Broken Clocks, Barbeques, and Three-day Weekends

cody at grandpa's plot

Cody on Memorial Day in Wyoming

I’ve moved a broken clock around the world. My husband and I bought it in a small town near our then home in Italy. Caltagirone is a hilly village covered in hand painted ceramics. Every flat surface is decorated with traditional blue and yellow swirling patterns – the twelve inch ceramic clock seemed like an appropriate memento of our time overseas. It hung in my Sicilian kitchen for years, counting the slow, sunny days, the military deployments, the new friends – all of our time. When we returned to the states, Cody emptied the kitchen boxes and unwrapped the clock, but he couldn’t make it work. He propped it on the kitchen counter and promised to fix it later.

I moved to Sicily almost exactly fourteen years ago: Memorial Day weekend 2000. In just 18 months of marriage, I’d already lived on three military bases, but Sicily was our first real duty station. My husband flew helicopter training missions all over Europe and the Middle East and eventually he flew real missions as a part of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. I learned to be a military wife and an English teacher. We also built some of the strongest friendships of our entire lives.

Americans began observing Memorial Day almost 150 years ago. In 1868 it was called “Decoration Day” as former Union soldiers and families gathered to put flowers on veterans’ graves (I’m happy to report that both Union and Confederate graves were honored). Sometime that first year, it was unofficially decided that May 30th would be a good time to hold “Decoration Day” because flowers would be in bloom throughout the States. Around the turn of the century the holiday had become so popular that the Army and the Navy attempted to standardize “proper observance.” It wasn’t until 1971 that Congress officially declared “Memorial Day” a national holiday. And in 2000 Congress created the “National Moment of Remembrance” which is observed at three in the afternoon (local time) across the country every year as a way to “help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.

When we returned to the states on Memorial Day weekend 2003, we were happy to be home, ready for our next adventure. But we were also heart sick about leaving our community of friends in Italy. Just weeks after we moved into our Maryland apartment, our phone ran unexpectedly. A friend had heard news about a helicopter crash in Sicily. The media had reported the crash and a fire, but they hadn’t named the crew, or listed the causalities. We rushed to Cody’s office to call the squadron in Italy but we wouldn’t hear details until the next day. It took us hours to fall asleep that night. We knew our friends were in trouble; we whispered prayers and cried in frustration.

We attended only one of the four memorial services held that July, but we mourned for all of our friends: Kevin A. Bianchi, Peter Ober, Brian P. Gibson, and Samuel Cox. We watched children cry and uniformed men sob. We hugged our friends and promised not to forget. I felt an odd mix of anguish, isolation, and fear. I felt guilt and relief and I questioned my ability to help my friends grieve and recover. We were so far away – in so many ways.

When we got home from the burial in New Jersey Cody picked up the silent Sicilian clock and pushed the hands around until it read four-thirty. He hung it back in our new kitchen and sat down to look at it. I waited for him to explain. Eventually, Cody told me the story. Pete Ober was often the squadron clown. On slow days he’d reset the office clocks to read 4:30 pm – quitting time. It might have fooled his senior shipmates, except that Pete moved the hands after morning coffee break at 10 am. We’ve hung the broken clock in all of our kitchens. It’s still set to for grandpa

This Memorial Day we took our kids to visit their great-grandfather’s grave here in Wyoming. Grandpa was a World War II and a Korean War vet. We helped Cody’s grandmother leave flowers and tidy up the plot. The kids knew Grandpa Guy and they know about his service. We talk often about the military and our time away from the mountain west, but it feels most important to tell them about our friends Pete and Kevin. We’ve taken them to Arlington and shown them pictures of our friends. When they ask about the broken clock we tell the story again. We want them to remember more than the three day weekend and the barbeques.

– Sarah


9 thoughts on “Broken Clocks, Barbeques, and Three-day Weekends

  1. I too have memories of past friends and co-workers from the military. I don’t think I have ever had closer friends. Nice piece of writing. Made me cry also over the friends who have passed. I suspect the older we get, the more of this we will go through.

    • Thanks for reading Dave. This was a tough one to write, but every Memorial Day gets somehow more poignant, so I needed to go back and write down their names, reread the Stars and Stripes’ articles. Just to remember.

  2. That’s so beautiful SJ. we had my dad’s unveiling last Wednesday and I still remembered that before he passed he couldn’t tell me what he did 10 minutes ago, but show him a photo of his platoon mates from northern Italy in 1944 and he could tell me their names and where they were from with no prompting. I only wish he shared more about his experiences.

  3. I always enjoy reading your blog. This post has especially touched me. Just 3 months into our first overseas tour as a family, I have been reminded of the closeness of the military family. Memorial Day this year, being so far away from friends and family, held more significance than in the past. You brought tears to my eyes. Beautiful, Sarah Jo!

  4. Sarah Jo, Just read this blog…I am moved to tears. Thanks for a beautifully writtern story.

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