Something Worth Remembering – Memorial Day 2014

In the fall of 2009, I was on the back of a C-17 in Kabul Afghanistan when the aircrew announced that our flight would be conducting the first leg of a “dignified transfer.” In other words, traveling with us out of Kabul that morning was an American who had died in the defense of our nation.
We all stood solemnly as the aircrew carried the flag draped coffin into the fuselage. The crew reverently strapped down the coffin; just a short distance from where I would sit on this flight. I took note of the crisp, clean and beautiful American Flag. There have been many times when I have admired the beauty of that flag, but on this day it was different. The flag seemed to be saying, “take a long look at my colors and whenever you do, remember the fallen who I symbolize.”
For that entire flight, I wondered about the American in that flag-draped coffin. He was most certainly no different from you or I. He had a childhood; he had friends, family; he had dreams for the future and plans for all he had yet to accomplish in life. That was all over. He was returning home in silence, a hero fallen in battle. I thanked God for this man and prayed for his family.
This past Saturday, I was in Annapolis Maryland with my family. It is a beautiful city. We spent a great deal of time in the Maryland State House. It is a tremendous building, constructed (starting) in 1772 and still home to the Maryland legislature.
Annapolis served as the temporary capital of the United States from 1783-1784, and so I found myself imagining the conversations that took place in the historic halls. Certainly, the most significant event to take place in the senate chamber was the day General George Washington stood before congress and tendered his resignation as commander of the army. The representatives, many with tears streaming down their cheeks, accepted his resignation thereby establishing the supremacy of American civilian legislatures to the American military. Washington also fought back his emotions as he resigned. After years of war, brutal war against the world’s mightiest army, Washington could finally lay down his sword. I have no doubt that as the General stood in that chamber before his countrymen, he thought of the fallen. The many who had fought and died by his side in the great war of independence.
Outside the State House, there is a tremendous memorial statue in honor of revolutionary war hero Johann De Kalb. The statue is large and dark; depicting De Kalb with a sword in his hand, imploring his troops to fight on at the tragic Battle of Camden.
De Kalb’s story is a great one and uniquely American. Born in Germany, De Kalb served in the French army. He was an experienced battle-hardened veteran when the government of France sent him to the American colonies in 1768. De Kalb’s mission was to determine the mood of the colonists. However, De Kalb instead developed an admiration for the American colonists desire to create a new nation, conceived in liberty and the rights of man.
By 1777, De Kalb had returned to Maryland, this time in order to fight with the colonists. De Kalb eventually was commissioned as a General in the continental army. In 1780, Washington dispatched Johann De Kalb to South Carolina. The British were having some success in Charleston and Washington needed to act. De Kalb marched the armies of Maryland and Delaware to South Carolina. On the 16th of August, 1780 De Kalb’s forces would join with General Horatio Gates (the victor at Saratoga) and do battle against British forces on a battlefield near the small town of Camden, South Carolina.
The American plan devised by Gates was deeply flawed. In essence, Gates entrusted the left flank to the untested North Carolina militia. To make matters worse, that inexperience militia would face the infamous Raiders under the command of England’s skilled General Tarelton. Not surprisingly, the colonial militia was routed and retreated at full speed. General Gates mounted the fastest horse he could find and road all the way to Charlotte North Carolina.
De Kalb, leading the Maryland and Delaware troops on the right flank was unaware that the American left flank had dissolved. In fact, De Kalb’s troops were making gains on the right flank until the militia retreated. After Gates and the militia retreated, Cornwallis was able to redirect Tarelton’s forces to attack De Kalb’s forces from his unprotected left.
The result was a disaster for the colonists. The Maryland and Delaware forces were routed. De Kalb, by all accounts including the British, fought valiantly that day. The great German urged his troops to fight against withering odds. Eventually, De Kalb had his horse shot out from under him. Refusing to quit, he continued to fight on foot until he succumbed to a swarm of enemy combatants. De Kalb was shot three times and stabbed seven times by enemy bayonets. Tarelton’s account of the battle records that de Kalb could not comprehend the defeat of General Gates.
De Kalb lay dying for some days. The British out of respect for this great soldier gave him medical attention, but De Kalb’s fate was sealed. He hung on for three days. He would never return home to Maryland nor would he ever see France or Germany again. He would never see his family again. A British officer expressed his condolences to De Kalb. De Kalb, mortally wounded and dying responded simply:
“I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”
Memorial Day is a time of remembrance. It is not a time to thank veterans but rather to remember those who never returned from the battlefield to become veterans. Every American who has fallen in battle deserves our respect and admiration. These were and are real people with real stories. When they died, it left a hole in the lives of family and friends. The dead will not return to us; therefore they must never be forgotten.
The man in that coffin, who I was honored to fly with in a C-17, wasn’t all that different from Johann De Kalb. Like De Kalb, he answered his nation’s call to battle. Both would tell you that the fight was worth it. Bless them both and all who have died in battle. I pray that Americans commit to live lives worthy of their sacrifice.
Our current conflict reminds us all of the heavy cost of war. It is a brutal thing; this thing called war. Yes, but it is a necessary thing. There is so much sadness when an American serviceman dies on the field of battle. It is wrenching to think of that catastrophic loss for a family. Yet, we can take solace in this: our troops fight because they want a world in which the people of New York can go to work without the fear of some maniacs flying a plane into their building. They fight to stop despots with monstrous visions of a Thousand Year Reich. They fight so that totalitarian monsters, with half-baked ideas of global communism led by madmen hell-bent on creating the “New Soviet Man,” never achieve their goals. In short, the American military fights to protect the American ideal of freedom and rights-inalienable. It is an awesome task. There are enemies everywhere. Many have fallen in our history and sadly, many more will fall in the future.
This Memorial Day, remember the fallen. It’s okay to be sad, but try not to focus on remorse or sadness. Just remember the cost of your freedom and be very, very thankful.

“I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.”


The Day Joe Strummer Saved My Life

In August of 1987, exactly 8 days before the start of my sophomore year of college I faced a personal crisis that threatened to undo my entire life’s plan.  It was music, specifically the music of Joe Strummer and the Clash, that miraculously provided a timely solution to an impossible situation.


In the winter of 1982, during my senior year of high school, my father suffered a tragic economic collapse.  His life’s work, as an independent supermarket owner on the South Shore of Massachusetts, dissolved under a mountain of debt in early December of that year.  As a result, my parents went into a financial tailspin that they would never fully recover from.  I was the youngest of 4 children, the only one still living at home, and I immediately knew this turn of events would change my plan to attend the University of Rhode Island in the fall of 1983.

After spending the subsequent two years unsuccessfully saving for college by working as a landscaper, roofer, and other manual labor jobs, I had joined the Army National Guard.  Thanks to the glorious G.I. Bill, I finally managed to get to an affordable college in the fall of 1986.  In order to save money that first year, I commuted from my home town to the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (a 50-minute one-way drive on a good day). For the entire first year of college, I borrowed my brother’s car to attend school.  That car was available only because my generous brother, a member of the US Navy, had training requirements and deployments that entire year and didn’t need his car.

However, in the summer of 1987, my brother had returned from the sea, picked up his car and headed off to a naval base.  This left me with a dilemma:  how was I going to get to school in the fall of 1987 for my sophomore year?  Sure I was working and yes, I was pulling in a small monthly check from my one-weekend-a-month National Guard duties, but I’d never been able to save enough cash to cover room and board at college.  Likewise, a combination of youthful irresponsibility and low salary had left me with no real hope of buying a car either.

It was the summer of great discomfort.  I was already 3 years behind my high school friends, most of whom graduated college months earlier in the spring of 1987.  Now I was faced with the bleak prospect that I would not return to the University in the fall.  Barring a miracle, I would be home in September without a car, without any hope of completing my college degree, and without a future.  I skillfully navigated awkward conversations with friends throughout June and July, pretending that everything was fine; and “yes, I was looking forward to returning” to school in September.  Despite my charade, by mid-August I was sure of one thing:  there was no way on earth I was going back to college in September.  Sure, I was enrolled – but I knew, with certainty that I would not be in class on the first Tuesday after Labor Day.


On the last Sunday in August, reality loomed just 8 days away.  Reality, a monster that plagues all men, was shadow boxing and eagerly awaiting his chance to knock me out cold.  I was resigned to my beating, hopelessly playing out my remaining summer days.

Music has always been an important part of my life.  It has always brought me joy; and more importantly it has brought me escape.  So, on that last Sunday of August, I did something that defied logic.  I went to the record store to buy an album.  It was completely irrational; it was futile; it was stupid.  But with Otter’s voice in my head, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part,” I headed to the mall with the intent of buying Black Market Clash by Joe Strummer and the Clash.

I lingered in the “Musicsmith” a (now defunct) music sanctuary in my local mall.  I spent an hour flipping through vinyl LPs, which was the best way to shop.  You poured over the vinyl selections and then you bought a cassette for the boom-box in your bedroom.  Of course, on that day I knew exactly why I was at the store.  I needed a new cassette of Black Market Clash because, as anyone who has owned tapes can attest to, they get eaten from time to time.  Black Market Clash a collection of killer non-album singles and B-side tracks by Joe Strummer and the boys.  Soon, I’d be home listening to Armagideon Time with the lyric apropos to my predicament:

“No one will guide you, through armagideon time.”

As I waited in line to pay for Black Market Clash, I noticed that the guy ringing the register was a classmate from high school days, Dan Heggerich.  Dan was a good guy – lots of fun; we were friendly in high school but I hadn’t really talked to him in years.  I dreaded the inevitable conversation about college.  To make matters worse, last year I’d seen Dan on campus at the University of Massachusetts (he was an engineering student) so it was a guarantee that he would ask something like “ready for school?”

I considered putting back the Clash cassette and quietly escaping.  But I had to hear Joe Strummer sing.

“My daddy was a bank robber, but he never hurt nobody…”

I decided to fake one more conversation.


Dan:  “Cheetham – good choice with the Clash.” He took the cassette from me.

Me:  “Well, they are my favorite.”

Dan:  “Ready to go back to school?”  (There it was.)

Me:  “Yeah.  How about you?  You going back too?”

Dan:  “Yup.  But I am not living there this year.  Need to save money so I am going to commute.”

[What?  My mind clicked and whirred.  Did he just say, commute!?]

Me:  “Commute?  You mean you are driving to campus every day.  A 50-minute commute every day?”

Dan:  “Yeah – kinda sucks.”

Me:  “Actually it might be the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.”


Dan and I drove to school together every day that year.  We became good friends and had lots of laughs. The Heg-Man, as he came to be known by me, saved my sophomore year.  When I reflect on that day – even today I can’t believe it.  It was/is a miracle.  If I had not gone to a record store when it made absolutely no sense to do that, I would have never made it through college.

Go figure.

Yes, Dan Heggerich is a hero in this story – I can never repay him.  And yes, I agree, God works out beautiful chance encounters for us all on a daily basis, and I can never thank Him enough.

But when I look back on August 1987, I still say it was the day that Joe Strummer saved my life.

R.I.P.  Joe


Copyright © 2014 cjcheetham


Here’s The Clash with Armagideon Time from Black Market Clash

Oh, and just in case you were wondering about that “Otter” quote: