Last week my wife’s father died at 85. My children lost their grandfather whom they lovingly called Papo. He couldn’t walk well and he spent a lot of time on the couch enjoying old westerns, baseball games, and the weather channel. His hands were so mangled from work that only a few fingers worked correctly and his pointer was permanently straight. He used a pair of small pliers to move his zipper up and down rather than be reduced to asking someone else to do it.
Al Irlbeck grew up poor. The kind of poor that lets little boys go to sleep with hungry bellies. He remembered times when Templeton Rye was cooked in illegal stills to make ends meet. He was the oldest son of a tenant farmer. After 8th grade that meant he worked hard on that farm leaving school behind. A few younger brothers and sisters went on to graduate high school but not Al. He knew his place and he never complained. He enjoyed driving the tractor and he discovered the joy of honest labor. His younger brother would bring home the school work and teach it to him. No one I ever knew could cipher numbers in their head faster than Al.
In 1950 Al got drafted and shipped off to Korea. That was a long way from Carroll, Iowa. The Korean Conflict was like any war. It was full of atrocities. Al saw his share of them. Afterward, he didn’t talk about it much, almost not at all, but a story here and there. When a grenade exploded near Al it changed his life forever. He was wounded and earned his purple heart. After his recovery, a General discovered Al had a special skill. He could weld and fix anything with a motor and that is what he did the rest of the war.
After Korea, Al met a cute waitress named Mary at a diner. They married, made a home, and the children started coming…and they kept on coming. My wife is the seventh child of Al and Mary’s eight children. They squeezed eight kids in a house under 2000 square feet and with only one bathroom. They never had a lot. It’s true. But as I write this commentary, maybe they had what truly mattered, each other.
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
Loving favor rather than silver and gold.” Proverbs 22:1, NKJV
Al was the kind of guy you could call at two in the morning and he’d come pull you out of a ditch. He was the kind of man that would spend six hours changing out your tranny and say…pay me for the parts. He was the kind of guy that when he delivered fuel oil he was told not to fill tanks without payment, but he’d deliver it anyway if he saw little kids running around the house because he didn’t want them to freeze. All the while knowing his boss was going to chew his backside for doing it. That’s just who he was. He loved people. He never knew a stranger and had a hundred jokes at his beck and call.
Well time moves on and the jokes begin to fade away. Things like blood thinners, heart stents, and wheel chairs become a part of every day life. Suddenly, grandchildren are old enough to have their own children. Life goes so fast. My wife knew the day would come. The day they would drape an American flag over a coffin and play taps on a trumpet for her dad. Well that day came last week. February in Iowa can be unpredictable. My son and his cousins carried the coffin out of the church. It was a great honor. While we had been saying our last words and singing “Amazing Grace” a pounding snowstorm had unleashed upon Iowa.
It hadn’t even been snowing at the start of the service. I looked at my wife and said something Al would say…Son-of-a-bitch look at that snow! Incredulity growing across her face, nothing could stop us. We had a job to do. We were going to the cemetery to bury her father…snow or not.
We found our hats and brushed off our cars sliding our way to the cemetery. The Priest did a fine job. He kept it brief as we worried the tent would collapse upon us with the next northern blast. Al’s grand-daughter startled in my arms as the first volley of his 21 gun salute took us all by surprise. A flawless “Taps” was played perfectly by his friend. Two honorable men in Legion attire carefully folded the flag into a crisp triangle and said to my mother-in-law. “On behalf of the government of the United States and a grateful nation we present you with this flag.” And just like that he was gone. Yet he lives on in us.
I thanked the uniformed men for coming out, but they didn’t do it for accolades. They were there for Al, their brother. Al loved the American Legion and it loved him. Al had volunteered untold hours through the years. He was up at 5:30 AM every Memorial Day for years on end to put up the flags at the cemetery to honor the fallen. He never missed a parade or a pancake breakfast.
Those old soldiers stood at attention in the blinding snow for their friend Al. When I looked at them, it’s like I saw them young again. Strong, with smooth skin and in their fighting uniforms. Proud, with a light shining upon them from above. Nothing could stop them. No snowstorm or any force on earth or demon from beyond. They had no fear, and they sent Al home with honor. They were brothers in arms. They had an unbreakable bond unto death whether on foreign battlefield or natural end of days. God bless the fighting men of this country.