I am a member of a Gold Star family.
My brother, Frank, joined the Navy at age 17, serving on the USS Princeton. Twice he nearly died on the ship. He was nearly electrocuted, the pliers melting in his hand. Later, a plane crashed on deck, almost sweeping him into the ocean. Frank had not been home for over three years; it was the start of the Labor Day weekend and we were waiting for him.
The USS Princeton docked in San Diego and Frank was granted a 48-hour alert pass – he could be recalled to duty at any time. He would be driving the 350 miles home as soon as he could get his car off the ship, but we didn’t know when that would happen.
I was 9 years old and I remember lingering for hours on the front porch, checking out any car that turned on to our street. I wanted to be the first to see him.
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The telephone rang. It was a man who said his son was also on the USS Princeton. He had just read the San Francisco newspaper and was calling to express his sympathy on the death of Frank. That was the start of our search for him.
My parents called every agency and news source they could think of. What happened? Was it him? Why had they not been notified?
They were finally able to determine a person by this name had died in an automobile accident near Newhall, and his body had been taken to a nearby mortuary. My parents called a friend in the area who knew Frank. He identified the body and confirmed the awful truth.
Frank Herbert Shamlian died Aug. 30, 1951, at the age of 20. He had been away for over three years, nearly died twice, but it was on the highway that he was taken. It took four days for official notification from the Navy.
Frank’s remains were shipped to Fresno by rail, arriving in the wee hours of the morning. My mother drove before daylight to the mortuary and requested to see him. The mortician looked at her – alone and grief-stricken – and knew he could not grant this request. He insisted she return later. She did.
She looked at Frank’s face and the bruises – now concealed – but did not believe it was her son. She examined his hands, searching for the scar that must be there. Only then did she accept the reality that Frank had died.
At the funeral, an official escort accompanied the flag-draped casket. The flag was folded into a triangle and presented to my mother and, in the distance, a bugle played taps. That is all I remember of that day.
My mother later joined other grief-stricken Gold Star mothers for the support only one mother can give another – true understanding of the magnitude of such a loss. Eventually she was elected president of the Gold Star Mothers and served until she was no longer able. On each Memorial Day, she represented the “Mothers” at Liberty Cemetery, and again she would hear the bugle play taps.
I avoided visiting Frank’s grave, but on Aug. 30, 2001, the 50th anniversary of his death, I knew I must acknowledge it. I cut white floribunda roses from my front yard and took them to the cemetery. I parked my car in the shade and started searching for his marker. I looked and looked but could not find it. Finally, the gardener asked if he could get the official map.
Just as he left, I found Frank’s gravestone. I had not visited his grave in four decades, but I had parked even to his row.
It was a shock to see it after all those years. I cleaned off the stone, and once again touched his name. I washed it down with water from home, and put the roses into a container. I knew they would barely last the day, but fragile little roses from my own flower bed were what I wanted for Frank. I left the cemetery to see my mother at the nursing home. I did not tell her of the anniversary or discuss my visit to the grave.
Now, when I see other Gold Star families, I am reminded that we are permanent members of a club nobody ever wants to join. It has been 65 years since Frank died, but a Gold Star family suffers forever. The pain never diminishes.
Mary Eurgubian is a resident of Fresno. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.