Visiting Harry Kim
We went to San Diego for a memorial service for my wife’s older brother this week. He had served in the Coast Guard in the early seventies so my wife and her sisters arranged to have his ashes placed at a military cemetery that overlooks the harbor. I never got many chances to talk to my brother in law. He just wasn’t much of a talker, so I knew very little about his world which consisted of selling military surplus items and working swap meets. Other than that, he was a very good uncle who always showed up at all family gatherings and who always seemed to be available to help with his nieces and nephews who lived in Southern California.
We had a short memorial service, the military give you a little less than half an hour for a ceremony that included two full dress coast guardsmen who unroll a flag, fold it, present it to a family member and someone playing taps on a trumpet. Apparently, they do ten to fifteen services a day there so it’s actually someone’s job to move the services along so the next set of bereaved ones get their memorial service on time.
During the service, my sister in law told the story of Harry Kim. Harry Kim was an army specialist who died at the age of 20 in Vietnam in 1968. My brother-in-law never knew Harry Kim. He had only heard about him through one of his friends, someone who had served with him in Vietnam. Apparently, Harry Kim had gone out on a mission in place of the friend and that was Harry Kim’s last mission. The friend couldn’t bear to visit the grave. Since he was local, my brother in law took on the job of visiting Harry Kim’s gravesite regularly for the friend. Whenever he would visit, my brother in law would gather pine cones from a pine tree that shaded Harry Kim’s cemetery plot and send them to the friend who lived up in Northern California just to show him that someone had visited Harry’s grave and to give him something to literally hold onto.
At the end of the service, we went to visit Harry Kim’s gravesite to carry out the ritual one more time, though perhaps fittingly there were no pine cones to be found on the ground. I’m not sure we would have known who to send them to. Forty one years later, people 3 times removed were seeking out Harry Kim, a very young man who died thousands of miles from home.
A few years ago, my brother in law asked his sister to hold onto his high school leather jacket, an orange thing with leather sleeves and metal snap buttons. The sisters took turns wearing it and on it there was the year of his graduation. When Harry Kim died, my brother in law was still in high school.
It’s such an odd combination of small and big gestures that tie moments like this together. It’s a bit that I never knew about my brother in law, yet it’s something that will help me to remember him as the guy who always tried to be there in some small way for family and others.