Of all the words in the English language 'three day weekend' have to be right up there as some of the best. A break is so very needed around my house. Like most every other American this weekend I will spend it in peaceful relaxation. My family and I are planning an invasion of my friend's pool, and of course, the traditional grill out. Sometime this weekend I will sneak in a trip to a little spot right around the corner from my house. A tiny bit of green protected by black, wrought iron fencing. A Revolutionary War cemetery. There is one grave in particular I go to visit. Israel Gilpin, a Colonel during the Revolutionary War. I don't know him, obviously. He isn't related to anyone in my family, either. When I'm placing a flag on his headstone and reading the words engraved there I won't even be thinking of him. Those thoughts belong with someone else.
They belong with Ralph Laue, a poor Irish boy, dumped in an orphanage by his stepfather when his mom died, along with his older brother and two younger sisters. They were the only family he had. While he didn't yet know it, shortly after his eighteenth birthday he was about to help seal the fate of our nation.
World War I was raging across Europe. Although America stayed neutral through most of it, the Zimmerman telegram had just been intercepted and relayed to President Wilson. The Germans were proposing an alliance with Mexico. If Mexico would fight America on the home front, then Germany would throw their weight behind our southern neighbors and win back the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona for Mexico. The war machine went into propaganda mode and 3 million men were drafted for the Great War and sent overseas to halt Germany. The untried troops marched into battle.
With a few minutes of down time Ralph penned a letter home to his brother and sisters. The first page read almost like a tourist's postcard home.
"France, sisters! You wouldn't believe how beautiful this countryside is."
There were some funny anecdotes about the trip overseas. A few lines about the food. Very different from what a boy, raised in a city nicknamed Porkopolis, was used to. The young boy tried valiantly to describe the sites of this foreign country to his siblings back home. It was on the second page that he wrote,"Chester, please don't read this part to Luella and Hazel. We are told that we will meet the enemy in less than a week. I will be in the front line facing gunfire. I'm awful scared." Within three days of writing these words he was killed by enemy gunfire. The telegram announcing his death arrived before his letter did.
Ralph fought at Belleau Wood. One of the most deadliest battles the Americans would participate in, though they ultimately won. When Marine Captain Lloyd Williams is advised to withdraw his troops, he replies, "Retreat, Hell! We just got here!" Captain Williams will not survive the coming battle. The fighting lasts most of the month of June. Six hundred and fifteen men along with nineteen officers are killed. Six months later in November of 1918, the worst war in history is over. Ten million soldiers were killed. Ten million civilians die as a result of disease and starvation.
Now, the only thing that remains of young Ralph, the orphan enamored with the French countryside is an unmarked grave in foreign soil and his letter. The paper is yellowed with age and creased from being taken out and read so many times. Ralph was my grandma's uncle. Her mom's big brother. The Luella in the letter that he tried in vain to protect from worry was my great grandma. She never talked about him, but she did save his letter all these years and my grandma has it still. It is because of him, and so many like him, young boys fighting for their country, that I am able to get on the Internet and write any old thing I feel like without fear of search and seizure. I can't go to his grave and place a wreath upon it. So, I do the next best thing. This weekend I'll go to Colonel Gilpin's grave and decorate it, careful not to obscure the words cast in stone:
A soldier's ashes sleep beneath your feet
a patriot's heart once in his bosom beat
that freedom which in youth he fought to gain
he leaves to thee to cherish and maintain.