Minneapolis, Minnesota

I believe in ghosts, and sought their company for two weeks in the waning days of August 2000. In particular, I was seeking my paternal grandfather, Harry Hayden Peterson, whose Kansas origins had been lost in the mists of time and space following his death in Minneapolis in 1937.

While my ultimate destination that summer was Meade County, bordering the Oklahoma panhandle in the southwest corner of Kansas, I first spent three days at the Kansas History Center in Topeka, with a side trip to the Lied Center for the performing arts in Lawrence. Penciled notes made from microfilmed copies of pioneer newspapers and the 1895 agricultural census started my forensic investigation of times and people I had never known.

Heading west from Topeka on Interstate 70, I visited the campus of Kansas State University in Manhattan before resting overnight a few miles on, in Junction City. There, I encountered the first ghosts, maintaining their vigil and bearing witness at the entrance of Fort Riley, Home of America’s Army.

Fort Riley was established on the Kansas River in 1853, and since has played a role in all of the nation’s military undertakings. As I drove onto the grounds, I was attended by the spirits of thousands who reached this crossroads from all walks of life and participated in the great leavening experiences of American democracy. The 1st Infantry Division left Fort Riley in the vanguard of the American Expeditionary Force to France in 1917, led by Gen. John “Blackjack” Pershing. During World War II, the 1st was sent to England, and participated in the D-Day storming of France’s Normandy beaches in 1944. In 1965, its people answered the call to duty in Vietnam.

Continuing westward for 25 miles, I arrived in Abilene, site of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. On the grounds of that complex, a visitor can wander through the house where Dwight David Eisenhower – Ike – grew up, and meditate in the chapel where he and his wife, Mamie, are buried. In between, one can study his career as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and subsequent rise to the rank of five-star general, Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, director of the invasion of Europe, first Supreme Commander of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and service as the 34th president of the United States.

My own, sole encounter with West Point occurred in 1978, and consisted of lodging for a single night at The Thayer Hotel, a historic, Gothic structure overlooking New York’s Hudson River at the south entrance to the Academy.

From Abilene, I continued along I-70 for 93 miles to Russell, Kansas. I wanted to see the community that had shaped the early life of former U.S. senator Bob Dole, a man whose character, and not his politics, had gained him my vote when he stood for the presidency in 1996. Dole was one of many injured during the Allied campaigns in Italy during World War II; his injuries left his right arm paralyzed for life.

Traveling south, by way of Dodge City, I made my first stop in Meade County at the Meade County Historical Museum. Thousands had flocked to that county in 1884-85 from points East, lured by the promise of free land through homesteading. Arriving in Dodge City on trains, they transferred their persons and worldly goods to horse-drawn freight wagons for the 43-mile cross-country trip to Meade.

Centennial books, published in 1985, recorded the stories of many who had made that journey west and created the principal towns of Plains and Meade. Their indices contained the entries that connected with my grandfather and the extended family that had arrived in Kansas before him, by way of Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois. One of the entries noted a contemporary resident, a second cousin once removed, who had been drafted in 1965 to serve in the Vietnam War. My brother, who had joined me for a few days, and I presented ourselves at the cousin’s doorstep with the announcement that we were relatives from Minnesota.

From this encounter, we came to know of our grandfather’s eight siblings, their parents, our Peterson forebears reaching back to the 1600s, and of the succeeding generations that were scattered further to the four winds. We have become acquainted with many of their ghosts as we have walked the flat, sun-drenched quarter sections that had been the original homesteads in Meade County, and the quiet, hillside cemeteries on the outskirts of Meade, Kansas, and Pineville, Missouri.

During that first Kansas visit, we met a second cousin who had enlisted in the Army Air Corp, was shot down over Germany in November 1944, and was held as a POW. He returned home to pursue his American Dream as a farmer and raise a family with his wife of more than 60 years. I have since met many other Peterson descendants, some of them veterans of military service. In particular, one of my grandfather’s sisters, who settled in Washington state, produced several generations of service people. I have met two of them; one lives now in Florida, the other in Colorado.

Closer to my Minnesota roots, my maternal grandfather, Hjalmer Anders Linman, served in the navy as a young man at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, during World War I. He re-enlisted in his 50s and served in New Jersey during World War II. My father, Paul Emmett Peterson, served in the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Georgia, in the early 1950s. My step-father, Kenneth Jacob Vetsch, served in the U.S. Navy’s Signal Service Group, with assignments during and after World War II in the Pacific Theater and at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. These three men, and Harry Peterson, are buried within 500 yards of each other at Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis.

I set eyes on the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, a few times in 1971 and 1972. After more than 30 years, memory yet lends it a romantic, wind-swept image set on Chesapeake Bay. It was a point of vicarious pride for our family when my second cousin, Jeffrey Tuset, was accepted there as a midshipman. One of my most idyllic memories of summers in Minnesota is of the reunion, picnic, and afternoon of water skiing in Big Lake, Minnesota, before he left to take up his studies.

The ghosts from that afternoon continue to visit me. It may not have been the first time all of us were together, but it was the last. After his graduation, Capt. Tuset died when his helicopter stopped working and crashed in the Sea of Japan, May 6, 1985, an event reported on the front page of the Minneapolis newspaper. Whether he knew it or not, Jeff’s service followed, at least indirectly, in the footsteps of his grandfather, John Gunderson Tuset, who served in the U.S. Army during World War I and is also buried at Crystal Lake.

Whatever their particular antecedents, wars confront the generations called to their conduct with the need to make keenly-felt moral judgments. For much of our history, men and women have served in the armed forces of the United States by choice, while for significant periods, conscription has been used to fill the ranks in the numbers needed. Not all agree, however, that every war – or any war – should be fought.

The Vietnam War of ~1964-1975 – a war whose premises the then-Secretary of Defense has since said were wrong – caused much turmoil in hearts and homes throughout the land. Upon receiving his draft notice early in 1971, my partner, James Davies, was resolved to insist on his status as a conscientious objector, even if it meant imprisonment for refusing induction. This caused great distress for his parents who had come of age during World War II. James’ father had enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17, served in North Africa, staffed the first mine-sweeper in the Bay of Naples on the coast of Italy, and had shipped to the Pacific Theater for the invasion of Japan that did not happen.

A dynamic scene of great emotion played out in the courthouse of Rice County, Minnesota. Before a draft board comprised of war veterans, James’ father voiced his profound disagreement with James’ beliefs, while vouching for James’ sincerity in holding them. Consequently, James performed two years of alternative service as a conscientious objector, working in the mental health unit of a hospital in Tucson, Arizona.

For many of us, resolution of the moral issues happened more by chance than choice, which begs the question of whether we ever resolved them.

When I visited in Meade County two years ago with the cousin who had served in Vietnam, he described his efforts to survive in that conflict and the community of people that embraced him warmly upon his return. He then asked whether I had worn the uniform.

No. After relinquishing my student deferment in 1971, I was classified 1-A for induction for more than half a year. On Aug. 5, 1971, the draft lottery drew number 228 for my birth date. That meant the chances of my involuntary service would be very low.

I have looked back on occasion. On Oct. 11, 1987, I studied the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. Earlier that day, I had attended the unveiling of The AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall, memorializing those who had fallen in a different war.

More recently, after 9/11, I was ready to enlist. If they needed me and wanted 50-year-olds, the cause was just and worth the fight. Talk, however, is cheap. That is why I have little patience or use for the rantings of those on both the right and the left of the political spectrum who have not worn the uniform or walked the talk. The daily diatribes of some of them about how their freedoms and liberties are being abridged or denied ring hollow in my ears.

In February 2006, I attended a national arts conference in Washington, D. C. Our activities included a reception at the residence of the ambassador from France to the United States, Jean-David Lévitte. At the time, France had been pummeled for three years by leaders of the U.S. government and others throughout the land for its refusal to share in the erroneous belief that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11 and was amassing weapons of mass destruction.

In his greetings to us, the ambassador recounted poignantly the 200+ year relationship between the two countries, saving his greatest eloquence to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice made by ordinary people from all corners of America to liberate his country in 1944: “For this we shall be forever grateful,” he intoned. “This we shall never forget!”

Lévitte’s sincerity was diminished only a little when I learned later that he used that speech regularly while doing his job of representing his country and making what friends he could. In fact, France and its people are grateful and, because they have seen the U.S. at its best, have been critical when we have failed our better selves.

The British people also are grateful. Near Downing Street and Whitehall in London, the underground Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum testify to the close working relationship between the World War II prime minister, Winston Churchill, and President Franklin Roosevelt. A memorial plaque to Roosevelt resides prominently in London’s Westminster Abbey.

Since 602 AD, a church of Christian worship has stood on London’s Ludgate Hill. The medieval old St. Paul’s Church was one of the largest structures in Europe. After The Great Fire in 1666, Christopher Wren designed the current structure and dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. During the German bombing Blitz of 1940-41, much of London and the English countryside was laid waste. Although the survival of St. Paul’s dome stood as a symbol of British resolve before the U.S. entered the war, a bomb in October 1940 destroyed the cathedral’s eastern apse and, with it, the High Altar.

In post-war rebuilding, the High Altar was repositioned. In its former setting was created The American Memorial Chapel. Dedicated Nov. 26, 1958, the chapel is one of the most emotionally arresting sites for an American visitor. Opposite the altar, the American Roll of Honour, presented by Eisenhower, holds the names of the 28,000 Americans who went to Britain and died in World War II; the roll is kept under glass, and a page of names is turned each day.

The chapel’s three, stained-glass windows represent Service, Sacrifice, and Resurrection. Wood carvings represent flowers and fruits from the American heartland. The altar’s ironwork shows the Burning Bush of Moses and the Tablets of the Law on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed as a memorial to America’s Jewish soldiers who died.

Speaking in the House of Commons, June 18, 1940, Churchill asked his country to let the coming struggle be its finest hour. While the U.S. has known many fine hours in the creation and maintenance of its experiment in democracy, its response to fascism in World War II still stands as its finest hour in the defense of its principles, values, and beliefs.

I do not seek the living among the dead, but I feel deep love and gratitude to the ghosts of those who have gone before. We are the heirs of their faith, the instruments of their hope, and the products of their love.

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