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In Their Footsteps: Retracing the Mormon Trail

Of Wars That Have Been, Those Still to Come

May 26, 1997|KATHY STICKEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GOTHENBURG, Neb. — Local boys Raymond Warner, 10, and his cousin J.C. Smith, 7, have come over to the wagon train camp to invite cousins Joseph Petramalo, 13, and Joseph Flake, 12, to go fishing.

The local boys fish nearly every day at Lake Helen on the edge of Gothenburg, population 3,000. Like the Joseph cousins--who have become inseparable on the trail--they talk with each other endlessly.

On the shore of Lake Helen is this town's memorial to its veterans. I'm reading the names of the Gothenburg boys who were killed in this century's wars, when the boys and their friends finish their fishing and pass me on the way home.

They run to the lists of names and say, "There's me!" and "I'll show you my friend" as they cover up the last names of the dead boys. "K-e-n-n-e-t-h, that's how I spell my name," says Raymond's friend.

The memorial is divided by wars, with the name of the war--World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam--in red and below each, the names of the soldiers it claimed.

Terrible as it is to read those columns, the most haunting part of the memorial is the final column. It is empty, but it has a space marked for whatever the name of the next war will be, and room below to list those whom Gothenburg will send out to fight and who never come home.

I look from that last waiting column to the first column filled with the names of young men whose mothers sent them out to win the "war to end all wars."

Alice Boyd and her sister, Vera Geiken, invite me over to talk. Their only brothers, Walter and Lester Heidebrink, were killed fighting in World War II. They died 13 days apart.

Alice lives in the home they all grew up in a few blocks from Lake Helen. "My uncle came to the schoolhouse to tell me that Lester had been killed," she says. "But when Walter was killed, it was the next Saturday, so there was no school. We were at home when his wife got the telegram, then she came over to tell us. Their boy, Roger, was a year old."

"It's a small town," Vera says. "Everybody knows everybody. The people around here--oh, when the boys were killed, they were as sorrowing as we were. My two brothers were killed. I went to school with Mearl, Paul Gonzales, they were killed . . . ."

She looks away to the front door.

I mention the little Gothenburg war memorial, that I'd been down there with the young boys. Alice shakes her head, begins a sentence, then stops.

Alice and Vera show me the newspapers from "the day they brought the boys home." They came home together and were buried in the national cemetery in the next town over.

War means many things, but in large measure what it means is that Walter and Lester Heidebrink were never seen alive in Gothenburg again.

Nor were Will Sievers, Manley Hoppes, Ray Harnan, Charles Streeton, Ralph McFate, Howard Nickerson, Ivar Stewart, William Miller, Harm Martens, Ira Welliver, George Maine or the others.

"Memorial Day is the hardest," Alice says. "And when they play taps," Vera adds. We talk and cry together, they feed me milk and cookies, I thank them and leave.

*

Young Raymond Warner and his cousin and some of their friends are back fishing at Lake Helen today.

I want to talk to them about that last empty column, but they start talking about it on their own when they stop at the memorial.

"There's going to be another war," Raymond says. "We'll probably have to fight in it."

One of his friends, Ken, likes the sound of it. "Fighting is cool," he says as he jumps off the memorial doing a karate kick.

"It's not cool; we could be dead," Raymond says.

"I don't think I would die that easy," Ken answers.

I walk over to the World War I column. "See this guy right here--Ray Harnan?"

The boys gather around to look. "I saw a picture of him this morning at the cemetery. He looked pretty big, pretty strong. It didn't do him any good."

Ken isn't convinced. "It still would be cool."

Raymond is getting upset. "It isn't cool; we could be dead."

He jumps past the World War II, Korea and Vietnam columns. "This is where they're going to write the name of the next war," he says, pointing with his foot. He shoves his hands into his pockets and pulls his elbows tight to his sides.

"This is where they're going to write the names of the guys that get killed. It could be us. We'll be old enough."

Raymond and his cousin J.C. walk off through the Lake Helen park with their fishing poles over their shoulders--just, I imagine, as Walter and Lester Heidebrink and all the others named on the memorial once did. I wondered how the boys talked about war.

As I watch the two bands of cousins walk home through the park, it occurs to me that, while World War II was a war between nations, World War I was a war between cousins. Czarina Alexandra of Russia (wife of Czar Nicholas), Emperor William II of Germany and King George V of England were Queen Victoria's grandchildren, all of the House of Hanover.

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