In October 1864, a 38-year old farmer from Story County, Iowa enlisted with Company I of the 8th Iowa Volunteer Infantry. With a wife and five young kids to feed, and with no certainty of return, it must have been a difficult choice. The unit he was joining had already sustained heavy casualties at Shiloh and Vicksburg, and many had died in Andersonville prison. But he also a patriot and a Christian abolitionist, and so felt it his obligation to join the cause of the Union. With the harvest over and his eldest boy old enough to take over the chores, he marched south, seeing action at Spanish Fort the following spring. In Fall, following Lee’s surrender, he returned home and kept on farming until he died in 1908.
That farmer was my great-great-Grandfather. The bible he carried off to war now resides at my parent’s house, and I have had occasion to carefully turn its pages, looking for clues to what drove him. Other than his name and a few notes on the inside cover, he left the answer to posterity. I imagine, though, the answer wouldn’t be much different than some of the other Iowa farmers I’ve known who’ve answered the call. Farmers like my great-great-uncle Billy Stebner, who as an old man used to thrill my brother and me with his tales of pursuing Pancho Villa into Mexico with General Black Jack Pershing.
Farmers like my maternal Grandpa John Cullen, who followed Pershing on his next assignment in Europe, and saw the horrors of trench warfare at the Marne. Or his son John, a Marine who fought amid the carnage of Okinawa. Every week he wrote a letter to his five kid sisters, including my 6 year old mom, telling them everything would be okay.
Farmers like Donnie Burge, a cornfield hot rodder who enlisted with the 5th Army in ’55 and spent the next two years getting his arms covered in tattoos and staring across the 38th parallel at a scowling line of North Koreans. Luckily the ceasefire held, and he returned to take over the family farm. And sire yours truly.
Farmers like my brother-in-law Ron, who spent 3 tours in Vietnam as a Huey pilot. Just like my Uncle John he wrote reassuring letters home to his 6 year old kid sister, who grew up and married me. After the war he spent another 10 years as a helicopter school instructor at Ft. Rucker, and returned home to the dairy country of Northeast Iowa. Three of his own farm kids have answered the call; most recently my niece Devin, who spent 2004-5 in Baghdad driving a 3-ton truck with the 389th Iowa Combat Engineering Battalion. Farmers like her husband Rick, currently serving with the 389th in Iraq on his 2nd tour, away from their baby daughter.
Every single one of them fill me with awe and amazement, and a humbled sense of gratitude for having the great cosmic fortune to be born in a country capable of producing farmers (or non-farmers) like that. Where do they come from, this long line of common men and women of uncommon valor, who risk everything only to shrug it off with a simple “I just did my duty”?
I’m afraid I’ll never quite comprehend it, but an awestruck thanks to every last one of you.