Freedom Isn’t Free: A Veteran’s Story

I grew up on amazing stories of how the roads got wound into tight knots around my house and lost brides became ghosts. Later, the fairy tales were replaced with war stories of incredible bravery and survival. There were dozens of stories. In these stories, enemy fire landed beside him and didn’t go off or in the place behind him after he left.

Entire teams of guys were killed, and he was the only survivor…multiple times. They were his mates, his buddies, his family. But he had a family back home to get home to too; a wife and three young sons were praying for him. Back then, there was no internet, video chatting, or other instant forms of communication. They wrote letters.

Every time God saved him was a confirmation that there was something more in store for him. After multiple tours, multiple dangers, and multiple saves, he finally returned home. Then he was assigned to a base in Colorado. There his eldest son met the love of his life and married her. He finally retired and moved back to Carolina. Not long after, his newly married son and daughter-in-law had me.

The bulk of my childhood was spent going back and forth between Colorado and Carolina. We spent three days on the road just getting from one state to the other. Instead of theme parks and vacation spots, our summers were dedicated to family. I didn’t mind. For me, nothing could be better than grandmama’s house, curling up in granddaddy’s lap, and hearing his stories.

We were spoiled on local pickles, french fries, and Southern-style barbecue. We dug our toes into the sands of Topsail Beach, went shopping, and stayed up late watching movies. And every year, about this time, I realize it all would not have happened if he hadn’t made it back home alive.

Ernest Whitman is not ashamed of his service; he wears it proudly. He doesn’t hide his stories. Ask him about anything, and he will tell you. Not every veteran came home so freely…especially from Vietnam. Nor were they welcomed as they should have been. But in my family, he is and always will be a hero. To many of those who served with him as well as to the new soldiers fighting in his regiment, he is a hero too. We are proud of him.

Today is not just another day out of work. It’s not a great day for shopping or grilling or beaching it. First, show some respect for the men and women who gave their lives to ensure those freedoms for you. Then, throw an extra hot dog on the grill and enjoy it.

You are blessed beyond measure to be an American and to be free.

The Forgotten Field in Morganton, NC

2014-04-25 12.10.50In a little corner of the mountains of western Carolina, lies a field of the forgotten. These were once mothers, daughters, sisters, and sons. They were somebody’s friend, somebody’s family member, somebody’s…somebody. Today, they are just numbers along a rusted chain. Tags along a line that are nearly completely faded into history. Once in a while, a stone leaves a more lasting impression. This stone, in particular, broke me. Beneath the words of names and dates, it remembers the person as an artist.

Here lies an artist.

It has not always been cool, especially in the place this stone lies, to be an artist. Cast down, abused, medicated, they were often treated like the rejects of society because they saw the world a little differently. When I see this stone, I think about how many things have changed and how many things have stayed the same.

This final resting place is part of a much older and sadder story.

Mountain people are particularly gifted in textile trades. Wood carvings, furniture making, basket weaving, and loom tapestry weaving were marketable skills passed down amongst them for generations. In the early 1900s, western North Carolina was a booming place for furniture and upholstery. The generations of talent in making housewares by hand now turned to factories and annual market sales. The trade continues to thrive for generations there and bring in buyers from around the world.

But one other thing set up roots in Morganton, NC: Broughton Hospital. In the early days of mental health, a series of brick buildings connected into a beautiful castle. It was one of the largest hospitals for the mentally ill and people were sent there from all over. I imagine people were amazed by the beauty of the place and left their loved ones there easily. But not everything that happened in mental health medicine at that time was good, kind, or ethical. In fact, it was quite common for families to be so embarrassed by mentally ill family members that they would either hide them away in “disappointment rooms” in their homes or send them to places like this.

Over time, parts of the hospital closed down, and only a small section of it remains in use today. The old castle bits have wasted away almost completely. All that remains are a few condemned buildings across from the forgotten field like this one. 2014-04-25 12.14.59 Windows broken by ivy vines and basement boiler rooms full of shoes and old tin cans are the only signs of life here now.

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I wonder what stories this place could tell.

What lessons would we learn from their mistakes? What acts of kindness would warm our hearts and inspire us? What horrors would make us sleepless at night?

We can learn from the past–and I hope we all do–to be better people today. Enjoy your life and strive to understand the people in your world, especially family. Forgive them, love them, and make the most of your time with them.