This giant flag flies over the bank at the corner of Reba McEntire St. & Court St. in the little town of Atoka in rural Southeastern Oklahoma, where I grew up. It's been flying there since about '94 when the bank was given a new name and a facelift that included the regular sized flag and flag pole being super-sized. Not much of national note has taken place in Atoka (Reba left and never really returned). There are about 2,500 people who call it home. When a McDonald's and a second stoplight were added, it was an impressive year for us. Eventually, we got a third stoplight and a Walmart, very big year for us. What Atoka does have in spades is Veterans. The second most-decorated soldier from World War II (After Audie Murphy) lived down the street from me growing up. The town was full of middle aged Vietnam vets, and their fathers who had served in WWII and Korea; large, sullen men who worked boring blue-collar jobs and ran filling stations, or served as policemen. (At one point, the story goes, our Chief of Police was chosen because he won a bar fight against the previous Chief of Police. You know...politics as usual.) As a child, I spent a lot of time running around outside playing Cowboys & Indians, or Civil War. Until one day, when I realized that being a Choctaw from a Southern State, I was always on the losing side - I think I was a pirate from then on (sticks make good swords, and sticks were plentiful). I enjoyed war movies a lot, anything with John Wayne was perfect, but my friends and I didn't re-enact World War II or Vietnam battles. Those were real. Those were sacred. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather growing up. A career Master Sergeant with one eye, who didn't seem to like anyone who wasn't kin to him. But I was kin to him, and he liked me a lot. I spent every Saturday driving around old country roads or trekking through the hills listening to his stories while looking for "sign" - that is, sign of deer movements that we would use to coordinate our hunts each November. Terrible, funny, enthralling, not age-appropriate stories of his life growing up in Atoka County, his life in the military, his five years in the Pacific theater of WWII, and the two years he lived in Japan after the war dismantling their surviving munitions. Picture an Army NCO from Nowhere, Oklahoma, who literally grew up in a house with a dirt floor, living in Japan with second generation Samurai answering to him. I've memorized those stories, and It makes me a little sad that those stories that meant so much to me and to him will never really mean anything to anyone else. My father died when I was young, not much older than I am now. My grandfather was a type of father to me. Not the same as a dad; but a large part of my personality was shaped by my time with him. We had different beliefs and different views on life. His were born out of a hard life, shaped by poverty, war, death and self-reliance; mine out of a relatively easy one growing up in church. I've tried to suss out the bad parts and leave those behind.
I always feel like a lot of this Memorial Day stuff is about patting ourselves on the back, for those of us who didn't do much outside of watch The Sands of Iwo Jima and play war as kids. My great-grandfather was gassed in the trenches of WWI. One grandfather served in the Pacific, the other in Europe; my dad in Vietnam. My friends and extended family served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I love this country, and the fighting spirit of a nation full of independent cowboys who were tired of being told how to live their lives by a king. A nation founded on big ideas that seem almost silly to say out loud in 2015, but were defended by generations of small-town farm boys like the ones in my family. Don't forget who you are, or why this place is worth dying for. Also, it's important to drink coffee. Tea time is Un-American.
Here are some photos of my hometown, Atoka, Oklahoma. Home to Reba, Jerry Cantrell, and Lane Frost. Home of Boggy Depot, a Confederate fort during the Civil War, and one brief battle in which the North executed a bunch of sick and wounded Choctaw Confederate soldiers.