Last year was a tough year for our clan

Last year was a tough year for our clan. As the readers of this column know, I lost my dad and then my mom in the first seven months of 2017. And then at the end of the year, three days before New Year’s Day, we lost my father-in-law Charlie. We did our best to maintain our hope amidst the sadness of so much loss.

Each of these parents were members of the “Greatest Generation,” all three successfully long and well-lived (92, 89, and 92, respectively). My dad and father-in-law were World War II veterans. Of the 500,000-some WWII veterans still alive today, they were another two of the 1,100 vets that die every day.

We left for my father-in-law’s funeral in Sarasota, Florida on Jan. 2, the day before the recent winter weather began to hit the Southeast. We were planning to stay with in-laws in Columbia, South Carolina, before leaving for Florida the next morning. When we got to their home, my brother- and sister-in-law recommended we load up the car and keep going. The forecast wasn’t looking as if we could have the gentile, Chinese takeout for supper and comfortable family beds that evening as we had hoped.

So we loaded up the car and left Columbia for points south, hoping to beat the worst of the weather and make it to Florida. We arrived at Exit 3 near the Georgia-Florida border on Interstate 95 after 9:00 that night, reservations at the Microtel in hand.

After a McDonald’s supper and a fitful night’s sleep in the Microtel, much less gentile than what might have been at my brother- and sister-in-law’s home, we awoke the next morning to our car covered with ice. After warming up the car and scraping the ice from the windows, we quickly got on the road, and a few miles later, we crossed the border into Florida, stuck with constant rain and abnormally freezing temperatures as our companions. Icicles hung from our car but the roads were still passable, at least on the Florida interstate.

Other relatives attempting to get to the funeral weren’t so lucky. My wife’s brother left Raleigh for Sarasota that Wednesday morning. In freezing rain just before the South Carolina-Georgia border on I-95, he can came to dead stop on the freeway. By that time, we were in Orlando, on our way in the cold rain to Sarasota. My brother-in-law and his wife weren’t so lucky.

As any one of us stuck on I-95 for hours can attest, we are familiar with — in fact we’ve lived — Dante’s quote, “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” After more than two hours creeping to the first interchange in what now was a full-fledged snow storm, my brother-in-law exited I-95, reversed course, and headed north for home with thousands of his “closest friends” hoping to do the same. Seventeen hours later, in stop-and-go traffic and slush covered roads all the way; he made it home to Raleigh.

While my brother-in-law and other relatives missed it, some of our clan who had left for Florida early enough were represented at my father-in-law’s funeral. Retired from the Navy as a senior chief hospital corpsman, he was buried with full honors, a three-man Navy honor guard superbly sending him off to the Great Beyond in fine military fashion.

Until later in life when the memories had faded and hope was restored, Charlie never spoke of it. But one time he did recount the story of making 49 trips in his landing ship between England and the French Normandy shoreline during D-Day operations, triaging severely wounded soldiers on their way back to England and bringing fresh troops from England back to combat in France. Those transits across the English Channel comprised his most hopeless memories in his otherwise enjoyable life.

We made certain the Navy honor guard heard that story of the old salt they were burying.

After the funeral, we left Florida for eastern North Carolina and home.

By Saturday morning, typical of most southern snow events, I-95 was mostly clear. Traversing the same route my brother-in-law had taken on I-95 where he understandably had “abandoned all hope” of making it to Florida three days earlier, we counted a dozen roadside snowmen along I-95 between mid-Georgia and Coosawatchie, South Carolina. The snowmen stood sentinel over still abandoned cars that had slid off the roadway.

In my mind I heard moms joking with their complaining kids, “Go out and play in the traffic.” While at a dead stop on I-95 parents had shooed the kids out of their cars and onto the interstate’s roadside to build snowmen. And there, three days later, the snowmen still stood, defiantly against the hopelessness — and optimistically in the southern sun.

Barry Fetzer is a columnist for the Havelock News. He can be reached at fetzerab@ec.rr.com.