I have a pretty large extended family on my Father’s side. A lot of Cousins.
I was always jealous of them growing up. Distance wise, we weren’t terribly far apart, just fifteen miles or so. That being said, you’d be amazed at how differently we grew up. Fifteen miles might as well been 1500 miles.
My Brother and I were the “City Kids”, a label my Grandfather had given us.
They were the “Country Kids,” plain and simple.
My Brother and lived in a neighborhood where the houses were less than 20 feet apart. We had parks, and alleys, and sidewalks, and cable TV to keep us entertained.
The Country Kids lived out in… Well, the country. You could see your neighbors house, but it was a quarter of a mile down the way. They had open fields, and tractor equipment, and hay lofts and hopper wagons of soybeans at their disposal to get into trouble entertain themselves with.
If you know me, you can imagine how jealous I was.
Every other weekend my Mom would pack our bags (and say several prayers for our safety, I’m sure) and hand us over to my Father for 48 hours. My Dad, being the responsible parent he was, would promptly drop us off at my Grandparents farm and head out to the bar. The consolation prize for losing out on spending time with him was being able to spend time with our cousins, who lived just a few minutes up the road from our Grandparents. We’d spread a few threadbare blankets out on the living room floor, turn on the black and white tv, and sprawl out and watch Hee Haw. Or the Muppet Show. Or Fantasy Island. Or whatever else we could find on the three and a half channels we could get to come in on the old antenna.
As we got a little older, the collective group split into two clicques. Myself and my three older cousins, and my younger brother and the three younger cousins.
The youngest of the group was Christopher. The Baby. The “Runt of the litter”, as the adults would joke. The youngest of five brothers and one sister… You would have thought he would be tough. You would think that he’d need to be. It was clear from the start that he wasn’t exactly like his older brothers. While I love them all (If you’re reading this, you KNOW I do), he wasn’t like them, not exactly. He was softer. He was sweeter. He was significantly better behaved (we had countless ways to get into trouble out there… I dont know how he resisted the urge — I know I couldn’t!). His brothers, being the brothers they were, gave him the nickname “Wiener”, and it stuck. It was meant maliciously, even if it sounded that way. It was just what we all called him.
In High School, while my older male cousins barely finished, (or didn’t finish at all), Wiener excelled. Despite his smaller frame, he played JV and Varsity football all four years. He joined FFA (Future Farmers of America), and became a rock star in the club, both in his high school, and at the state level. He held a state office, and has more awards than I can count. I followed his achievements with great interest and admiration. While his older brothers were out with the tractors, he was learning what he could about how to farm smarter. I remember talking to him his junior year of school about his desire to go to Ohio State University’s Agricultural Extension. He would be the second of his siblings to go to college. I was so proud of him.
It was halfway through his senior year that Wiener had a change of plans. As life would have it, there wasn’t enough money in the family for him to go to the OSU Ag extension, and to ensure that he’d have the opportunity at furthering his education, he was going to enlist in the Army. He would be leaving for Boot Camp shortly after Graduation.
I remember feeling like someone sucker punched me. It was the summer of 2003, and we had just invaded Iraq.
Chris… My baby cousin. The youngest of six. The smallest. The one they call Wiener, for God’s sake… Was going to go into the Army, as a Tank Mechanic, and was going to be shipping out to Iraq before the year was over. He wasn’t even 19-years-old. As a former Army girl, I was bursting with pride. As his cousin, as his family… I was absolutely terrified. I think part of it was that I still thought of him as the clumsy little kid, the one who was towered over by his older brothers. He wasn’t that kid anymore. And it didn’t take long to realize that. Before I could send off my first care package, Basic Training and AIT was over with. He made it through both with flying colors. The next step was to be deployed.
He came home to visit shortly before he was to be shipped out. We were throwing the annual Halloween party at my Grandparents farm. Everyone was there. I didn’t know he was coming (some of my family members can really keep a secret!). I’ll never forget the second I realized who he was. The little boy was gone. He had been transformed into a man. A Soldier. I cried my eyes out, not because he would he heading off to war in less than three months, but out of absolute pride. Dozens of people pressed forward to offer him a beer, shake his hand, hug him… They greeted him as Wiener, as they always had. I couldn’t bring myself to call him that anymore, even if it was just a nickname. From that day forward he’s been Chris to me.
That’s my Cousin on the left.
A lot of what Chris did over in Iraq we were not allowed to know about. Suffice it to say he was not repairing tanks as he had been trained. He was guarding bridges. He was watching his friends die. He was sleeping in deplorable conditions with all sorts of bombs going off around him. He was enduring the heat, far warmer than the typical Ohio summer. He was missing his family, his beautiful fiancee, and more familiar surroundings. He was seeing and doing things that I will never see or do.
He was waking up and putting on that uniform and doing all of those things… For us. For his family, his friends, his neighbors, everyone. For all of us. For people who didn’t even know him. For people who would to this day spit in the face of a Soldier, and call him unimaginable things.
He, along with hundreds of thousands of his brothers and sisters have done this, and are still doing all of that for us.
My challenge to you this Memorial Day weekend is this:
Remember these Men and Women. Take the time to thank the ones who have served and made it home. Remember the ones who have come home in a flag covered casket, remember the ones who haven’t come home at all. That’s what this weekend is all about.
Thank you, Chris… You are my Hero.