It was never Memorial Day where we came from. It was Decoration Day. Where we came from was White Haven, Pennsylvania.
No, I never lived there. Neither did my mom or any of my siblings. But my dad did. It's where he grew up. Once he enlisted in the army, which he did in 1938 at 17 years old, lying about his age, he never lived there again. But it didn't matter. We always considered ourselves the Ackermans of White Haven.
Where we came from, we Ackerman kids observed early on, the houses didn't have roofs. They had "ruffs." And you didn't fish in a creek. You fished in a "crick." And on Decoration Day, if Dad decided you were old enough, he didn't offer you a sip of his beer. He offered you a swaller. That swaller, which made you wonder why anyone drank beer, was most likely to happen on Decoration Day in Uncle Johnny's back yard. We spent every Decoration Day in White Haven. And we always drove there by way of Bear "Crick," past the Francis E. Walter Dam which prompted tales of Ackerman kids of old swimming in the Lehigh River, and past the Red Rock Quarry where Dad had worked as a teen.
We loved going to Uncle Johnny's and Aunt Charlotte's, especially when they lived in their old farmhouse outside of town. Their kitchen sink had not a faucet but an actual pump, and all we wanted to do was pump ourselves glass after glass of cold, spring-fed water. It had it all over beer.
We never felt as welcomed anywhere as we did at Uncle Johnny's and Aunt Charlotte's. If they'd had a fatted calf, which surely they must have had at one point in their lives, it would have been butchered for us. Aunt Charlotte was the only woman I knew who smoked and somehow that made our trips even more memorable. Aside from the way they pronounced certain words, the White Haveners had an almost Southern drawl in their manner of speaking. Aunt Charlotte's words came out slow and smooth and almost syrupy, and we hung on every one of them.
That I looked exactly like my dad — more today than ever — often made me the center of attention, and I liked it. The pronouncement "here comes Little Howie" was dripping with love and it felt darned good. The last time I heard it was about 25 years ago at Uncle Johnny's funeral. My dad was already gone by then and, in a way, I had become him.
Uncle Johnny was my dad's favorite brother. He was one of only two of his five brothers still alive when we came into the world. Uncle Hermie was the other. He was younger and lived in Hellertown. I don't recall him and his family ever showing up in White Haven on Decoration Day, but I do recall his crystal blue eyes. And bald head. I've sort of become him, too.
One of the brothers, Rudolph, was killed in a car crash when Dad was still a kid. The other two, Elmer and Edward, were killed in Europe in World War II. My dad was fighting in the Pacific at the time. I've been told Elmer left behind three little girls. Edward, after whom I was named, died in the Battle of the Bulge.
They're all buried in White Haven, along with my grandmother and grandfather. Hence, our annual Decoration Day excursions.
The names of Elmer Ackerman and Edward Ackerman played prominently in White Haven's Decoration Day festivities, but Dad and Uncle Johnny would have no part of it. There'd be a little parade to the cemetery followed by a ceremony that included a bunch of speeches. Boring speeches, Dad would say, as he and Uncle Johnny ducked into the American Legion across the street.
We kids had no choice but to stand quietly and listen to the speeches and then the reading of the Honor Roll. That was a list of all the native sons of White Haven who gave their lives for their country and my favorite part of the day because I'd hear the name Edward Ackerman.
The pride that welled up in me was only enhanced by the tears of my Aunt Shirley, my dad's sister. She'd have her handkerchief ready before the reading even began. Decades later I realized her tears and my dad's beers were born of the same harsh memory, losing brothers in battle. As much as it hurt, Aunt Shirley wanted to remember. Because it hurt, Dad wanted to forget.
I've often thought about what World War II did to the Ackermans of White Haven. Like his ancestors in Germany, my grandfather was a farmer. Being blessed with six strapping sons bode well for the future. Then came the war. With no one to help run the place, my grandfather had to sell his land. He became a railroader and moved to West Pittston to be close to Coxton Yards.
The last time I took my dad to White Haven was the year before his death. As we stood in the cemetery surrounded by markers bearing the Ackerman name, I said, "Imagine what might have happened, Dad, if there was never a war and you and your brothers could have kept working the farm together. There's no telling how big and successful it could have been."
He took off his cap, scratched his head, and looked at each tombstone for a moment before answering.
"We probably would have killed each other," he finally said.
It's hard to say if he was joking, but I was still chuckling to myself as I drove us home, past the quarry, past the dam, by way of Bear "Crick."