We just got back from a quick weekend trip to the Pacific Northwest. Actually, it takes seven hours each way by commercial flight, about eight hours including the drive north to where one of my two sisters and brothers-in-law live in Snohomish County, Washington.
It is also where my Mom lived the last few months of her life. The trip had been planned before her passing to celebrate what would have been her 86th birthday. Instead it was now in part to honor her life but also so I could process a gift she had left with my name on it.
It left an impression on my grandsons to see how much the gift meant to me as I sorted through and re-boxed sixty pounds of family history papers and undiscovered family photos for shipment to Durham, North Carolina where we live.
Many of these items I had never seen before.
Included were the names of each of the schools she attended and her last report card, given just before she dropped out of high school to elope with my Dad who was leaving to join a tank battalion in WWII.
She was 16 years old and he had just turned 21. Seeing the name of one of the witnesses who accompanied them up over the continental divide to Bozeman, where she listed her age as 18, gave me insight into the urgency they felt.
Frances Bowman had been married to my dad’s cousin and best friend, when six month before the B-26 in which he was flying as tail gunner was blown up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing run just north of Venice, Italy to cut German Army supply routes.
To my parents at the time, life had obviously taken on a very short horizon.
Included in the material she left for me was a WWII ration card from where she had gone to live with her maternal grandmother Lizzie Messersmith in Denver where her youngest uncle, John, was playing and teaching guitar.
I found some humorous things as I sorted through the materials before re-boxing them for shipment including a note in my Mom’s handwriting reminding us upon her death to cancel auto shipments of shampoo etc. from QVC.
There were also several letters I had written home to my parents dated 1968 and postmarked in the months just before and after my 20th birthday that my daughter, and only child, got a kick out of reading.
It is priceless to have such a personal glimpse of your parents lives prior to your birth.
There was also a small card given to my parents immediately after my birth, labeled “Baby Boy Bowman” and giving the hospital room number, time of birth, weight at birth and the name of the doctor, Joe Hatch.
My parents had rushed fifty miles south of our ancestral ranch in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, down the Henry’s Fork River to the nearest hospital in Idaho Falls, just south of where it joins the South Fork to form the Snake River.
There is as much regarding my Dad’s history as hers in the papers she left for me to preserve for posterity, including a photo of him (shown in this post) when he was twenty one that she had carried in her wallet until they dissolved their 36 year union when all of us were grown and out of the nest.
Many of the photos dating to her youth include priceless negatives.
I have begun to do something my parents inspired with my grandsons now that it is clear they have a passion and respect for heirlooms, passing down a huge elk antler I found during my first cattle round up, a pocket knife my grandfather gave to me, currency and coins their great grandfather brought back from WWII.
Likewise, my Mom had already distributed some family artifacts to my sisters.
The huge box of papers and photos on their way cross country to me comes with a responsibility. She wanted me to digitize them for broader access by my siblings and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as posterity yet to come.
She also expected that I would use them to weave narratives around the ancestors they depict, including her final call to me reminding me to write the history of her youngest brother who was less than seven years older than me.
For good measure, she had also had my sister follow up to reinforce the promise I had made to my grandfather when my uncle was killed flying for the DEA in 1973 the year after I graduated from college and just before my daughter was born..
He was more like an older brother to me, teaching me to ride his hand-me-down, rusty, balloon-tired bike down the steep graveled hill that ran from the family cemetery my great-grandparents had deeded to the county to the gate into our ranch.
Working part time on the ranch one summer just after the Korean War, he had taught me how to build model airplanes and later interested me in marketing, a degree he earned at Utah State University in 1963 while working his way through school by delivering milk to homes each morning.
But flying a fighter plane was his passion, and he did just that as a highly decorated F-4 squadron leader while flying more than 300 missions over heavily defended North Vietnam during three tours during that war.
It was his phone calls and letters as well as heart to heart talks between tours that finally blunted my relentless drive to also fight in that war, warning me that American atrocities there were not limited to My Lai, turning me against that conflict while in college.
Within six years of that war’s end, an effort was made to recast that war as a noble lost cause, just as the South did immediately after the Civil War.
But today, we know from documentation in the book entitled Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam that my uncle was right. Atrocities there were a failure of command and touched every unit deployed.
Our revulsion at the atrocities of ISIS and a commitment to face down this criminality should be fueled not only by righteousness but by a sense of our own past rationalizations.
I promise this is not the history I promised to write about my uncle who a few years after he left the Air Force became only the 18th DEA special agent killed in the line of duty as a pilot while fighting the Dominguez cartel.
Hidden away in the papers my mom left for me was his wallet from the day he crashed including papers he was using undercover and a photo of the way he looked taken for a special permit to fly back and forth across the border with Mexico.
He was not yet 31 years old but the history I will undertake will go far deeper than his heroism to the unrequited love of a black sheep including the flaws that make him so complex.
It may take me years to properly digitalize as well as mine the treasure my mom left for me and put it in context for future generations. My uncle’s story will be one of many.
May I be as prescient and generous on behalf of future generations as she was.