By Jean Kemper*
How we laughed, the night
my brother and I spent
in the discotheque
on Fifty-seventh Street.
How proud I was of him
in his lieutenant's uniform,
anxious that he might be embarrassed by
me in a muumuu
to cover the bulge that made me look as if
I'd swallowed a watermelon.
We'd come to see Zero,
the comedian whose twists
of face and body kept us
laughing until tears streamed
down our faces.
I wet my pants.
Weeks later, when he'd shipped out,
there were letters
from England then France. In the last one he wrote,
"Sherman was right. War is
Sissy, I taunted,
hating the way
you the golden-haired one
ran to me for protection
from bullying peers.
You the good
our father said
should have been
I the boy.
Later when I loved you
our father proud
of the silver pin
on your shoulder
boasted the army
made a man of you.
August 6th 1944
his tears pulled like thorns
splashed with mine
on your flag
*Jean Kemper, Richard Kemper's sister, was a writer and a poet.
By Paul CantorRichard Kemper, my grandparents' only son, enlisted in the U.S. army in March 1943.
On January 31, after he arrived at Fort Jackson, South Carolina he sent them a telegram: HAD A NICE TRIP TO COLUMBIA SEND NOSE DROPS LOVE = DICK.
Yes, my grandparents treasured every word he wrote them.
In May 1944 Richard shipped to England where he was promoted to first lieutenant and given a desk job. But as the following excerpts from his letters home indicated he angled to be leading troops in the field.
May 23, 1944: “I’ve just been sitting at a desk pushing a pen and pencil. I’m not the old field soldier that I used to be tho perhaps I will be again someday.”
June 28, 1944. “For the last few days I have been doing nothing but sleeping and eating. The job I was doing is completed now so they don’t know quite what to do with me. While the powers that be are deciding my fate I am leading the life of leisure.”
June 30, 1944: “I’m still waiting for a job.”
July 11, 1944 (after being shipped to France): “I’m still unemployed but that won’t last much longer…This afternoon I took a walk with a couple of other gentlemen of leisure. Last night I had a lengthy conversation in French with a couple of farmers. I was amazed that they could understand me.”
July 14, 1944: “I’m well fed, well rested and happy.”
July 17, 1944: “I’m still leading a life of leisure. This morning I rolled out of my pup tent at 11 o’clock and fixed myself a breakfast of orange juice and cereal.”
July 19, 1944: “Still no job but I expect one very soon.“
July 24, 1924: “Well, I finally got a job. I was assigned to the 9th Division…Its nice to belong to an outfit again after being bounced around for so long. This outfit is a crack division so naturally I am pleased.”
July 30, 1944: “I’ve seen a bit of action since you last heard from me. We had the Germans on the run but they still put up a pretty good scrap. The more I see of them the less I like them. They are a miserable lot. They look as much like supermen as I look like Lana Turner. We captured a Polish soldier the other day. As soon as he was captured he tore off his German insignia in disgust and I’m sending it on to you.”
Aug 1, 1944: “There is nothing new to tell you. Just wanted to let you know everything is fine….The country around here is quite pretty. It is rolling land with lots of fields and hedgerows. The farmhouses seem to be made from some kind of sandstone and have thatched roofs. The peasants wear wooden shoes mostly. A few of them are lucky enough to have old, worn-out leather footwear. Their clothing is worn and ragged. But they seem very happy that the Boches have been driven out. Good-bye for now. Loads of Love, Dick."
Those are the last words my grandparents received from uncle Richard. He was killed when a mortar shell exploded next to him in “the battle of the hedgerows,” the allies’ effort to push the Germans out of Normandy after the fall of Cherbourg. Killed while commanding a regiment in Mortain, France on August 6, 1944 exactly two months after D-Day and just a bit over seven months after he telegrammed his parents asking for nose drops.
The telegram and letters, however, are not something my grandparents ever showed me. In fact my grandparents never spoke to me of uncle Richard. Some things are just too painful to talk about.
What my grandparents did do, however, was purchase land beside Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, New York and deed it to the school district to be “maintained in perpetuity” as a memorial to Richard and the other 98 former Mamaroneck High students who were killed in World War II. Then, year after year from 1947 till the day they died, they made it a family tradition to visit Richard Kemper Park for Memorial Day ceremonies.
Neither of them ever said a word at those ceremonies. Not one word. Yet somehow I got the message that in addition to paying respect to my uncle and others who had been killed in battle we were there to honor all those who devoted and devote their lives to fashioning a global community free of intolerance and injustice and to think about how we might best follow their example.
Richard Kemper Park, in other words, was never meant to be just a memorial to the dead. It was meant as well to inspire students and others to think about how to create a just and peaceful world in which the human rights of everyone everywhere are recognized and respected. That is the cause for which Richard Kemper and so many others gave, in President Abraham Lincoln's words, "the last full measure of devotion."