Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

This is another segment of “Last Journey.” This is a book that is written by me with the help of my son SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr. He was killed by a sniper just outside of Baghdad. At the time he and I were working on a book that we planned to call “The Great Conversation.” He was conflicted about having to kill men or be killed. He was a philosopher and he had difficulty reconciling his mission as a combat soldier with the teachings of the great philosophers. This is except 4. We will be putting excerpts on this blog for the entire book so we estimate there will be about 100 excerpts.

The girl I got pregnant, Linda Sanchez, was Darrell Jr’s mom. I remember her being the only kid at school who drove a car that was one color and didn’t have any part of it painted with primer. She wasn’t supposed to be going to Franklin High School in Stockton because she lived in Lodi. Her mom was single and worked in Stockton so Linda was dropped off at her Grandma Zuniga’s who lived close to the school. We met in our junior year. Linda’s mom was always at work so we spent more time at her big house out in the country than we did in school. Days at her house with raging hormones and no parents around created the perfect setting for her getting pregnant.
Grandpa wasn’t too happy when he found out. He felt a lot of his troubles in life were related to his being an Indian in a white man’s world. He was proud to be part of the Ottawa Nation, and looked just like the Indian on the face of a buffalo nickel. He didn’t have much use for anyone of color and it bothered him that I would have a Mexican girlfriend.

“Are you telling me that you couldn’t find a decent white girl ?” screamed Grandpa Moxley. He got his crippled legs under him, grabbed his cane and pushed himself up. His legs had been frozen into a sitting position from his years of severe arthritis. As he hobbled toward my bedroom door he turned and said, “You’re messing up bad. I had hoped that you could have moved up from busboy to fry cook.” He shook his head. “You’re just like your no-account dad. He never was anything and never will be and neither will you.” He gave me a month to move out.
I had to get permission from the Juvenile Justice Department in San Joaquin County to set up a household with Linda. Since we were both under age we had to demonstrate to the assigned probation officer that I had a job and a plan to finish high school. We were married in July 1969.

I was working full time as a dishwasher and completing my junior year of high school. It was hard to find a place we could afford to rent and it was even harder to convince any landlord to rent to a sixteen-year-old boy who looked fourteen. I hadn’t even begun to shave.

We finally found a place to rent. The Brown Top Trailer Park was a place where only desperate people lived. There were about thirty trailers in the park. In the center of the park was where the two washer-and-dryers were located. Next to the laundry was a trash bin that was always overflowing with garbage and liquor bottles. Our little eight-foot-by-twenty-foot trailer was located across from the garbage bins. On hot days the sound of the buzzing flies would almost drown out the noise of the busy road that was about twenty feet from our trailer. Behind the trailer was a fence that was held up by six-foot-high weeds. The trailer was old. It had layers of tar on its roof to stop the rain from coming in, and a little two-step splintery stoop in front of the door. A dilapidated storage shed stood on the concrete slab that served as our porch. I talked the landlord into letting me sand down the splinters and paint the shed and the steps. I found a paint store, Paul Cox Studio, that sold its mixing mistakes for next to nothing. Mr. Cox gave me two quarts for free. Soon the stoop and shed were a light purple (the only mixing mistake the store manager had at the time), but at least there were no more splinters.

November 21st, 1969

Skip Rene inTub in Trailer

Rene and her future little brother, Darrell that would later be born on March 13, 1971.

I was sitting in my eleventh-grade English literature class when a runner from the attendance office came in and handed the teacher at the front of the room a note. Mr. Bentley looked directly at me. “Darrell, can you please come here for a minute?” I was so absorbed in coming up with an excuse for not having my homework assignment ready that I forgot that today was the planned due date for Skip’s older sister to be born. With a disgusted look on his face he said, “Well, Darrell, it looks like your wife is going into labor. You are excused from class.” I went back to my desk to pack up my books. “Before you leave, the attendance office wants to see you.” As I walked out of class the guys who thought they were cool gave me the “thumbs up” sign. The smart kids just looked at me and shook their heads.

When I got to the attendance office the attendance lady and my guidance counselor were in a huddle and obviously talking about me. They broke apart the instant they saw me through the glass of the office door. The attendance lady said, “Darrell, before we can officially let you off campus you have to bring back proof that your wife is in labor. You need to bring back a note from your wife’s doctor or at least from your wife.” I rushed home, had Linda write me a note and took it back to school, then ran back home and took her to the hospital. Later that day, Darlene “Rene” Griffin, Darrell Jr.’s older sister, was born. They came home two days later. Rene slept in a bassinet in the living room.

I stayed home from school for a couple of days to help Linda with Rene. Neither of us knew what we were doing. There was no glamour in midnight feedings and changing full diapers. I remember sitting up late one night thinking that if you put my and Linda’s ages together – thirty-two – it would be a good age to have a child.
Every week I went to the California National Guard offices to see how my application was going. The United States was deeply involved in the Vietnam War and the National Guard didn’t get sent to Vietnam. It wasn’t the idea of fighting in Vietnam that bothered me; it was the fact that there didn’t seem to be any reason for it. I had a copy of my completed National Guard application on my headboard along with brochures for Canada. There was no way I was going to go to Vietnam and fight in Nixon’s war.

April 30, 1970 – Stockton, California – Brown Top Trailer Park

I had just gotten home after a long day at school and an afternoon shift of washing dishes at the Hoosier Inn. I was lucky to have this job. The owner, Charlie Dyer, always let me move my schedule around my school schedule. The staff was like a second family. On occasion Charlie or Mrs. Dyer would help me with my math homework.

Following is an excerpt from the book, “Last Journey.”  Darrell Griffin, Jr was killed by a sniper in Baghdad on March 21, 2007.  Darrell, Jr. and Darrell, Sr. had been working on a book that would reconcile the fact that Darrell, Jr. had to kill or be killed with the teachings of the great philosophers. When Darrell, Jr. was killed Darrell, Sr. embedded with Darrell, Jr.’s combat unit in Baghdad to complete their book.  War is dirty, blood and a failure of man to take God’s course and resolve our differences peacefully.

At four o’clock on March 21, 2007—I remember the exact time—Kim called me at work to tell me that Skip had been shot. He had been wounded a couple of times before while on tour in Iraq so I asked her how bad it was. All she could say was “he’s gone.”  I threw the phone against the wall and ran to my car. The only words I could get out of my mouth as I ran from the building were the words Kim had told me: “He’s gone.”

Kim asked me to get home as soon as I could. Diana, Skip’s wife, had called to tell her that Skip had been killed and “Casualty Assistance Officers” (CAO) were trying to reach us. The army assigns CAO to go to the houses of family members designated on a soldier’s deployment papers and notify them in the event that he is killed. These papers are completed by all military personnel before deployment to a combat zone

As I was racing home, I called Rene, Skip’s sister, from the car, and told her. Her husband had to take the phone from her as she began sobbing uncontrollably.

Then I called his brother, Christian, and his other sister, Sommer.

After I hung up the phone the car was silent except for the “white noise” of the traffic around me on the Ventura Freeway. I was almost grateful that the traffic was as congested as it normally was during the work week. It gave me time to collect myself and try to be strong for Kim and the kids when I got home. As I turned off the Ventura Freeway onto the Santa Monica 405 I saw a dilapidated old travel trailer being towed by a pickup truck. The trailer was about twenty feet long and ten feet wide. It was a chalky-white color and looked like it had several layers of tar on the roof, probably from patching leaks over the years. It reminded me of the trailer I lived in when I brought Skip home from the hospital after he was born. Rene had been born a year earlier. I was just finishing high school and entering college so the little trailer was the best I could do.

Kim’s car was already sitting in the driveway when I got home. I walked in the house and gathered Skip’s younger half sister, Alexis; his younger half brother, Jordan; and Kim into a circle so we could all cry together. Kim got us each a glass of wine and we sat and waited for the CAO officers to knock on the door. There are so few things that Hollywood portrays in war films that are accurate. But it’s dead-on when there’s a scene showing the unwanted knock at the door by two soldiers in dress greens.

It was 7:00 p.m., about three hours since Kim had called to tell me about Skip. The knock at the door startled us even though we were expecting it. I opened the door and one of the soldiers said, “The President of the United States regrets to inform you that your son, SSG Darrell Ray…” I interrupted him in mid-sentence: “Please come in.”  They could tell from the redness of our eyes that we already knew what had happened. Kim and I were so consumed with our own grief that it wasn’t until later that I thought about the awful time Diana must be having, being by herself when the CAO came to her door at Fort Lewis.

One of the CAO officers handed us a used white three-ring binder with pages in it. While I was grieving with one part of my brain, the other part of my brain was wondering how callous these guys were for giving us such beat-up copies of “What to Do When You Lose A Loved One In Combat.” It’s as if your brain is a separate entity from you. It is trying to help you survive the fact that you have just heard the worst possible news: your son has been killed in the sands of Iraq, halfway around the world. It must be part of a self-defense mechanism developed over eons of time. This would have been a good topic of discussion for Skip and me.

We sat and listened to what help the army could give us now that we had lost our oldest son in combat, but I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking to myself, Is there anything they can say that will make any difference now that my son is gone? After they delivered their canned speech we all sat in silence for a few minutes. The only sounds were occasional sniffling, the ticking of the clock on the living room wall and a police siren in the distance.

I asked one of the officers how it had happened. He said, “I was told very little other than he was shot in the back of the head by a sniper.”

“Did he suffer?” I asked?

“I don’t think so, given the nature of the wound,” said the other soldier. I could tell they didn’t really know. They were from the local National Guard armory. Neither one had served in a war zone. But I knew they were just trying to help us.

They got up to leave and shook our hands as they walked toward the door. They explained that an officer would be assigned to work with us to arrange for funeral and burial services. They gave us the name of Sergeant Holifield and said he would be contacting us today or tomorrow. I thanked them as I closed the door behind them.

War is blood, dirty and filled with death.

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.