Flight was trip of a lifetime

Published 9:52 am Thursday, June 3, 2010

The season is upon us.

Patriotism, squeezed among backyard barbeques, summer vacations, family reunions and kicking back into self-indulgence, galvanizes Americans if only for a season of soul-searching.

It shouldn’t be just a few days on the calendar, but it is. There just isn’t room in busy lives to say thanks to America’s veterans.

Not that there is a shortage of opportunities to show a nation’s true colors.

Armed Forces Day, Liberty Day, Flag Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Patriots Day and Veterans Day.

Even Buddy Poppy and Forget-Me-Not days. All days of our patriotic lives compressed into an elongated season that stirs hearts and souls, whips the American flag from front porches across the nation, provides a gut check for every citizen’s conscience.

So many days, it becomes a daze.

Then comes Memorial Day. Parades, old men trying to keep in step, flags unfurled, 21-gun salutes, Taps, flowers and wreaths  “In Memory Of.”

Now, there’s another day pushing for attention: The day a loved one made an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

Richard “Dick” Kelly has one to remember. It came Saturday, May 15, when he made an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

It was the sixth Southeast Minnesota Honor Flight and took 100 veterans and their guardians, including medical staff, to D.C. to see the World War II Veterans Memorial.

Wheelchair-bound and 85 years old, Mr. Kelly and his wife, Charlene, live at Chauncey Apartments in Austin.

He is a retired letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.

He and his wife have four sons, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Shyness has never gotten in the way of Mr. Kelly, when talking about his family’s railroad lineage, beginning with his father, Roy. The Kelly boys, Claude, Kenny, Gene (Lefty), Jerry and Richard, all served in World War II.

Mr. Kelly was in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific. All the brothers came home alive and uninjured.

Making the May 15 Honor Flight with Kelly were other deserving veterans, include Herb Schaefer of Adams. The Rev. Marty Schaefer, a Catholic priest from Waseca, served as a guardian escort for Mr. Kelly and Mr. Schaefer, father of the priest.

“Each veteran was given a packet of letters from family and school children and we read the letters on the Honor Flight,” Mr. Kelly said.

The veterans had a police motorcycle escort to the WWII Memorial after a tour of Washington, D.C.

The first stop: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “Here, my heart dropped down,” he said. “There are 58,000 names on that granite wall.”

It is understandable how emotional it was for Kelly to see the names of Vietnam veterans killed in service to their country. “That hit me very personally. I was delivering mail and I carried letters from the War Department announcing the deaths of those soldiers to families in Austin,’ he said. “This one fellow I will never forget. I knocked on his door and he just said ‘Don’t say anything. Just give me the letter’.”

Mr. Kelly found the Korean veterans memorial “chilling” to see soldiers in full combat gear walking through a field with grim looks on their faces. “You almost wanted to step aside and let them pass,” he said.

Perhaps, the most touching moment came when he visited the WWII memorial. “There were many, many school children and this one little boy came out of the crowd and gave a snappy salute and put out his hand and said ‘Thank you, Sir. Thank you for our freedom’,” the veteran recalled.

When the veterans returned to the airport for their flight home, another special surprise awaited them on Armed Forces Day.

Young people dressed in 1940s-style dresses and suits performed a brief musical for the veterans. The veterans heard the Andrews Sisters’ “Don’t Sit Under the Apply Tree With Anyone Else But Me”, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and other vintage songs originally performed when they were young men preparing to go overseas and fight a war more than six decades ago.

When the veterans returned to the Rochester airport late that Saturday evening, a crowd of family, other relatives and friends greeted them.

Mr. Kelly carried with him a letter from his son, Tom, expressing pride in his father’s patriotism and service to his country. “As more and more war veterans pass away, there are fewer and fewer left to carry the torch of remembrance,” Tom Kelly wrote his father. “We must pick up that torch and help others learn, know and remember the true price of freedom.”

At least one of those who can teach that lesson any day of the week is Mr. Kelly.

For more information about the Southeast Minnesota Honor Flight program — a lot more, in fact, so grateful is he — call Kelly at 434-4780.

Patriotism is always in season in the Kelly household.