This particular yarhzeit has taken on a significance that goes beyond the personal. Unsure of the exact date of his death, I decided it was appropriate to observe Eddie's yarhzeit on Memorial Day. And although I now know the exact date and circumstances of his death due to records that are available on the internet, I continue this commemoration at the insistence and support of my minyan community, sharing these words so we all can channel a bit of that grief and remember the reason we mark this day.
"Pa - so you thought I forgot your anniversary. Well, at least Ma stood by me. I'm glad you liked the card. . . I received a letter from Seymour on Tuesday and he tells me that he made PFC. You can't imagine what a kick I got out of hearing this. I went around and passed cigarettes to the boys just like a father passes out cigars when he gets a baby"
"You ask what's new with me. There is still nothing definite to tell you. We may as well not kid each other - when I finish my training here I will be due to go over. . . Please don't start worrying about me - there is still plenty of time for that. . . I'm not worried about anything except that you are worrying about me. This is a great experience for me and I'm sure I will benefit by it. Why, there must be a million fellows who would do anything to trade places with me and get on a B-29 crew"
Those words were written by my uncle, Lieutenant Edward Heiss, US Army Air Force, in letters to his parents, my grandparents, in January and February, 1944. He signed off, as he did all his letters, with "I am feeling fine. So long. Lots of love, Eddie." One year later, on January 11, 1945, his B-29 fell to the ground in pieces somewhere over Malaysia. Of the eleven crew members, only three made it out alive---he was not one of those three.
When I was growing up, a colored version of this photo was on my grandmother's dresser. I was curious who it was, but somehow, never asked and no one ever talked about him. I don't remember when or how I found out who he was. Once I did, I wondered how my family's life would have been different if he had come home.
What was he like - this man so often photographed with a smile; the one who, as my father tells it, convinced my dad to go to Yankee Stadium one Rosh Hashanah afternoon.
The commanding officer of his squadron wrote my grandparents, "No matter how fatigued he may have been, or how he felt personally, Edward always had a laugh and a word of encouragement, to cheer the other members of his crew and squadron. . . He undoubtedly was one of the best liked officers in this organization."
For years after my uncle's plane went down my grandfather held out hope that some miracle would find him alive. After all, no body was ever found. A musician--string bass and tuba--who worked many high society events attended by high military brass, my grandfather would go up to those generals and ask, "please, find out what happened to my son."
My Uncle Eddie received a Purple Heart, posthumously.
I would have rather had him in my life.
On Memorial Day we need to remember that war, justified or not, will always take its toll.
His remembrance is a blessing to my dad, to me, and to all with whom I share his story.