The End of the Line
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It's not often that you visit a war memorial dedicated to dead vets and encounter a living example of why places such as the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial are important.
They speak to sacrifice and an indefatigable dedication to liberty. They remind us of how a fractured nation can unite against a common threat. They recall a time when people weren't asked to wear flag pins to prove their loyalty.
Frank W. Buckles was among those who went to war for his country. He's a veteran of World War I. Unlike other WWI vets around him this Memorial Day weekend — and whose memories are cast in granite — Buckles is very much alive.
So why was he in this national cemetery? He might ask the same question, except he thinks fate had something to do with it.
"I had a feeling of longevity and that I might be among those who survived," Buckles said. "I just didn't know I was going to be the No. 1."
If you want to know what the last of an endangered species looks like, then meet Frank Buckles. He's the last doughboy. The Army corporal is the lone surviving American veteran of World War I.
Unlike when he was a teenager and enlisted ahead of his time to serve his country, Buckles' current status was not of his choosing. He simply outlived the rest.
While in Kansas City recently to receive a gold medal from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Buckles said he wished he could share the moment with his pals, all deceased. He would like to have shared this stage with Gen. John J. Pershing, a fellow Missourian.
"I've always been an admirer of Gen. Pershing," Buckles said. "We were born a short distance from one another in Missouri."
But those men have made their memories. At age 107, Frank Buckles still is making his.
And so it was Frank Buckles, only Frank Buckles, who sat in a wheelchair onstage at the war museum while Brian Alexander, museum president, and the VFW's Tommy Tradewell said nice things about him and the dearly departed.
Only he got the standing ovation.
He said nothing while his daughter, Susannah Flanagan, left her seat beside him to tie the ribbon of the VFW's gold medal around his neck.
Others knew him as a war hero, she said. "For the last 53 years, I've had the pleasure and the privilege to be the daughter of a wonderful father."
If they gave medals for daughters, Flanagan would get the gold, too.
When he spoke, Buckles chose his words carefully. His was the speech of paucity, humility, respect and sacred recall.
"I'm quite pleased with the reception I have received as a representative of World War I," Buckles said.
Beneath the mask of aging, you'll find the Missouri boy who became a man almost overnight. Look beyond the longitudes and latitudes across his map of a face and reach interesting destinations. Peer deeply into the eyes that glisten as he recalls the good times and not-so-good times.
Good times? Many were in France, of course. The bad? Watching the rise of Adolf Hitler and the lead-up to the Second World War.
As Buckles and his daughter tour the memorial and museum grounds, they like what they see.
"I've been to many museums around the world and seen the great memorials in Washington, D.C., but I have to say this is how they should all be done," Flanagan said. "What Kansas City has done with the memorial and this museum is incredible."
She steers her father past a case of nurses uniforms and whispers in his ear, "They said 25,000 women served." His eyes brighten. Some stories you just take to the grave, whenever you get there.
Rhonda Chriss Lokeman (RCLCreators@kc.rr.com) is a contributing editor to The Kansas City Star. To find out more about Rhonda Chriss Lokeman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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