A wandering post about patriotism and some guy I never knew

Once upon a time, I had a blog called Crazy Aunt Katy. The persona was based on the notion of me becoming the crazy cat lady, the one remaining single gal from among my group of college girlfriends. Luckily, I did manage to find a wonderful, Godly man who I am certain was intended just for me. Thereafter, it was kind of hard to maintain the blog. I did randomly find this blog post that had not been deleted off the old blog, so I thought I would post it here for the sake of posterity. And in honor of the upcoming 4th of July. I wrote this in July 2007.
In honor of the 4th of July, I offer a cheesy patriotic story in which: I cry multiple times in the newsroom, my editor wonders what the hell is wrong with me, I realize that not all journalists allow themselves to be affected by their stories, I conclude that I would rather be the sort of person who allows herself to be involved and I finally know that the reason so many journalists are cynical asshats is because they don’t let themselves feel anything.

A year ago, in March 2006, I was sitting at my desk in the Waco newsroom on a normal Friday afternoon when I was handed an assignment. I was looking forward to the weekend, already sort of contemplating how early I could leave work that day. In short, I was bored and waiting for something to happen (or not happen so I could go home).

Our city editor, Bill, came over to my desk and handed me a clipping from that morning’s paper. A man from Lorena, a city just south of Waco which I covered for the newspaper, had died in Iraq. Despite the best efforts of our city desk editors when they received the Defense Department press release the night before, they hadn’t been able to track down this man’s family. All they had to run in the newspaper was a brief six inches of copy stating the man’s rank, hometown and number. Not his phone number, but his number in the lineup of dead soldiers. Gunnery Sgt. John Fry’s death brought to 2,304 the number of U.S. service members who had died since the conflict began, according to an Associated Press count. I still remember his number.

Bill asked me to use my contacts in Lorena to find his family and see if I could get them to talk to me. Less than a year out of college, I had never written a story of this weight before, to be sure. Nervously, I flipped through my business card file and found the telephone number for the mayor of Lorena. Luckily, she was in her office and answered the phone herself. I asked her if she knew the Fry
family, since there were several listed in the phone book. She knew them, remembered their street in the small town. I called the family repeatedly for a few minutes, each time hanging up frustrated because I got a busy signal.

Finally, I pushed myself back from my desk and took a deep breath. I had heard in journalism classes that I might have doors slammed in my face or have to work much harder than simply picking up the phone to get the information I needed. I figured this would be the first time for that to happen. I grabbed a notebook and pen, scribbled down the directions to the Fry’s house in Lorena and told my editor I’d be back in an hour or so.

Less than 20 minutes later, I found myself on their doorstep. I knocked on the door, and one of his sisters answered. His mother came to the door. I told her who I was and that I was very sorry for her loss. I explained that I wanted to write a story about the legacy left behind by her very brave son. I told her if no one would talk to me, I would be in trouble at work. I asked if she had a picture she could lend us.

She took my phone number at the office and promised to call me in an hour. I think she didn’t want a reporter to see her tears, and who could blame her? Here was a woman whose first-born son had perished in a war that seemed to divide the country he was trying to defend. She handed me a framed photo of her son and said I could bring it back the next day, after the story ran.

When I returned to the newsroom, I handed Bill the photo and said Mrs. Fry would be calling me shortly. Hours later, when I’d spoken with Fry’s mother and wife, tears were streaming down my face at the timing of this awful thing. Sgt. Fry’s job as an EOD (explosive ordinance device) technician meant that he spent his time in Iraq disarming bombs meant for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike. On that particular Wednesday, March 8, the diligent Marine volunteered to disarm one last bomb, only days before he was to return to his wife and children in North Carolina. The unit to replace his already was in place, but he still volunteered for the always difficult task. His family described one occasion when he answered a call to disarm a bomb and played a brief game of hide-and-seek with a young Iraqi boy, earning the child’s trust, before sending the youngster away from the site. Here was a person who knew what it meant to serve.

My story ran on a Saturday, three days after Sgt. Fry’s death and four days before he would have returned home to his family. When I called his wife to ask her about her husband, she asked me defensively if I was planning to write something anti-military. Alarmed by her tone, I told her my dad had served for 20 years and that I wouldn’t dream of it. When I broke down in tears with her on the telephone, she saw that I was serious, that I would never stoop so low as to question the integrity of the people serving in the military no matter how much I might wonder what the hell we are doing in Iraq anyway.

I guess you could say a complete stranger changed my life as a writer and as a person.

I watched fireworks last night after work. Tuesday night is deadline night for my newspaper, so I am always at the office until after 10 p.m. On this particular Tuesday night, I finished early. I was done by 9:15, and two of my co-workers and I went outside to watch the fireworks show.

One nice thing about working in Addison, a city just north of Dallas known for its destination restaurants, bars and trendy shopping, is that Boomtown Addison, the city’s annual fireworks display and July 4th celebration, was right outside our office doors. Cars lined the parking lot and people milled around what is usually a quiet neighborhood at this time of night.

The three of us walked down the street to a vacant lot where people parked their trucks and set up their lawn chairs. We found a concrete ledge to sit on and sat back to enjoy the spectacular view we had, strangely unobstructed by trees and office buildings.

After a few minutes of sitting around shooting the breeze, the first firework exploded in the sky and everyone hushed around us. As usual, someone forgot to disable a car alarm, and as soon as that first explosion sounded, the alarm went off. It wouldn’t be the 4th of July without an annoying car alarm and my subsequent irritation with the constant honking between the sparkling explosions.

And, as usual, the fireworks set me in a patriotic mood. I am always awed by the displays, though I’m sure the piddly displays in suburbs of Dallas pale in comparison to the spectacular shows in cities like Boston, New York or Washington, D.C. And usually, after the initial childlike excitement I feel when watching a fireworks show, I stop and think about what it means to be sitting there watching one on Independence Day.

The 4th of July has always had a rather special meaning to me. It’s partly because I come from a family in which nearly all the men and some of the women served in the military. Otto Legant, my great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, had his name inscribed on the books at Ellis Island en route to Ohio from Lithuania. I can trace my heritage back to the American Revolution on my mother’s side.

Those reasons, that family stuff, give me a sense of knowing where I came from. But writing stories about patriots who gave their lives, learning to be the sort of person who wants to understand the people I’m writing about and realizing why I have the freedom to do it, truly makes me a patriot.

Happy 4th of July!