A visit from England brings memories into view

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday September 29, 2019

Remembrances.  Reflections.  Recollections.  Time for musings is clearly a benefit of the bonus years. 

With each passing year, our life experiences pile up.  Some we want to forget, especially memories of those times we got in the way of good judgment.  But most memories are rooted in positive anecdotes, rich tales or experiences that tell the larger story of our family life.

They’re often stories of family heroes such as an uncle or father who went off to war and never came back. 

Others are memories of major events that defined our personal history (like when our first grandchild was born) or our family history (like when our first grandchild was born).  Indeed, grandchildren at any age are always special blessings.

The importance of memories popped up last week as we hosted new in-laws from the Mother Country –- specifically from Stevenage, England, northeast from London about halfway to Cambridge.

They arrived with a list of places to go and things to see and experience.  First on their list was the Air and Space Museum.  Others included the US Naval Academy, a Pentecostal church service, Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, and Kent Island, named by an ambitious Brit from Kent, England, who had first settled at Jamestown.

However, number two on their list was Arlington National Cemetery.  We made that visit last Monday – which included the Kennedy burial site with the eternal flame and the sacred changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a ceremony that never fails to moisten my eyes.

Description on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

We spent most of the day at Arlington.  That visit flooded my mind with memories of my own relatives who have served and sacrificed to preserve freedom – including Uncle Walt (Copper), who ferried B-24 bombers from the US to an airfield in England not far from Stevenage. 

There was also Uncle Bud (Keith Burgess) and Uncle Charlie (Copper), both of whom served in the Army.  My father-in-law, Bernie (Waldkirch), was a physician in the Pacific theater. 

Uncle Jim (McVey), now 101 years old and still a regular at the bridge table, served in the Navy and recently traveled from Indiana to the WWII Memorial in Washington on an Honor Flight, a non-profit network that recognizes America’s veterans with free round-trip transportation to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at memorials to their sacrifices.

Uncle Stumpie (Raymond Stump) paid the ultimate price in the Battle of the Bulge and is buried at the American Cemetery in Luxemburg, the final resting place for 5,073 American war dead, including the contentious but successful General George Patton. 

Then my memories shifted to Aunt Betty (Elizabeth Burgess), also a WWII veteran whose service is highlighted in The Women’s Memorial at Arlington.

Born in 1922, she arrived in Europe in 1944 with the US Army Nurse Corp.  Till then, her only venture outside of Boone County (Lebanon) Indiana was to cross the border to Marion County to attend the Indianapolis City Hospital School of Nursing, graduating in 1943.

After arriving in Europe, Aunt Betty was among the liberators of Dachau Concentration Camp located on the edge of Munich, Germany. As troops were securing the camp, the nurses occupied the headquarters to set up a hospital and patient care facility. 

While clearing away the desks and papers to make room for beds and medical equipment, my aunt came across the Dachau guest book – in addition to other materials of historical interest (photographs, medals, uniforms, etc.), most of which she brought back when she returned to the US in August 1945. 

Signatures in the Dachau guest book, which my aunt gifted to me on my 14th birthday when I began to show interest in history, read like the “names” index to William Shirer’s landmark book, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. 

The inscriptions by visitors bring you face-to-face with evil.  One of the most chilling is by SS commandant Heinrich Himmler, who wrote, “The German people would be proud of what I have seen here today.”  And there are many more just like it.

In 2008, with the permission of Aunt Betty (who lived to age 89), Mary Sue and I gifted the Dachau guest book to the Jewish Museum of Australia as a token of our gratitude to a nation and a people who had been so welcoming to us over the four years we lived there as part of a team to privatize the nation’s largest media-communications company.

As I walked through the exhibits and rode the tram around the cemetery, I also thought of my father.  He tried to enlist in 1941 but was turned away because he was working in a so-called “critical industry” – a furnace manufacturing plant that had been converted to producing infantry mortar shells. 

Though he was keenly disappointed that he had to stay home, my mother was happy. Months later, my father was awarded an inscribed 81-millimeter shell, now on display by our fireplace, recognizing process innovations he created that reduced by nearly 40 percent the time required to manufacture each of these shells. It’s so easy to take for granted all the political, material and social benefits we enjoy in the US.  But we shouldn’t.  The next time you begin to feel complacent, spend a half-day at Arlington National Cemetery – and take a grandchild or a youngster from down the street with you.

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday, September 29, 2019

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  1. Keith and Kammie ,Jason Fenner on September 30, 2019 at 8:44 pm

    Phil, we your in laws ,have read your Bonus years column and are moved by the history of WW2 and on a more personal note your own family and their and millions others sacrifices to overcome tyranny and a vile ideology, we can only remember these that gave their all to give us the freedoms we have today ,but even today this is under attack in so many situations around the world ,including the United Kingdom.

    • Phil Burgess on October 1, 2019 at 5:15 pm

      Thank you, Keith. I thought I was taking you to the Arlington National Cemetery because you, Kammie and Jason wanted to go. Little did I know that I would be so deeply affected myself — drawn to the idea that freedom is not free and that many in our extended family have participated directly in the constant fight for freedom, some giving everything. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to do something I should being doing at least once a year.

  2. Mike Copper on October 1, 2019 at 1:17 am

    Well done, Phil. Considerate of all, thoughtful of many in the family, encouraging for us to learn more, educational with first line details, and in a comfortable delivery. Thanks for continuing to give your gifts to others.

  3. Phil Burgess on October 1, 2019 at 5:23 pm

    Thank you, Mike. Your dad — Uncle Walt (Copper), the B-24 pilot I mentioned — was a great American and a great inspiration to everyone in our family. We heard his stories many times…and still came back for more!. Walt and your morhter, Barbara, were always standard bearers in the lives of all of us.