Summer always comes with the memory of my father, Col. Billy F. Nunley’s funeral. The funeral service was on July 2nd and that made the fireworks and military tributes of July 4th a painful echo of the ceremony performed by the Air Force Honor Guard.
The sky was a clear blue, the kind of day that sometimes prompted my father to say, “Good day to fly.” The slow drive up to the gravesite took us past flags and flowers, ribbons and wreathes, all in red, white, and blue. The young Air Force men and women carried out their duty flawlessly. Taps was played and it floated over the grassy hills. A 21-gun salute was fired, and each shot echoed back as if another honor guard mirrored our service from the valley below. The flag was folded and presented to my mother, crisp, unstained and formed in that perfect triangle.
I really didn’t need to corner those kind folks in uniform and tell them tearfully about the decorated combat veteran they were here to salute. I couldn’t help it though. They were so young, far too young to have ever been in a war themselves. I had to point to the shadow box we made with his medals and tell them, “Do you see that Air Medal? Do you see the Distinguished Flying Cross? ”
It was totally unnecessary. They would have done as much for any vet that day with no change but the number of guns in the salute. Those kind young Airmen took their duty seriously and I will forever be grateful that they did.
Now that I’m farther down the path toward healing, I’m thinking about a different memory this year and I’d like to share it with you.
Several years before my father became ill, I wanted to give my dad a special Father’s Day gift. I heard from a friend that a celebrated military veteran would sign the book, Marine Sniper (Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock’s biography), and mail it back to me, personalized for my dad. Long before U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (who wrote American Sniper), there was Sgt. Hathcock. Hathcock was crawling around the jungles of Vietnam around the same time my father was flying dangerous missions as a forward air controller.
So, I bought the book, and typed out a note to Gunny Hathcock:
Dear Sgt. Hathcock, thank you for your service to our country. Could you please autograph your book to Col. B.F. Nunley U.S.A.F (Ret.) for me. My father, like you, is a true American Hero. He flew in combat for two tours and spent many hours over enemy lines in both Viet Nam and Cambodia. His missions will never be celebrated or written about. He served with honor for more than 2 decades . He was a Test Pilot for many years and finished his career in Logistics Command primarily for the F-4 fleet. Know that your book will be treasured by a soldier who values your contributions and sacrifices.”
I mailed it off and, true to his word, Hathcock mailed it back signed to my dad with a big “Semper Fi.”
I gave it to my father on time (for a change) and he thanked me and tucked it away on his shelf.
But here is where the story becomes one of my most treasured memories. A few months later, my father, who was NEVER good with emotions, caught me by the arm as I was leaving my parents’ house. He told me, “Son, that book, you gave me…. I’ve heard of Sgt. Hathcock and I appreciate his story, but the real gift, the best gift for me was the note you sent him. He left it in the book for me. I think he did that on purpose. ” And with that, my father turned and walked away.
I’m sure it’s the only time I ever managed to let my father know how proud of him I was. He never mentioned it again, but I know it changed our relationship for those last few years we had together. If I had written it to him in a letter, he would have thought it was flattery or that I wanted something, but seeing it written to someone else — it got through to him.
I can’t begin to say how much that means to me now.
Please, as you read this, think about the people in your life that you need to get through to. My wish for you this year is that every holiday be a time to remember not to leave important things unsaid.
Celebrate Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day and July Fourth, but make days to reach out to your friends and loved ones NOW. Make the effort, especially for those old soldiers and stoic unemotional anchors we rely on so much. It is my hope that if you are separated from them in this life, you can remember them with love and without regrets.
It is also my wish that you share YOUR good memories and your stories of connections and opportunities with others. Encourage each other and spread healing where ever you can.