I slowly climbed the stairs to the attic after the reading of the will. Dad had specified that I was to open the trunk that now belonged to me. My parents weren’t wealthy, but my father guarded his trunk, especially these past several years, as though it were filled with gold coins and precious jewelry.
In my younger years I imagined the trunk to be a treasure chest discovered in Blackbeard‘s sunken pirate ship lost in a violent storm off the coast of North Carolina. I had never opened it. That might have destroyed my illusion; that and the fact that my father had locked it with a strong lock that would defy any attempt to intrude upon the trunk’s contents. As children we had been taught to be respectful of the belongings of others.
Now grown, I wondered what was really hidden away in that old humpback trunk. It likely held family papers or deeds or something less exciting than those imagined treasures secreted away. I pulled the string hanging from the bare light bulb at the top of the stairs. There it was. Tucked away in a far corner, it was less enticing than it had been in my youth. I no longer believed in fairy tales and fantastic stories of hidden pirate treasures. No longer did that rusty old trunk have its former allure.
My father had been a proud man with strong principles that he tried to instill in his children. Each of us respected his unwavering pride in hard work, love of country, and family. He didn’t care much for material “…trappings and all that other ostentatious stuff”. He believed in simple things, kept pretty much to himself, and had few friends.
Dad was a veteran of the “Vietnam Conflict” as he called it. He rarely mentioned it and when we asked what he did in the war, he would say, “Not much. Just did what I was told and tried to survive.” He kept in touch with his “Vietnam buddies” and celebrated traditional holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day with reverence and phone calls with his old buddies.
As I thought about my dad and looked at that beat up old trunk, I wondered what it was he wanted me to see. I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out the key Dad had instructed to be left to me to open the trunk. I was anxious to solve the mystery of what my dad thought was so valuable that he kept it in a locked trunk in the attic.
I unlocked the heavy lock and lifted the trunk’s lid. Immediately I saw an envelope with my name on it written in dad’s handwriting. An old flag lay beneath the letter. It was folded in a perfect triangle just like the manner I learned in the Boy Scouts. I began to read.
Son, I know that you share my devotion to our country and the sacrifices of many to keep our country free and our flag waving proudly. I‘m leaving you one of my most prized possessions. To look at it you might wonder why this old faded flag means so much to me. I’ll try to explain it the best I can. To do so I’ll have to revisit an important time in my life and one in which our country was seriously at odds internally. We’ve talked about the close friendships I have kept up with my friends from Vietnam. Over the years the other five guys and I haven’t seen each other much, but we have always called each other on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. You know that I have flown this tattered flag on those holidays the past two years. What you don’t know is why I flew this old flag instead of using the newer one we have.
Let me explain first that this old flag doesn’t belong to me. I’m just the keeper. It belongs to a young soldier I knew in Vietnam: Private First Class Larry Golden, Junior. He joined our infantry squad one morning as a replacement for another soldier who rotated back to the states upon completing his tour. Larry was a little guy that all of us used to tease and called our own “tunnel rat”. We’d tell him that he would be the first to enter any tunnel we came upon. We said that he would get a flashlight and a pistol and we would shove him down the tunnel to check it out for VC. Larry said that was okay with him although we knew he was nervous about that possibility. I guess we kidded him about it for weeks until he showed us that he could pull his weight in any task given him. He dug bunkers and filled sand bags faster and better than the largest, most muscular guy in the squad. He volunteered to be the point man on patrols and never complained about being selected for the lonely and dangerous duty on observation or listening posts. After awhile we all respected him and the kidding stopped. He had earned his place in our little group.
One evening Larry took out the flag he carried in his rucksack. He treated that flag like it was his most valuable possession in the world. When one of us asked him why he didn’t send it back to base camp instead of taking up valuable space in his rucksack, I remember his response. Larry said that that flag was the one he and his dad always flew on certain holidays in his front yard. He enjoyed seeing it wave in the wind and he and his dad carefully folded it before storing it away until the next holiday. Larry told us that his father was a fighter pilot who had been shot down over North Vietnam two years earlier. He had survived the crash but was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. They had beaten him and paraded him in the streets as a criminal on the way to prison. Nothing had been learned about him during the next two years.
Larry joined the service and vowed to carry that flag until the day he and his dad could once again fly it on the flagpole in front of his house. Larry never got the chance to fly it. He was killed shortly after he told us the story of the flag. He was killed by a mortar round one night during a particularly fierce attack by the NVA. The stain on the lower right corner is his blood. The holes are the result of shrapnel that tore into his rucksack and ripped into the flag. That night the remaining five of us decided to fly the flag for him until his father could reclaim it. We would rotate it from person to person as our group got smaller. I became the last surviving member of our squad when my last buddy passed away a few years ago.
Major Golden, USAF, was not among the group of prisoners released upon conclusion of the talks following the end of the conflict. He is still listed as one of the 2500 missing POWs or KIAs whose remains were never recovered.
So, son, I have fulfilled that promise until now. Since I no longer can continue, I ask that you keep my promise for me until the day you can carry the flag to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our capitol and carefully lay it at the foot of the panel containing Larry’s name. Protect it and treat it with respect. Wrap it carefully before you leave it for Larry. I like to think all of us will be there to pay our respects to Larry senior and Larry junior on that day.
That flag represents the struggles that our country has gone through and, though torn and stained, it still stands for those values upon which our country was founded. I firmly believe that our nation, much like that tattered old flag, will continue to weather difficult times and stand tall as a symbol of hope and freedom.
With love, Dad
That old trunk did hold a valuable treasure after all. I would ensure that Dad’s promise to his buddies and his request of me would be fulfilled.
I felt a new sense of pride and respect for my Dad, and the sacrifices he and many others like him have made to keep our flag flying.
Yes, Dad, I’ll keep your promise with pride. Thank you for the gift you gave to us all.