No flag flies for her



My first memory is waving good-bye to Dad on our sun-dappled lawn one sunny morning a couple hundred yards north of the sparkling lake. I was two. Dad piled into a car bound for Madison, Wis., where he would be a guinea pig at the VA hospital for a potential cure for tuberculosis.

It was developed by his childhood friend from Whittemore, Lloyd Roth, head of the department of pharmacology at the University of Chicago. Roth had worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb; he also was a physicist.

Our family was in quarantine in The City Beautiful in 1959. Dad had picked up TB during World War II while stationed in Sicily with the Army Air Corps. He was a captain in charge of a supply depot at an air base; it’s a wonder the planes could fly because he didn’t know a screw from a screwdriver.

There we were, Mom with six kids, me the youngest.

Brother Bill let loose hamsters in the basement that spread throughout the house.

Brother Jim and I painted the basement red — including the clothes and bedding drying in the furnace room.

Brother Tom, the oldest, tore the screen doors of the Corral Drive-In Theatre with a beery buddy.

Sister Ann was trying to help take care of me.

Mom was beside herself. She called Dad in the hospital hoping for sympathy.

He laughed.

They took out a lung and he wasn’t supposed to last more than a few months.

He made it 14 years, just long enough for me not to understand him.

Meantime, Mom was battling the VA all those years trying to get him promised benefits. The records building in St. Louis burned down and with it evidence that Dad contracted TB while in service.

She had been through this before. Her first husband, and father of my oldest brother Tom, Omer Kelly, was shot to death in a Chicago bar. Tom was about 2. Mom tried to find out how he died. Kelly was a football player at Notre Dame from Algona. He played for the Great Lakes Naval Team in Chicago under Coach Frank Leahy, and was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (the World War II predecessor of the CIA).

Did it have something to do with the OSS and the Chicago mob? Did he know something? Or did he insult the bartender who shot him? Why were no charges filed? Her father, Art Murray, traveled from Bancroft to Chicago with his Algona lawyer, Luke Linnan, to find justice. Linnan had an old friend who was a judge there. The judge told them to go home, and to quit asking questions.

Mom had lived in Des Moines, where Dutch Reagan came flying through the women’s bathroom raid of a bar, shoving the ladies aside so not to risk his WHO Radio career in a speakeasy.

And Chicago, where she walked past Al Capone’s headquarters. And Memphis, with toddler Tom.

So they went home to Bancroft and family, where there they mourned the loss of her brother Tom in the Philippines to a Japanese sniper. He was Bancroft’s finest, scouted by the Big Leagues. They wrote a poem about him and named the Legion hall after him and a Walsh boy who was lost.

A flag flies somewhere for Omer Kelly and for Tom Murray. One flew for Pat Cullen on Monday on the courthouse lawn.

Mom and Dad are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery under bronze plaques.

This Memorial Day I thought mainly about Eileen Cullen, for whom no flag flies.

And, I thought, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

She said that if women ruled the world wars would be rare. Margaret Thatcher, Joan of Arc and Hillary Clinton notwithstanding, I believe she is right. We should try it someday.

She cursed at the sight of William Westmoreland and Henry Kissinger and, yes, Lyndon Johnson.

She defended Harry Truman. They killed her brother, after all. And it ended the war.

But then there was Korea. We didn’t win that one. We are dealing with it today. And then there was Vietnam. If JFK had lived, things might have been different, she said. She listened to Bobby Kennedy and supported Eugene McCarthy, the other peace candidate. Dad was sort of with Humphrey. He knew a practical way out. We talked about it every day and every night, it seemed. One night Dad sat us down and said he would help any of the boys get to Canada.

The Kennedys were shot dead.

Mom would not allow a gun, not even a BB gun, in the house.

She cursed the military industrial complex along with Ike. She despised the nuclear arms madness.

Late at night, she would drink and talk about Omer Kelly. Once or twice. She didn’t understand. After she died we found the prayer cards for Tommy. I think Ann has them. And she talked to me one night, while she lay in bed and I sat on its edge, about Dad with honesty I never imagined.

She tried to find some peace amid pain and loss. She found it in sarcasm. Strangely, in cursing the darkness of war and violence. And in hoping one day that somebody might say something about it.