Thursday, November 11, 1999

Peaceful tale in honor of Veterans Day

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Emerson Langdon met me at the Frisch's in Milford. We were thinking maybe we could come up with something in honor of Veterans Day today. Mr. Langdon served in World War II, as did five of his brothers.

        Seems like there's a story in there somewhere, sir, I told him.

        So, he lugged a big manila folder of letters and pictures from his home in Indian Springs. We spread them out on the table in front of us, after I promised that I would be careful not to get any pancake syrup on them.

        He is the youngest of the “whole Langdon crew,” he says. Twelve kids in a three-room house in Leslie County, Ky. “After Pearl Harbor, I tried to enlist, but I was too young, and my mama said that five of her boys was already serving. So I waited until I finished high school. Then I went.”

        A pharmacist's mate in the Navy, he wrote his mother that he really wished he had some chewing guam, code for his location. The censors missed it, and Mrs. Langdon passed the word to another brother, Miles, who met Emerson in Guam first chance he had. They still talk about the war. A little. Not a lot.

A cake made of toothpaste
        Since Steven Spielberg saved Private Ryan, a younger generation has some curiosity about that war. “My grandson asked me if I'd ever shot anybody. Or been shot at,” he says. “And the answer is no.”

        No drama. No injuries. No heroics. Just putting his life on hold for three years for his country.

        My own father served in Europe and in Japan, and my mom put together a big album of pictures after he died four years ago. Sepia-toned snapshots with a tent in the background. Dad getting an Army haircut. Dad squatting next to a bunch of little Japanese kids, looking like a big kid himself. I wish I'd asked him more questions.

        One of his friends, a man named Calvin Workman, was in the Bataan Death March, when 16,000 American and Filipino troops died on a 70-mile trek to a Japanese prison camp. Once I asked Cal about it. He said on his birthday, “some of the guys” made a cake out of sawdust and toothpaste. And that was all he said. Or maybe that's all I remember.

        Once my father told me, apropos of absolutely nothing I thought, that the human body only produces about a pint of ashes when it is burned. Dad was among the men ordered by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to tour the death camps “so that the world will never forget.” Dad said he saw a mountain of ashes in Germany.

        He was 21 years old at the time and came home shortly after that, found a job and started a family.

        “Well,” Emerson says matter-of-factly, “that's what you were expected to do.”

The Langdon boys
        We talked about his brother Miles, who was literally blasted into the water when his ship was hit, and said he “still has nightmares.” He told me about Ashford, the second oldest brother, who enlisted when he was 17. Ashford's obituary many years later said he “placed the welfare of his home and family above all else.”

        Finally, Emerson, 75 and a retired trucker, had to get going. He drives a van for his daughter's day care center. Oh, and he is becoming computer literate so he can e-mail his granddaughter at Vanderbilt University, “where I'm hoping she'll put a doctor in front of her name, first Langdon to have one.”

        He laughs. “Is this a great country, or what?”

        We agree, without laughter, that it is.

        And it appeared to us that today we are honoring not only what our men and women in the armed forces did when they went to Germany and Japan and Guam and Vietnam and Korea. We are honoring them for what they did when they came home.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

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