Annual Chicago Tribune Memorial Day Story

May/30/2011 16:25PM
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The primary purpose of Memorial Day is to honor those who have sacrificed their lives to defend this country.

There have, though, been many millions of others who gave portions of their lives to warfare but survived. This day is theirs too. Most, like a former Chicagoan named Red Madsen, have come home from wars to lead ordinary lives. Not that their lives are the same as they would have been if they hadn’t seen the bloodshed, the shattered lives, the lonely deaths. Many carry to the grave more unspoken memories than they would like.

Those memories help shape, often profoundly, who they are and what they believe. And yet when the time comes to write their obituaries, their military service and all it meant to them get reduced to a few lines.

Not so with Red. When he died, his daughter, Patricia, wrote an obit that wove Red’s military experience into the rest of his life. She knew he had advanced, island by island, with U.S. troops approaching Japan in the weeks before two atomic bombs ended World War II. Not until after Red’s death, though, did she learn that he had earned a Bronze Star for combat heroism. He’d never mentioned it.

The obit was submitted to The Des Moines Register, where it charmed a young reporter who came across it. He shared it with a few friends. Since then, ever-fainter photocopies have quietly circulated throughout the Midwest. Here, with Patricia Anne Madsen’s permission, is an excerpt from her celebration of her father’s life:

Harry N. “Red” Madsen, 76, retired railroad brakeman, died Sept. 15, 1996, in Audubon, Iowa, 13 miles from where he was born.

After graduating from Audubon High School, he moved to Chicago. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army, which put him in the Signal Corps. During training, he met Betty Kaplan of Brooklyn, N.Y., and married her in Stuart, Fla., before he was shipped to the Pacific. When the Army finally let Red go in 1946, he and Betty settled in Chicago. He returned to Audubon and Westphalia, Iowa, working as a custom butcher. He later worked the railroad, most of the time for the Chicago & North Western. He married three times, with two of his spouses passing away.

Red Madsen loved his wives, his kids, everybody else’s kids, his family, dogs, fishing, whittling, doodling, reading (especially Mark Twain), Cord automobiles, hoisting a few with friends and telling stories. It pleased him that mischief might break out at any time, but it distressed him if anyone got hurt by it, unless maybe it was some powerful S.O.B. who deserved it.

He hated hypocrisy, racial injustice (or any other kind), war and giving orders. He worked hard, played hard, loved hard, and there was not much in the world that didn’t interest him. If he knew you could use $20 and he had it to give, you’d have it. He despised locks and rarely used them — liked to say that if some poor so-and-so needed something that badly, he shouldn’t have to break in too.

He left very little behind except exasperated commanders, bemused bosses, charmed waitresses and a special place in the heart of nearly everyone who ever met him, all of whom are happy he has been released from pain and sorry as hell to lose him.

Contributions may be made as follows: Hoist one in Red’s memory and overtip the waitress by a fair factor. If you can’t stop at one, just overtip the waitress — she needs it more than you. Give a bum a dollar, maybe five, and for once, don’t worry about what he’ll do with it. Learn something new. Make a fool of yourself so a child will laugh. Help get food to the hungry and don’t worry about whether they deserve it. Don’t worry about being safe.

In fact, don’t waste much energy worrying at all. Let life break your heart, and not just once. Love your neighbor and yourself and your God, if you’re lucky enough to have one, with your whole heart. Every now and then, when no one is looking, go ahead and pick a flower you’re not supposed to pick, but quick as you can, give it to someone.

Remember, the second year the same person plants sweet corn next to where you work, they must mean for you to have some, because they know what happened last year.

And if someone uses a racial epithet around you, let ’em know that you’d just as soon they didn’t, because Red Madsen and a lot of other guys got shot at by people who thought that way, and you don’t want to be on the same side as anybody who would take a shot at Red.

This editorial first appeared in the Tribune on Memorial Day 2001.

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune


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