JOHN CHAPPELL: Folded Flags and Tears Well Up Every Time
It is a moving tribute. No matter how often I see it, it's hard to keep my eyes dry. I think of all the homes where those flags are kept.
Recently my old friend Bill Dial forwarded a pair of prize-winning photos. The first showed two Marines draping a soldier's casket with the flag of the nation. The other, taken later, showed his young widow sleeping on a cot beside it -- one last night next to the body of her husband -- as he lay in his flag-draped coffin guarded by the two Marines.
Dial lives on Lady's Island in the low country of South Carolina. It is an area heavily populated by military families. There is a Marine air station. Parris Island is next door. The county has about as many military retirees as we have here. People in uniform are a common sight.
"I see some of these people every day," he says. "Whitewall haircuts are all around us here. I see young mothers with their toddlers in the grocery store, their husbands in Baghdad or Fallujah or someplace worse. They are good, brave and true-serving people."
Photos had him in tears at 8 in the morning, sitting and staring at images on his computer screen. They had much the same effect on me when I saw them. I thought of knocks on doors, officers with long-dreaded messages and flags to deliver.
Dial himself had a glancing blow of what such a visit is like.
"I didn't go to Vietnam; bad knees," he says. "I hadn't planned that. My plan was to tell them I type 80 words a minute, knowing they needed clerk-typists more than they needed shooters."
He has three friends with names on that black wall in Washington. One of them is Bill Branch.
"He was an orphaned kid from New Jersey," Dial says. "He came to Georgia Military Academy because his foster parents didn't know what else to do with him before he went to jail."
Bill's dad taught English there. The two became close friends.
"He was a talented artist," Dial says. "Made money doing sweatshirts for guys in school. Was the cartoonist for the school paper when I was the editor, and that's how we became running mates. He was a crazy, slightly out of control hell-raiser -- as was I at the time."
The artist went on to North Georgia College, a military college. Then, commissioned as a lieutenant, he went to Vietnam.
"He served two tours with honor," Dial says. "Won a bronze star. Got promoted to captain. On his third re-up he was there for only one week, and stepped on a land mine that tore him in half."
Dial's father woke him early one morning.
"There's an Army captain here to see you," he told his son.
Dial thought he was in trouble.
"But they said I had bad knees," he said, his first thought before going to the front door. "There was the captain and a chaplain. They were just as puzzled as I was, double-checking their paperwork and looking at this 21-year-old in the doorway."
Finally, the captain told him that he was sorry to report that Capt. William Branch had died in action in Vietnam. And then the chaplain gave Dial a triangular folded flag.
"We don't know why Captain Branch put your name down as next of kin," the captain said.
Dial looked down at the carbon copy of a standard army form Branch had signed.
"There was that comical Walt Disney style signature that he put on all his cartoons," he says. "His parents were dead. He may have meant this as a joke. He was that kind of guy. And he also probably thought he was bulletproof. But it was serious to the captain and the chaplain, and to me."
Years later, he found himself in Washington.
"I went to the wall," Dial says. "I found Bill Branch's name. I leaned against the wall and wept. It just welled up in me after all those years. Somewhere in a box in storage I still have the flag."
John Chappell may be reached at email@example.com or at 783-5841.
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