My Uncle Eddie Flynn left Brooklyn in 1943 to join a B52 bomber team that eventually headed to Normandy in advance of the historic D-Day invasion. I was too young to see him go, but I’ll never forget his home-coming and the photograph of him standing in his crisp uniform next to that giant aircraft with the name “Louise” scrawled across the side.
On a Saturday night following his return, I knelt by a front window at my grandmother’s and looked out across Manhattan Avenue. Nana’s third-floor apartment was eye-level with the huge dance hall above the movie theater filled with soldiers and their girls moving to the music of Glenn Miller.
I could see Uncle Eddie dancing with the woman I would soon come to know as Aunt Rita. It’s a beautiful memory, but it took a few more years before I realized how lucky we all were that he had come home. Uncle Eddie had no war stories, at least none that he would tell. He took a job driving a UPS truck and never left Brooklyn again.
Memorial Day…or as we called it back then, Decoration Day…was an important day for us. We dressed in our Sunday clothes, my father gave each of us a little red poppy to wear, and off we went. Calvary Cemetery was clear across Brooklyn. It took nearly an hour and two trains to get there, but we never missed that time to honor the dead, especially the soldiers who were not as lucky as Uncle Eddie.
In the beginning, I was too young to appreciate the meaning of it all. The cemetery was a beautiful place with lots of flowers and flags and a big yellow Sabrett’s umbrella outside, which meant I got to have a hot dog.
With Benji it was different. In my teens we lived in an apartment in Flushing. There were five other families on our floor. One of them had a son named Benji, who was four years younger than I was. I always remember him in his khaki shorts, playing in the courtyard. He was a sweet and quiet kid, the only child of a nurse and a maitre d, lovely people.
I married and moved away in 1963. The following year, my mother called to tell me that Benji had gone off to Vietnam and had been killed two weeks later. He was eighteen. My heart broke for him and for his family. It still does.
Although I haven’t been to Calvary Cemetery in a long, long time, I still buy a poppy every year. I keep one on the rear-view mirror of my car. I had one with me when I ran my fingers across Benji’s name at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
Thank you, Uncle Eddie. Thank you, Dear Benji. God rest your souls.