Last Journey book – A Father and Son in Wartime – excerpt 1

Posted: May 30, 2013 in Just War, Middle East
Tags: , , , , , , ,

LAST JOURNEY: A Father and Son in Wartime

I: Getting the News


May 2007 – Los Angeles National Cemetery






MAR 13 1971

MAR 21 2007




I am standing at the grave of SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr., my son, reading the same words I have read every Sunday for the last month. BSM stands for Bronze Star Medal, w V means that the Bronze Star was awarded under circumstances of valor, PH stands for Purple Heart and KIA stands for killed in action. It took about a month after Skip’s death for his headstone to be carved and placed at his grave. While waiting for his headstone to arrive, the cemetery placed an index sized card in a green waterproof frame at the head of his grave. It said, SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr. KIA March 21, 2007, buried April 6, 2007. Too brief of a grave marker and too brief of a life.

Darrell’s family called him Skip; his wife, Diana, called him Darrell; and  his military comrades called him “Griff.” Not only did Skip get stuck with my complete name with a “Jr” at the end, but he also got stuck with my nickname. When he was younger he was called “Little Skip” and I was called “Big Skip.” Skip grew to be six feet, two inches and two hundred forty pounds of solid muscle. Then the family referred to him as “Big Skip” and me as “Old Skip.”

I normally come to visit Skip’s grave every Sunday before church. Kim, Skip’s mom, often comes with me. I have only missed a couple of weekends since he was buried.

The smell of his favorite incense, Nag Champa, that I just lit and placed in front of his headstone wafts in the air. I like that fragrance. He loved to burn incense in his study while he was reading books by his favorite authors such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant and John Calvin. I will sometimes bring one of his favorite books and read out loud to him if no one is around.

I wrap the lighter and remaining incense and put it in the “Skip Tool Box.” This is a gardener’s small tool box that contains all the items we need when we come to visit Skip: pruning shears, paper towels and spray cleaner to wipe off the bird droppings, clippers for trimming the long grass from around the headstone, and of course incense and a lighter. I got the idea of the Skip Tool Box from watching the other families that come to visit their sons regularly. Since we come to visit Skip every week we keep the tool box in the trunk of the car.

Last Sunday I noticed that the man parking next to me had a similar tool box. He had the same basic accessories, but he also had a number of cigars in his tool box. When Skip was in Iraq, his wife and Kim used to send cigars to Skip every month. Most pictures of Skip taken in Iraq are with him smoking a cigar. I decided to buy some cigars and occasionally smoke one when I visit Skip’s grave. These small acts make me feel closer to Skip.

A lot of graves only have flowers on them for the first week. I assume many of these are the graves of soldiers with families that live out of town. Or maybe the first week is enough for most people. Skip was buried beside Christopher Dwayne Young. He did not have his headstone when we buried Skip next to him. Now his headstone reads that he was killed during Iraqi Freedom a few weeks before Skip and he was twenty-one years old. He was old enough to die for his country and old enough to have a beer if he wanted one. Since Skip was buried, another soldier, Walter Freeman, was killed on April 4, a few weeks after Skip. He was also a casualty of Iraqi Freedom. He was just a couple of months younger than Christopher.

The Los Angeles National Cemetery is a United States National Cemetery in West Los Angeles, at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Sepulveda Boulevard, and there are soldiers and their spouses buried here whose graves date back to the Civil War. Interred also are veterans from the Spanish-American war, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and other American conflicts. One of my son’s neighbors is Nicholas Porter Earp (1813-1907). He was the father of Old West lawmen Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp. Section 13 grave A- 18. There are over 85,000 soldiers and spouses buried here.

We had the option of burying Skip at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. We selected the Los Angeles Cemetery so we can visit him weekly. We have a good friend who lost her son in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2005. He was buried in a group grave at Arlington with four other soldiers who had died in the crash because they couldn’t tell which body parts belonged to which soldier. She wishes she had buried him in Los Angeles. I didn’t ask her but I was curious if she had a choice of where he was buried since he was in a group grave. Two of the other people buried in his grave are Iraqi soldiers.

Kim likes to drive to the hill in the cemetery that overlooks Skip’s grave. When we get out of the car and stand looking at his grave site from the distant hill, for an instant it is as if it didn’t really happen, as if he’s still alive.

I always expect to see a lot more graves with flowers. It seems like the same few graves always have flowers on them. Skip gets fresh flowers every weekend and so do a couple of Skip’s “neighbors.”. Kim came with me today and is placing flowers in front of Skip’s headstone in one of the little cones that the cemetery provides for this purpose. She also brought some for Christopher. Often the same bouquet of flowers that has been put on Christopher’s grave is put on Skip’s grave. We assume that it is Christopher’s family that has been bringing Skip flowers. We often reciprocate by bringing Christopher flowers. We have varied the times we come to visit Skip to see if we could meet them, but haven’t seen them yet. Even though you may see the same people at the cemetery there seems to be an unwritten rule that you don’t talk to each other. There is the normal quiet and dignified nod as you pass one another, but rarely any conversation.

We always take a photograph with our cell phone of the fresh flowers we just placed on Skip’s grave and then send it to Diana, Skip’s wife. Since she lives at Fort Lewis, Washington, and can’t visit Skip’s grave very often it seems to give her some comfort every time we send her a picture. She likes knowing we are taking care of Skip.

Besides Christopher’s family or friends sometimes putting flowers on Skip’s grave, another odd thing we have noticed is that there are often three or four new pennies, always face up, on top of Skip’s headstone. You know they are new because the “tail” side that isn’t exposed to the elements is still shiny. I have noticed this a few times on other soldiers’ headstones, but they are fairly consistently placed on Skip’s.

These are the little questions that perplex me.

There are also bigger questions.

Questions like Why did my son have to go to war? And Why did he die? And What did he die for? These seem like simple straightforward questions, but they are not. They were the subject of numerous conversations that Skip and I had over the course of several years. Philosophy, theology and politics were our favorite topics. Most fathers and sons like to go hunting and to sporting events together; they like to talk about cars. Our favorite father/son activity was to spend an entire evening talking about books – once Skip was old enough, over a bottle of Merlot. We called it The Great Conversation.

I was sixteen when Skip’s sister Rene was born and eighteen when Skip was born. I spent most of my time doing jobs like washing dishes while finishing high school and college. Because these jobs never paid very well there wasn’t much money to buy toys. A good cheap form of entertainment was for me to take Skip and Rene to the library or to buy them used books. They both loved to read.

I said goodbye to Skip and stood up to walk back to my car. I noticed that the incense had burned a hole in the little Army flag that someone had placed by Skip’s headstone. Now it says, “United States Arm.”

As I got in my car I remembered a favorite quotation of Skip’s: Of all the sorrows that afflict mankind, the most bitter is that we have consciousness of much, but yet control over nothing. – Herodotus.

  1. very well written and very moving

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