Love & Honor – Southern Style

We all have those things that we participate in that change us. Sometimes for the good and sometimes for the worse. And then there are those things that are just so much bigger than the participants themselves and where it is amazing to just be able to say, “I was there”.

Last Thursday was one of those moments that will be permanently etched in my memory for the way one small South Carolina town came together to honor a wonderful young man and his family.

In our household, Wednesday started out pretty much like any other day. Mom was listening to talk radio, I was doing my computing thing and in what seems to be a semi-permanent weather pattern, the day was gray and gloomy. Mom had known what was planned for that day but due to the weather decided to not participate. By the end of the day, it was a foregone conclusion where we would be on Thursday.

The story came out bit by bit in the form of excited phone calls to the talk radio station and as the day progressed, the news began to spread throughout the region.

Lance Cpl. Christopher Fowlkes, 20, had talked his grade school friend into enlisting into the Marine Corps after high school. Wednesday was the day that life-long friend was bringing Fowlkes home to Gaffney, SC for the last time.

Folkes was injured by an improvised explosive device on September 8th in Afghanistan. In what would seem one of those odd coincidences of fate, he died on September 11th; the 8th anniversary of the terror attacks that led to Fowlkes and so many other of our best and brightest to join the military to protect our country from more terrorist attacks.

Over two hours late, Fowlkes arrived home to crowd-lined streets in Gaffney as family, friends and strangers paid tribute to the fallen Marine and his family. The Patriot Guard motorcycle honor guard was on-hand to escort the procession into town. TV news footage showed Fowlkes’ grandfather hanging out the window of the car thanking the thousands of people lining the boulevard for their love and support.

The hero and the huge crowd honoring him should have been newsworthy on its own. But, it was what starting coming out later in the day that really got people angry and wanting to heap even more love on the grieving family.

Brenda Earls, a Gaffney resident, decided to line the route the motorcade was to travel with flags. Early Wednesday morning she walked the long boulevard placing small flags every so many feet along the sidewalk in what was most likely the right of way. As Earls was returning to her car, she noticed that there were no flags in front of the Bank of America building. She assumed that she had simply missed that stretch of sidewalk and started to put flags in front of the bank. As she was placing the flags, the bank manager came running out and told her she could not put the flags in front of the building. Even after explaining who the flags were for, the manager told Earls that she could not put the flags in front of the BOA building because it might offend some of their customers and that they represented a political statement. Oh, and if Earls wanted her other flags back, she could come into the bank and get them.

Beyond, the terrible insult to the United States, the Marine Corps and to the Fowlkes family, what that misguided bank manager did was to offend someone who was not going to take the insult lying down.

Earls is far from a demure southern belle – she was one hot lady in Dixie who was not going to stand for such nonsense. She made sure that the story quickly hit the local media and became the hot topic of the day. The local talk radio programs took call after call from outraged Americans who promised to remove their money from the bank. Many callers came up with unflattering new names for the bank using the letters BOA.

(In case you may not know, BOA is the same bank that refused to cash the check of a disabled veteran because he refused to give them his fingerprint. The veteran had become disabled when he lost BOTH of his arms. The bank continued to insist he provide fingerprints anyway as it was bank policy. A different branch was involved but it made many wonder if it was part of a larger systemic pattern.)

When the local radio started talking about that aspect of the story, numerous other veterans called in with stories of problems when banking with BOA involving DOD-issued identification.

Well-meaning attempts by the bank to conduct damage control only made matters worse with statements like “Well, there were flags there last night” and it was just a “mis-communication”. Some of the talk show callers told of flags being flown at their local BOA office as well as one bank manager having photographs in her office of friends and family in full military dress. As the day progressed, it became more likely that there was no such prohibition on flags and the Gaffney manager had been either mis-informed or mis-guided.

Thursday dawned another gray and gloomy day where rain threatened. We were going to Gaffney and that’s all there was to it. This Marine family was going to be there one way or the other.

We arrived in Gaffney much quicker than we expected. BOA had a few flags in front of their building but the other banks in town lined their flower planters, sidewalks and just about everywhere else with American flags as if to make a clear statement that flags were welcome at their bank. We found our way to the church where the funeral was to be held. A local told us that the family’s church was a few blocks away and was deemed too small. Around two, the family’s church began ringing their bell to honor Fowlkes. We were parked in the lot where the Patriot Guard was gathering to escort the hearse from the funeral home to the church and on to the cemetery.

We learned more about Earls and the local laughed about the bank not realizing who they were messing with. Apparently Earls is known in town for being something of a dynamo and being a powerful force for getting things done.

There were only a few people outside the church, so the local media approached our little group for an interview. Somehow I ended up being interviewed. I managed to remain civil and not screech about the bank, the war and politics. I instead mentioned being a Marine Corps family and that all members of our military deserve more respect than they are getting and we all should be thankful for their sacrifices to keep us safe. Little did we know that almost immediately after speaking with us, the reporter went into the mobile unit and filed this story –

We were disappointed that there were so few other people outside the church and wondered if folks opted to leave the family to more quietly mourn after the previous day’s outpouring of love. The hearse was escorted to the front of the church by about half of the Patriot Guard riders and the other half, holding American and Marine Corps flags formed an honor guard across the sidewalk in front of the church and up the church steps. As local police, a small crowd, members of the media and the military watched in complete silence, the honor guard carried Fowlkes into the church.

The funeral was scheduled to begin around 25 minutes later and we had heard from others in the crowd it was expected to last 45 minutes to an hour.

It just seemed like there weren’t all that many folks there. We left a bit disappointed but glad we had made the trip. As we went back down the main boulevard to check out some local shops, we noticed people parked here and there in grassy areas with flags and patriotic signs and clothing. It was then that we realized that people had planned to once again line the boulevard to honor the Marine and his family.

We wasted some time and then joined the forming crowd. The boulevard is five lanes wide – two lanes in each direction and a central turning lane. People were gathering on both sides of the street for as far as we could see. There had to be thousands of people that we could see and even more had to be further along the route in both directions.

Several people walked the crowd and braved the traffic to ensure that everyone standing or driving by in vehicles had a flag.

When the police closed the road to all traffic, the folks on our side of the street migrated to the middle turn lane. People were chattering, the nervous chatter of people waiting for something important. A cute little white dog was across from us and every now and again barked with excitement about all of the strange people around him. Young children moved around with nervous energy but were quite quiet despite the excitement of standing in the middle of the street.

A young soldier stood with a friend across the way from us dressed in fatigues but a bit off from others in the right-hand lane of a cross street. Families of every end of the socio-economic spectrum stood side by side waiting for the motorcade. There was no rivalry between North and South Carolinians and no one cared if you favored NC State, Clemson or the Game Cocks as strangers joined together as Americans to honor a young hero and his family.

We had assumed that we would hear the roar of the Patriot Guards’ motorcycles before we would see them. Our first hint that the motorcade was approaching was a change in the mood of the crowd and the flashing blue lights of the police escort winking over the rise. They came so very slowly that many whispered it had stopped and something must be wrong.

While the crowd had never really spoken in anything more than hushed tones, complete silence descended and even the little white dog seemed to feel the mood of the crowd and remained silent.

Two young men from the local Goodwill store dashed across the street to block the left hand lane of the cross street to ensure no traffic interfered with the motorcade. They used their bodies and backpacks to create their own roadblock.

By the time the police were even with us, many in the crowd were already standing silently with tears running down their faces. The Patriot Guard passed within a few feet of us, yet they too were almost silent. When the hearse came even with the soldier across the way from us, she snapped a salute and remained at full attention until the entire motorcade had passed.

As everyone around us caught a glimpse of the flag-draped casket, it was like the crowd took a collective deep breath. You could almost feel the air move. The entire staff of the Goodwill store was standing near us wearing matching yellow ribbons and each carried a flag and a star-shaped flag balloon. They released their balloons and it seemed like the balloons were caught on a breeze that carried them low behind the hearse as if in pursuit. It was a beautiful sight that I suspect many around us didn’t see as most were focused on the cars passing scant feet in front of us.

The family, seemingly stunned by a second huge turnout in as many days, placed their hands on the window of the limousine as if trying to connect with each one of us in the crowd. Three hands were on the window on our side and they belonged to three tear-stained faces wearing a look of both wonder and sorrow. It was a powerful moment that I will never forget and though no-one stepped out of line to touch those hands many were lifted as if they to do so.

A few cars later, the family’s pastor drove past. With robes flying and with a trembling and emotion-filled voice, he yelled out a blessing to the crowd and thanked us for showing so much love for the family. Not too far behind was a young Marine, alone in his car. He looked as if he was having a great deal of trouble keeping it together. When he saw the young soldier, standing alone with her friend, he quickly turned his head towards us and with a quivering chin fought valiantly to keep from weeping.

Tissues and hankies were in evidence in virtually every vehicle that passed and many of the mourners seemed overwhelmed to find themselves surrounded by thousands of flag waving Americans showing their love and honoring the fallen Marine and his family.

Members of the Marine Corps League were easily identifiable for their red sport coats. Many of those veterans also had tears falling and others had a most interesting reaction of a different kind. Several of the older veterans, most likely of WWII, Korea or Vietnam vintage, were hanging out the car and truck windows waving wildly to the crowd. In some way, it did feel like we were all honoring them too and those old Marines were receiving the long-overdue accolades and hero’s welcome that they had not received after their own brave service.

The only sounds were those of folks trying to stem the flow of their tears and passing mourners reacting to the crowd. It was only later that we realized how truly quiet it had been. It seemed impossible that with moving traffic so close and so very many people standing virtually shoulder-to-shoulder that it could be almost silent.

That night, I wrote an email to my step-sister who was born when our father was serving in the Marine Corps during WWII. She is closer in age to my mother than she is to me and we know more about each other through emails than family get-togethers. I dashed off an email about it being an emotional day and that I was famous due to my words being used in a local news report. I left some things out of that email and did not write it as well as I could have. Even so, it made her cry. She asked permission to send it on to her other email buddies; permission was quickly granted. I don’t have any idea how far my email has traveled and if it will touch anyone else like it did us.

I wrote this blog entry in hopes that people never forget the sacrifices our military members and their families are making. I wanted to share how special it can sometimes be to live in the south and how small towns can transcend differences in economics and even race to come together to honor and love their own.

I never met Lance Cpl. Christopher Fowlkes or any of the members of his family. They remain in my thoughts and prayers as do the families of all of our fallen troops.

God Bless America and God Bless the United States Marine Corps! oooh-rah!

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