Saturday, May 25, 2019

The boy in the oval picture frame

This column was first published in the Wilton (Conn.) Villager the week before Memorial Day, 2000. It was reprinted in the paper twice and this is the third time it has appeared on Several people mentioned in the original have died since I wrote it, and I've made a few updates to reflect their passing. 

Atop a table in our guest room is a hand-tinted photograph, taken in the summer of 1933.

The photo is of my grandparents, Burton and Judith Tate, and the first four of what would eventually become a brood of 14 grandchildren born over a span of 35 years.

On my grandfather's lap is my cousin Robert, six months old. Robert grew up to be a computer specialist. Grandma is holding another baby, my cousin Nancy. She grew up to be a nurse. Kneeling in front of them is my six-year-old cousin Paul, who, when he grew up, married his childhood sweetheart and became an Army General. Next to Paul is my cousin Jimmy, a boy of four. Jimmy was killed in Korea in 1951. He was 21.

Nancy, Paul and Jimmy were the children of my mother's sister, Margaret, a tiny wisp of a woman. In 1923, Margaret married a giant of a man, Pat Timmerberg, who stood six feet three inches tall. Pat's parents had immigrated from Germany and settled on a farm near my grandparents' Missouri home. When America entered World War I, Pat joined up and was shipped off to fight his own people in the fields of France.

Margaret and Pat's oldest, Paul, joined the army in 1945, the year he graduated from high school, just in time for VJ Day. Like his father, Paul showed a natural aptitude for soldiering. He was selected for Officer Candidate School and, shortly thereafter, was a Second Lieutenant, on his way to earning his stars.

Jimmy, who graduated from high school in 1947, enlisted in the army the next year, when he was 19. After basic training, he was sent to Colorado, where he captained the 21st Engineer's basketball team. He was shipped to the Yukon for eight months, back to Colorado and, in August, 1950, to Korea, where he was a machine gunner with the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division.

Jimmy was killed in action near Changgong-Ni on April 28, 1951. His tour of duty was almost over.

When they received word of Jimmy's death, the Timmerbergs were preparing for Nancy's high school graduation. She had graduated first in her class, and was looking forward to giving the valedictorian's speech at Montgomery City High School. She went ahead and delivered it, though her heart was broken and the audience knew it.

In those days before jet planes, families often had to wait months for their loved ones to arrive home for burial. Jimmy's flag-draped casket arrived in Montgomery City on a Wabash train on November 20, and he was buried with full military honors. According to his obituary posted on cousin Robert's family web site, a quartet sang "In The Sweet By and By" and "Safe In The Arms of Jesus." A solo, "God Understands," was also performed. My mother couldn't attend. She was in the hospital, having given birth to me three days earlier.

We visited Aunt Margaret and Uncle Pat often when I was growing up. They were always full of news about Paul and Nancy and their growing families. But I was always aware of the presence of a third Timmerberg cousin, a handsome dark-haired boy of 18 or so with a fixed broad smile, who peered from a gold oval frame on the dining room wall. Of him, never a word was spoken.

Pat died in 1963 and Margaret, who lived alone, began spending a lot of time at our house with my mother. They spent hours discussing the family and events of the past. But they would never mention Jimmy. Every Memorial Day, my mother took Margaret, who never learned to drive, to the cemetery, and they would return looking grim.

As a teenager, I used to accuse Aunt Margaret of being a pessimist. She wasn't much fun to be around. She always seemed to look on the dark side, to expect the worst out of life.

I take it all back, Aunt Margaret. Once I held my own sons in my arms, I understood. And now that one of them has two sons of his own, I understand even more. And I want to tell you this: You were amazing. I don't know how you were able to go on, but you did.

Margaret died in 1988, and was laid to rest next to Jimmy and Pat, near my grandparents. My mother continued making the trek to the cemetery every Memorial Day until she stopped driving.

Paul died in 2008 and was buried at Arlington in an impressive military ceremony with a 13-cannon salute befitting his rank. He was inducted into the Military Police Hall of Fame and there is a building named for him at Ft. Leonard Wood.

Up to the day before she died in 2015, Mom talked on the phone at least once a week with the last of my Timmerberg cousins, Nancy, and kept me up to date with what was going on with her and her family.

But nobody in our family ever spoke, or speaks, of Jimmy. I don't think those who knew him can. Though his headstone has faded, the horror of his loss never will, until the last person who loved him is gone. And there aren't many of them left.

Many of my grandparents' 14 grandchildren accomplished great things. One graduated from West Point, as did Paul's son, their great-grandson. The youngest, named for his cousin Jimmy, ran a major music company. All of us married, most had children and grandchildren, and two are even great-grandparents.

Scattered from Florida to California, the ten of us who are left will celebrate Memorial Day. We'll enjoy sunshine and picnics. And I guarantee that all of us will remember the boy in the oval picture frame on Aunt Margaret's dining room wall, the boy who, unlike the rest of us, never grew old.

I hope that, whatever else you have planned, you will also take the time to remember Jimmy ... the hundreds of thousands of other young men and women who paid for our freedom with their lives ... and their parents, like Uncle Pat and Aunt Margaret, who buried the best of themselves with them.