THE SADDEST TWENTY MILES
People say all small towns look the same. The old brick buildings guarding the streets silently speak of the past, when they were new and full of life. The traffic light on Main Street measures the slow pace of life in increments of green, yellow and red. Most times, the Christmas decorations go up on the streetlights after Halloween and don’t come down until the first warm day of spring.
The flag at the courthouse is no odd sight; flags in small towns are common and patriotism runs high along with societal values. The speed limit is no more than 35, and everyone knows that. There’s no reason to rush, anyway.
My first clue that something was different about Madill that August day was the sign. On the very far northern edge of the “city” limits someone had placed a huge banner by the side of the two-lane highway. It stood unfurled between two wooden poles.
“A TRUE AMERICAN HERO,” the lettering read, and below that, “2ND LT. JOE CUNNINGHAM.”
Red and blue magic marker starbursts filled the white void of the background around the letters, leaving no doubt that the banner had taken hours of loving, painstaking precision to create.
And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in air…
The banner stood as the beginning of what was to be a somber twenty miles of driving for me that day. Only a few feet from where the banner had been placed, small roadside flags were planted in the parched Oklahoma soil. There had been no rain for weeks, and with our record-breaking number of triple-digit days, I could only imagine how hard it must have been to push those small, fragile twelve-inch sticks into the rock-hard ground at such measured intervals.
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know Saturday mornings are the liveliest, busiest times of the week. Not so on this Saturday morning. As I topped the hill and the main part of town came into view, my heart skipped a beat. I had never seen such a profusion of color. Red, white and blue—everywhere. Flags flew from every porch, every small business, every conceivable place visible…and that could only mean one very tragic thing.
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there…
I slowed down to twenty-five as tears blurred my eyes. A car pulled out in front of me a little further down the road, and I looked to my right. The side road had been blocked off. There were at least two hundred motorcycles parked beside the First Baptist Church. The Patriot Guard Riders had come to pay their respects—and to be certain that everyone else did, too, should a certain crazed group of fanatics from Kansas decide to make an appearance.
Across from the motorcycles, a huge, beautiful American flag was unfurled, the field of blue lending its stars to heaven, the stripes perpendicular to the ground. In front of that flag stood perhaps fifty lawmen of every type, a mix from both sides of the Red River, Texans and Oklahomans.
The parking lots for the businesses in the immediate area were full to overflowing, even though none of those businesses were open. Signs filled the windows under where the flags flew: “CLOSED. BACK AT 1:00 P.M. REST IN PEACE, JOE.”
I stopped at the light on Main Street. The courthouse flag was, of course, flying at half-mast. There were no other cars on the road. The one that had pulled out in front of me earlier had turned off a block back, at the first available parking place, a long, half-mile hike away from the church. I was driving through a ghost town.
The signboard at the Grab & Go read, “OBAMA MAY BE PRESIDENT, BUT GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE.” Any other time, I might have smiled, but not with that small picket of flags that still sporadically lined the road, reminding me of the terrible loss this town was reeling from.
Another hand-lettered sign by the road: “WE’LL MISS YOU, JOE. GO WITH GOD.”
And yet, another: “REST IN PEACE, JOE. WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”
I drove out of Madill, headed for Kingston, another small town, a few short miles away.
Small towns, close together, are usually rivals on the high school football field and in most other things, but when all is said and done, we remember that we are, all of us, citizens of the same wonderful country, and that’s what matters—more than who wins the game on Friday night, more than which town has the best point guard on the basketball court, and more than which quarterback has better chances with the big college scouts. As Americans, we all have equal ‘bragging rights’—we are Americans, and no other country pulls together as we do when the going gets tough.
I couldn’t think of anything, anywhere, any time being tougher than losing even one of our young men to war. A bright smile that would never be seen again, coming through his parents’ door; two arms that could never open to hug his best girl again; the echoing sound of emptiness forever where once his steps fell—an aching, empty hole in the lives of every person he ever knew that could never, never be filled.
My thoughts rolled over one another as I drove. I wondered about him, about his family—about what he’d left behind, and how the people he’d known would ever manage to survive without him in their lives forevermore.
I was on the fringes of Kingston when the roadside flags started up in earnest again—though they’d never completely stopped. But now, it looked as if someone had planted a beautiful garden of red, white, and blue flowers in the cracked, dry Oklahoma soil.
As Kingston came into view ahead, flags fluttered in the wind at every business. Some buildings had bunting on their storefronts.
It doesn’t take long to cover the few miles from one end of Kingston to the other. But with every inch of ground I traveled, there was no doubt that 2nd Lieutenant Joe Cunningham was remembered, respected, and revered.
As I drove out of town, yellow ribbons tied around several branches of a tree in someone’s yard caught my eye.
“HE IS HOME. REST IN PEACE.”
No small town rivalry, now. As Americans all, we share only a unified, joint loss of a shining star; the precious, irreplaceable light of someone’s life.
He was 27. He loved to hunt and fish. He had dreams of becoming a highway patrol officer and finishing his degree. He always wore a smile.
I will never drive that sad stretch of road again without remembering a man I never met. A hometown hero is gone forever, but he will never, never be forgotten.