We had nearly finished our annual tour of the Pocatello cemeteries. We were in the Ward family section of Mountain View Cemetery when my cousins, then later grandfather and grandmother, noticed something quite different from the dozens of times over the years they had read the dates inscribed on the monument of Lt. Corwin Lee Ward.
There, tied to a small wreath and purposefully wrapped and protected from the Idaho weather, was a small, clear plastic sleeve containing a sealed white envelope. Though Pop and Chick (names we have lovingly called my maternal grandparents my whole life) hesitated, it was the girl cousins who instantly took to opening the curiosity and who after reading, quietly handed it to my grandfather.
Pop read the hand-written note and the short essay attached to it entitled “The Fighter Pilot.” He was silent for what seemed like a long time. Then, after a quick hug from a granddaughter and wiping a tear from his eye, passed the note to Chick and finally to each of us who were lucky enough to have been there.
Dated May 1, 2015, and signed by Brig. Gen. Carlton B. Waldrop of the United States Air Force, it read simply: “Since you have been gone, Corwin, the world has indeed been a lesser place. God bless and keep you in His eternal arms.”
I believe it was Chick who broke the silence by turning to Pop saying, “I think this must have been meant for you.” Pop openly and audibly wept as he turned to my mom and said “for 57 years I have come here… he was my best friend and he saw you only once just after you were born and then just a few weeks later he was gone.”
We all cried too. For his children and grandchildren, it was the realization, perhaps for the first time, of just how much this relationship meant to our dad and poppa and how deep the loss he felt at Corwin’s passing. It helped us all appreciate, on that Memorial Day morning, the sacrifice that had been paid in service to these United States of America by someone who belonged to our family whose life really mattered to my grandparents and still also, to those courageous aviators with whom he flew.
For our family it was a moment of understanding and gratitude to have been raised and influenced by a father and grandfather who clearly remembers the exact age of his eldest child, not by the year of her birth, but rather by how long it has been since the ultimate sacrifice of a dear friend. For my grandfather and for countless other families, both past and present where small red, white, and blue flags mark sacred places each Memorial Day, there is a real person every single day with a life and a story hoping not to be forgotten.
Chick said she was certain Corwin was with us and that it all happened just as he hoped. While they both noticed the wreath, neither she nor Pop would probably have been bold enough to open the envelope. Whether God granted Corwin the privilege of spending that moment in time with us may be debatable, but what cannot be denied is that the events of that morning lined up exactly as needed for our family to enjoy the message and feel his presence.
When Pop phoned General Waldrop a few days later about the note, the General related that he had traveled to Pocatello for the sole purpose of finding Corwin’s resting place and wanting to speak with any family member who remembered him. General Waldrop related memories of Corwin Ward as the best pilot in the class and how the general, as an Air Force flight instructor, had over the years used Corwin’s judgment and skill when teaching young fighter pilots to fly.
General Waldrop requested that each time Pop or his family visited Corwin’s grave that we leave a nickel in the grass there for him as that means a lot to an Air Force pilot. It seems it was an Air Force tradition for a pilot to toss a nickel from the cockpit for luck before the plane took off for each mission. The nickel was to be used to make a phone call home to their family if they did not return.
I am grateful for the occasion at least once yearly, to visit the final resting places and remember our loved ones. It is a chance to hear and tell their stories. Their stories keep us connected to our families and help us learn about who we are and what we can become. This special day also provides us the opportunity to toss a nickel in the grass.
(This story has been adapted with permission from Ginette Carlsen Manwaring.)
Dustin Manwaring is a business and estate planning attorney in Pocatello and served in the Idaho Legislature from 2016-2018.