! The enemy knew if they could take out the
door gunners, they had a much better chance of survival because no one would be
firing back at them.
Ed never talked about his experience in
Vietnam, but talking to my other uncles, reading about the war, and talking to
other people, I have learned more than I ever care to about war. You may have
heard the famous General William Sherman’s statement to the Mayor and Councilmen
of Atlanta before he burned the city to the ground, “War is hell!” If you have
experienced battle, you know all too well what that statement means. If you
have not experienced combat, ask someone who has and see what they tell you — if
they are willing to talk about it. It will make you think twice about wanting
to serve in a battle zone.
In May 1967, my grandma died very
unexpectedly. Ed’s two older brothers who were active military at the time and
had some high ranking connections, got Ed out of the Army on a hardship
discharge to go home and help grandpa run the farm. There were still four
younger siblings living at home and grandpa needed help. Fortunately, Bill and
Bob were able to use their connections and get Ed out of his military
After several years of being out of the
Army, Ed reenlisted and served sixteen more years to retire from the Army with
twenty years of service. Between my mom’s seven brothers, they have a combined
eighty-two years of military service in all four branches of our Armed Forces.
I have always contended you cannot find many families that have made that much
of a commitment to serve our country from one generation of young men in one
To a man, whenever I bring that up, none
of my uncles think it is such a big deal and other families have done more.
That may be true; but I believe eighty-two years from one family is pretty
Sometime in 1969, Ed was struggling with
what today would be called survivor’s guilt and probably PTSD. He was in
Marshall, Minnesota and called mom to tell her he was thinking about taking his
own life because he felt he could have done more and he should not have left
his buddies back in Vietnam.
Mom asked him if he had enough money to
get a bus to Worthington. He said he did and he came to live with us for a
year. That school year we had thirteen people living in our house! Besides my
mom and dad, my four siblings, (Chad had not been born yet), two uncles, four
renters in our apartment in the front half of our basement, and me we had a
Baker’s dozen under one roof.
One of our renters was also a Vietnam
vet who had combat experience with a K-9 unit in Vietnam. He would share some
of his stories and kept us mesmerized for hours listening to his experiences
with his dog in a combat zone. The four renters we had were all college student/athletes
and my mother fed all of us that year. She charged them one dollar for lunch and a
dollar and a half for dinner. We went through one hundred pounds of potatoes
every two weeks, gallons and gallons of milk and more food than you can
imagine. It was like living on Walton’s Mountain!
We had to eat in shifts because thirteen
people would not fit around our dining room table. You just hoped if you got
the second shift, there was still enough food left to fill your stomach.
Ed did several different jobs that year
starting at Campbell’s Soup Company where he worked a number of jobs I do not
want to describe. He did not have enough money to buy a car, so he rode my
brother’s bicycle to work that fall.
By winter, he was working in the
Worthington Co-op gas station pumping gas, checking the oil and doing all the
things full service gas station attendants did back in the day. He also worked
in the shop doing car repair work. It was during that time he bought an old
Studebaker for $50.00. I will never forget that Brown Studebaker with the
bright red rims coming to pick me up from basketball practice to give me a ride
home after he got off the shift from the co-op.
One day, Ed did 180° turn on the street
in front of the playground while Chuck Peterson and I watched from inside the
school door as we waited for our rides. When Ed drove up on the curb a little
bit, rolled the window down, and yelled, “Come on Fat Cat, the hawk’s a bitin’!”
Chuck looked at me and wanted to know
who that was. I said, “Oh, that’s just my uncle Ralph!”
For those of you that do not know what
the euphemism, “the hawk is biting,” is all about, it refers to the wind is
blowing and it is cold!
Ed’s younger brother, Terry, also lived
with us that year and the next while he went to the junior college in
Worthington. It was during those two years Terry became more like a big brother
to me than my uncle. Before that, Terry, Dee and Tim who are the youngest three
siblings in mom’s family were more like cousins then aunt and uncles. They
After a year living with us, Ed enrolled
in the vocational school in Pipestone, Minnesota and studied carpentry. I am
not sure exactly which year he decided to go back into the Army, but at some
point, he reenlisted and served his duration to retire after twenty years of
It was in the Army he met and married
Tabby. They have one daughter, Amanda, who is married and lives in Mifflintown
with her husband, Guy Bowman.
I know this is turning into a long post,
but I want to share one more story about my relationship with Ed.
In 1995 I started a youth oriented
business in White I called Prairie Woods. The whole idea of Prairie Woods was
to recycle old or waste wood and make unique products out of the material. We
also got a job taking down roughly three hundred ash trees and sold them as
firewood. I hired Ed to come back from Mifflintown and help me run the business
in the lumberyard in White. I was going to turn an empty lumberyard into a
source for local farmers to buy used wood from barns we had torn down, products we
were building like feed bunks and storage sheds. I wanted to give the young
people experience and responsibility in product design, manufacturing,
marketing and various aspects of running a business.
Here is a picture of part of my crew
sitting in some of the Adirondack chairs we had made from a kit I got from a
friend who was doing a youth project here in Minneapolis.
Click on the image to enlarge:
How is that for a motley looking crew?
There is not a lot of diversity in White, South Dakota. These boys and the rest
of my crew knew how to work. I would like to think I helped them in some way to
develop into productive and responsible young men and women.
Prairie Woods failed due to a number of
reasons. Ed went back to Mifflintown to be with his wife and daughter. Even
though that business venture failed, I had a lot of fun teaching those young
people new skills and being around a project that was the right thing to do.
Plus, I love the smell of wood!
I could go on and on telling you stories
about my uncle Ed, but I think you get my point. I will miss him and appreciate
the fact I got to talk to him about two weeks ago for a while one Sunday
afternoon. Little did I know that would be the last time I got to talk to him?
Life is like that. We never know when it
will be our time.
As always, I look forward to your