I have created this blog to hopefully inspire average, everyday Americans to do their part in supporting our troops by being “An American Worth Dying For.” If you are new to the site, please read oldest to newest.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Horse, a hearse and a sense of duty, LA Times, January 29, 2009

For those of you who haven't seen the story in the LA Times about our mission of providing horse-drawn hearse services to fallen troops, here is the link.


The overwhelming response to this story that I received from across the country was the inspiration for this blog.

Nicholas Riccardi did a wonderful job writing this story. Read and enjoy.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Towner Bus Tragedy, March 26, 1931

There are many stories my mother told me as a child. Some were serious, some were funny, some were serious but we made them funny. Some, like the one she told of the Towner Bus Tragedy never fail to strike a nerve deep in my heart.

Today is a day of irony for me. I don't always pay attention to the weather forecast but something told me today to listen when they said a blizzard is coming. I spent the morning making sure the animals had food and shelter. Unless you have experienced the blinding snow and howling winds it is hard to fully appreciate Mother Nature's wrath. Within minutes, in whiteout conditions, you could find yourself lost in your own backyard. In the old days folks tied a rope from the barn to the house so they could find their way after tending the animals.

I have a young boy in my life I call my "grandson." My son Nate dated his mother for a couple years. They have since broken up, but I love little Ezekiel, EZ for short, like he is my own. I make it a point to spend as much time with him as I can. Today I was asked to pick him up at preschool.

On the way home I decided perhaps we better go by the store and pick up some candles in case the power went out. While visiting about the weather with the clerk, he told me today was the anniversary of the Towner Bus Tragedy. I didn't realize that others were aware of the tragedy that happened in 1931, 33 years before I was born.

My mother was 7 years old when it happened and it made quite an impression on her. As a child she told us many times about the tragedy and showed us newspaper articles about it. We visited the memorial to the victims. When my son was in elementary school his class was visited by Ms. Georgene Pearson, author of "A Light in the Window," a book about the tragedy.

Here is the version of the tragedy from the Holly, Colorado Historical Society:

"In the frigid winter of 1931, a March blizzard trapped 20 children on a school bus between the rural Colorado towns of Holly and Towner, near the Kansas border. Five children died from exposure, as did the bus driver, Carl Miller.

The makeshift bus, a 1929 Chevy truck with a homemade wooden topper on the back and two wooden benches inside, had no heater. Two of the back windows were broken and patched with cardboard.

Miller was taking the children home when the gray skies turned so white he couldn't see the hood. The bus hit a ditch and became wedged. Snow poured through one window. Miller couldn't get the engine to turn over again. He started a fire in the lid of a milk can, but the damp textbooks and benches were poor fuel.

The temperature dipped to 20 below zero, and 70-mph winds persisted.

Miller tried to keep the children moving to prevent hypothermia, but a 13-year-old girl froze to death after 24 hours on the bus. Like many of the children, she wore no coat that day.

Desperate, Miller struck out on foot. Searchers later found his frozen body in a field.

"His hands torn from clinging to barbed wire fences to guide his way, his hat and overcoat gone, and his suit coat unbuttoned, the body of Carl Miller, driver of the ill-fated Towner school bus, was found lying in a field three miles from where he had started to go for help," the Rocky Mountain News reported.

The remaining children would see a second and then a third classmate expire before rescuers finally arrived, 33 grueling hours after the bus had plunged into the ditch. Two more children succumbed after the rescue."

So it is ironic today that 78 years later on the same date, another blizzard rages through the eastern Colorado plains.

I am grateful today that I have my children, and loved ones safe by my side. But I will never forget the sacrifice of Mr. Carl Miller. It is a reminder to me of the responsibility school bus drivers take when they get behind the wheel with our most vulnerable young citizens. So on this 78th anniversary of the Towner Bus Tragedy, I will take this opportunity to ask you all to salute the school bus drivers of America.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Down The Lane Slowly I'll Go

Down the lane slowly I’ll go
Ever so gently I’ll pull this carriage.
My task is no burden for the honor is great.
With courage and pride he died for his country,
So with dignity and grace, I will carry him home.
With each strike of my massive hooves
His soul will soar in the heavens above.
In the years to come may you remember this day,
With memories of a giant black horse,
That gently bore your hero to his final rest
Down the lane, slowly I’ll go.
Wellington Carriage Company

Times weren't always good, especially in the early days of Wellington Carriage. One day after paying $230 to have Mike shod, I called my sister, Kathy Schmidtke, very discouraged. I said to her, "Kath, I've paid all this money for these horseshoes and they are just sitting in a pile." "Can you figure out a way I can make money with them?"

A few days later she called me back and said, "This won't make you any money, but here is what you need to do." She went on to tell me that she had written a poem from Mike's perspective. I needed to print and laminate the poem, paint the horseshoes black and present them to the families after a service.

Well, I did it and they went over like wildfire. Next thing I knew, I was out of horseshoes, but the families went away from the service with a keepsake of the day. As the number of funerals we did increased, I knew I had to find some other way to present this touching poem to the families.

I came up with the idea of printing a picture of the coach and poem, personalizing it with the name and years of birth and death of the person, framing it and presenting that to the families. That too, has been met with tremendous response. Even though I include at least a dozen extra copies, many times, I receive requests for more.

In 2005, when I began honoring America's fallen troops, I changed a few lines of the poem to represent the pride and courage which these brave men and women exhibited in dying for this country.

Thus, I feel the poem above sums up exactly why we do what we do.

Copyright 2009 Lorraine Melgosa

Monday, March 23, 2009

SSG Mark Maierson, A Green Beret

Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret.

I was just two years old in 1966 when my oldest brother John brought home the 33 rpm album, The Ballad of the Green Beret by SSgt Barry Sadler. The album became a family favorite. My brother Barney was so taken by it, he had to have a Green Beret uniform and a Green Beret GI Joe.

I was too young at the time to understand that there was a war going on. Even as I got older, I didn't comprehend that hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. I just thought it was a really neat song.

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret.

For four decades the ballad was played in our family home. As recently as a few years ago I walked into my mother's house to find her playing the music. One of my siblings had purchased it in CD form for her. I borrowed the CD and took it home for my kids to listen to.

Trained to live off nature's land
Trained in combat, hand-to-hand
Men who fight by night and day
Courage peak from the Green Beret.

SSG Mark Maierson, United States Army, Special Forces, a Green Beret, died March 13, 2009 during a training exercise in Florida. Today I had the honor of escorting the casket of this brave young man during his services at Fort Logan National Cemetery.

The Ballad of the Green Beret became more than just a song to me. I watched helplessly as his brave comrades struggled to contain their emotions as they carried the casket of their fallen brother. I knew that was a battle they could never train for, but "courage peak from the Green Beret."

Back at home a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
Leaving her his last request.

Put silver wings on my son's chest
Make him one of America's best
He'll be a man they'll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret.

To his parents, I would like to say, "He was one of America's best, he won the Green Beret."
Lyrics from "Ballad of the Green Beret" by SSgt Barry Sadler and Robin Moore, Copyright 1966
Copyright 2009 Lorraine Melgosa

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rock Bottom

A person very close to me had a crash a couple years ago. She likes to call it a meltdown but others would probably call it a nervous breakdown. They would say she went over the deep end, snapped, lost it. Call it what you want, but essentially, she hit rock bottom. It seemed that love, life, genetics and a chemical imbalance all conspired to put her in a place of total darkness and despair.

It didn’t happen overnight. Looking back now she can see that she was in a downward spiral for years. She didn’t realize that each time she took a blow, she fell further and further in to a mental hell. She thought she was tough and invincible; nothing would ever bring her down. All of that was forgotten when the final blow came.

She says it was like in an instant, she was hurled in to a deep, dark cave. The cold hard truth was the ground beneath her. Everywhere she turned, she found nothing but a dark emptiness. Like a child, she climbed into bed, hoping she could hide under the covers and keep the bogey man away. But the bogey man was in her head, and the mind, she says, is a terrible place to be trapped.

Hiding under the covers, demons screaming in her head, she cried to God, “Please take me.” But He must not have been listening or He didn’t want her just then. As she strained to hear God’s call, other voices started coming in whispers; the voices of her children, her mother, her family and her friends. “We love you, we need you, please come back.”

Then she heard another voice. This time it was her voice. She heard herself speaking her mantra, “Take action.” Time and time again, she had encouraged others when they were down to “take action”. Now it was time to practice what she had preached.

When she did decide to try, her first major action was to crawl out of bed and into the shower. It was all she could do, then, back to hiding under the covers. Slowly she started venturing farther from her self-imposed darkness. When she finally found the courage to step outdoors, she was lost. Everything seemed so foreign and unfamiliar. She didn’t know what to do or where to go. Knowing her only options were to take action or fall back into the darkness, she slowly put one foot in front of the other and literally just wandered in circles around her yard, still lost.

Gradually she found herself doing small chores. Maybe it was just picking up a tree branch that fell on the grass or taking the trash. Soon, after she accomplished one small task, she found herself looking around and saying, “That was easy, what else can I do?”

It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually the darkness turned to light. There were still days when she had the fleeting thought to beg God again to take her. There were many days when it seemed like the world still wanted to knock her down. Some days it seemed like there were people in line, just waiting to kick her butt, and they usually did it first thing in the morning to assure her day was ruined.

But she kept that forward momentum going and today she thanks God for not taking her. She loves life. She loves her life. She knows she has a purpose and hopes to be around for a long time.

I compare the situation this country is in to my friend’s crash; a long slow decline to desperation and despair. I’m not sure America has hit rock bottom yet, but perhaps she is close.

Maybe we should pretend she is at rock bottom. Then we Americans will know there is no place to go but up. We will stop asking ourselves, “What’s the next bad news going to be?” Instead we will say “Take Action!”

I believe there is hope for this great nation. But I don’t believe it is up to our President and Congress to save her. I believe it is up to each and every American to take action. To climb out from under the covers and put one foot in front of the other and start the forward momentum.

I believe President Kennedy was right in his speech when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” But I believe he left it too broad, too overwhelming, for the average mind to comprehend. How can I, one person, save a whole country?

I believe every American can and should contribute to society. I believe this country’s downfall came when people started thinking more about themselves than they do of others. Greed and selfishness caused the crisis we are in. People became wrapped up in their own problems and forgot to take care of their family, their neighbors, their communities and their country.

So you ask, “What can I do?”

Today you can do a good deed for someone. It may be as simple as helping an elderly lady across the street or reading to a child. After you have completed that simple task, you can look around you and say, “That was easy, now what else can I do?” and so on and so forth, one small forward step at a time.

There are reasons that the old adages like “One good turn deserves another” and “It is better to give than to receive” are still around. They are time-tested and true.

When you help someone else it comes back to you, usually in ways you never dreamed of. If you are one of the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their job, take action. Volunteer your time at a school, hospital or nursing home. Someone will see you volunteering and say “That is the kind of person I want on my payroll.” To the person who is at rock bottom; “Take Action.” Someone will see you and say, “I want to help that man who helps himself.” When you are the receiver of a good deed, pay it forward.

Just as evil begets more evil, good begets more good, but it all starts within your heart. Start a grassroots effort in your life, your home and your community. It will spread across the country like an epidemic. In time, others will see it working and they will want to join in. Remember, a rising tide raises all ships.

This country will rise from rock bottom if you ask yourself every day, “What can I do today to be an American worth dying for?”
Copyright 2009 Lorraine Melgosa

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My Calling

I didn’t plan it this way. It’s not what I dreamed I would be doing when I grew up. I didn’t know this field of death, more specifically, that this job of carrying dead people to their graves, even existed. I’m not sure I can even call it an occupation. Maybe it’s just my calling in life but my most accounts I shouldn't be doing this today.

It was nearly two years after my father’s death in 1991 that I learned my brother, Barney Clancy, had wanted to hire a horse-drawn hearse for his funeral but couldn’t find one. To tell you the truth, when I first heard about it, I thought it was a corny idea. A horse-drawn hearse for our father; a city guy, born of class and aristocracy, named after a duke, no less. Then I saw the picture. Not really a picture, but a crudely drawn sketch of a traditional funeral coach.

I wasn’t paying much attention when Barney went to Pennsylvania in 1993 and came home with an 1867 James Cunningham and Sons hearse, the Cadillac of coach makers I would later learn. He told our Mom, “We couldn’t have it for Dad, but we are going to have it for others.”
He had already ordered a custom-made trailer and pickup to haul the hearse across the state for funerals. He had already chosen the name, Wellington Carriage Compay, after our dad Wellington Clancy. All of this before I ever saw his crudely drawn sketch of the coach, the sketch that sold me on his crazy idea.

Yet, I still didn’t get involved until he came home from a trip to Nebraska with a massive, dapple gray Percheron draft horse named Mike.

I should have given up the day Barney asked me to help him take promotional pictures at a local cemetery. That was the first time I led Mike, or should I say, Mike led me. He drug me in circles around headstones, my feet barely touching the ground.

In spite of that auspicious start I was there for that first funeral and every one thereafter.

Maybe I should have given up after that first disappointing year in business, when my brother gave up on his dream and said he was calling it quits. “You can’t,” I cried, “It has Dad’s name on it and there are people out there who have said they want it when they die.” It wasn’t a good business plan, this waiting for people to die but I took over the business any way.

There I was with a hearse, a trailer, and a horse I couldn’t lead. I wanted to give up the day I got the call for a funeral and couldn’t find anyone to help me with it. Instead I went out to the corral and said to Mike, “I’ll make a deal with you. I will feed you and take care of you forever if you will take care of me at this funeral today.” It was then that I came to understand how knights in medieval times could ride those noble Percheron horses in to battle and face death without fear.

I could write a book about Mike. But for today I will just tell you that Mike and I became like one over the course of the next thirteen years. Together we buried babies and children, school teachers, policemen, family, dignitaries, senators and lots of royalty. Well, they weren’t really royalty, just common folk whose families said we honored them like royalty.

Through wind and rain, blizzards and scorching sun, Mike and I were there. He would shelter me from the elements and I would keep the flies away from him.

I always said when Mike retired, I would retire. I didn’t count on him dying so soon. That is when I finally looked back and realized how far we’d come. Over 500 funerals in 125 different cities and towns spread across five states. I wanted to give up then, but Mike wouldn't let me because he had already chosen his replacement, his beloved Lady, another noble Percheron in whom I know Mike’s spirit lives on.

I shouldn’t be standing here with Lady today, surrounded by Marines, saluting a flag. Not just any flag, but one draped over a casket.

I still have the letter, postmarked 1994, from the director of the same National Cemetery we are standing in today.

“In reference to your inquiry about the possibility of using your horse drawn coach for services within the ---- ----- National Cemetery, I am sorry to inform you but is has been determined that this service would be inappropriate for a national cemetery operation. Thank you for the opportunity to evaluate your service.”

In a phone call appealing the decision, I argued, “Doesn’t a GI deserve the same dignity and respect afforded a Commander in Chief?”

Give us a call, they said, if you ever have a request from a veteran and we may reconsider. Very soon the first request came from a veteran’s family. The powers that be reconsidered and decided maybe it would be appropriate to allow a traditional casket escort. Dozens of times thereafter, Mike pulled that hearse, with its cargo of flag draped caskets, through sections of countless white headstones of soldiers from a different era.

That was before 9/11, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, as I stand among these Marines, I feel the significance of this final journey. For it is I, who will take this young hero away from his loved ones to the place where he will forever rest.

Hand over heart, I hide my tears as the Marines lift the casket and the stars and stripes disappear into the coach. I know now, why fate wouldn't let me give up.

I offer the coach seat to the family. Perhaps if they can share this ride it will ease their pain for a fleeting moment and briefly distract them from the harsh reality that will soon set in.

I urge Lady forward. “Slow as you go, Lady, maybe we can buy these parents a few more precious minutes with their son.”

Copyright 2009 Lorraine Melgosa

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mary Jane

I am sharing this true story with the hope that the Mary Janes of the world will never have to sit alone.

It was before Columbine, before West Paducah, Jonesboro, Virginia Tech and Springfield, Missouri. Before all the stories of how cruel children can be to each other. Years before all that there was me and Mary Jane.

Seventh grade, 5th hour study hall in the library, sitting with my friends, laughing about the dumb things kids laugh about. I thought I was really cool, even though I was kind of an ugly duckling with long straight hair and braces. It didn't matther that I was kind of a tomboy, cowboy boots and shirts with snaps instead of buttons, country before it was cool. I had personality, a great sense of humor and connections, so I got to hang with the "in crowd."

There I was, 5th hour study hall in the library, sitting at a table with all my cool buddies when in walked my big brother. Now my big brother, he really did have it all; personality, sense of humor, a macho guy with a soft heart and good looks. Girls loved him, guys loved him, a few of the teachers even liked him. Charisma just wafted off him.

I really thought it was neat when my big brother, three grades my senior, called me out in the hall. That is until I saw his angry expression.

“Why is Mary Jane sitting over there by herself?” he demanded.

Let me explain about Mary Jane. When she was a little girl, I guess her dad didn’t like her much. In fact, he hated her so much he threw her on the bed, doused her with gasoline and lit her on fire. Needless to say, Mary Jane had lots of scars, and, we thought, not much personality. She pretty much kept to herself which was fine by me and the crowd I hung with.

As my brother waited impatiently, I gave him that innocent, stupid look that came so easy to me back then and replied intelligently, “I dunno.”

“I’ll tell you why she’s sitting by herself,” he said. “She’s sitting by herself because you aren’t sitting with her."

Then he threatened me. My big brother whom I idolized and who didn’t have a mean bone in his body, threatened me! He proceeded to tell me that if he ever walked in to a room again that Mary Jane and I were both in and she was sitting alone, he would beat the holy crap out of me. He used a little different language, but you get my point.

From that day forward I sat with Mary Jane during 5th hour study hall. We didn’t talk much. I pretty much watched her stare at the clock for fifty minutes. I guess her scars said it all.

I got some funny looks from my friends and took a bit of ribbing. Looking back now, it was worth it.

Nobody knows why things happen, why we are put in a certain place, at a certain time. But things always seem to happen for a reason. Certainly, my big brother, nor I, could foresee that Mary Jane would get burned again. But she did. The school year was just about over, when Mary Jane’s big brother was killed in a car wreck. Her big brother, the one she idolized. He was the one and only subject she ever did talk about. Another cruel twist of fate ripped her life apart again.

Being the loner she was, Mary Jane wouldn’t let anyone close. She asked only for me. So I spent a very long night by her bed, quietly holding her hand. Like usual she didn’t say much, her sobs said it all. I was grateful for the lack of conversation, because I had no words that could make her feel better. And I was grateful for my big brother, who had taught me that no one should ever have to face this world alone.

I’ve lost track of Mary Jane over the years. My hair is short now, almost salt and pepper. I only wear boots when my work dictates it. My big brother is still here, the lesson, still there. And the scars, they will never go away.

Copyright 2009 Lorraine Melgosa

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Funeral For Marine Lance Corporal Chad Maynard

Am I Worth Dying For?

On June 24, 2005 I buried a boy. I buried a man. I buried someone’s brother and son. I buried an unborn child’s father. I buried a Marine. I buried an American hero. I buried Lance Corporal Chad Maynard.

I didn’t actually bury him. I just had the honor of carrying him to his grave in my antique horse-drawn hearse. You see, I own and operate Wellington Carriage Company. For the past four years we have been donating our service for soldiers killed in action.

At the time, he was the second American hero I had the honor to serve in such a way. The first was Staff Sergeant Justin Vasquez. I didn’t know Chad Maynard, but I had known Justin Vasquez since he was a young boy. I watched him grow from a scrawny pup to a charismatic, hard working waiter and then to an Army Staff Sergeant.

When Justin was killed by an IED on his second deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was understandably saddened. But I was also very proud. I believed in my heart that Justin died defending all 525 residents of our little town of Manzanola, in southeastern Colorado. He was our local hero, who died defending his home, his family, his buddies, his school, his town and all the little old ladies like me in it.

It was two weeks later when I was asked to escort Marine Lance Corporal Maynard to his grave that the reality of war and the shame of my ignorance hit me.

It is a rare occasion that I am able to sit in on a service. Usually I stand outside the chapel with the horse and coach. On that day I had a helper who offered to stand outside so I could listen in on Chad’s service. I heard sad and funny stories about him. Like the story his sister told of him. About when they were little kids playing house and she said, “let’s pretend I died.” As she lay there pretending to be dead she opened her eyes to find Chad crying. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t want you to die” he cried.

I listened to his father, grandfather and cousins tell stories of his pranks, his dreams and his achievements. I walked out of the service thinking, "somebody lost a son and a brother that meant the world to them."

As I pulled my big truck and trailer out of the cemetery, into Friday afternoon traffic, that's when my eyes were opened. Everyday Americans, in a hurry to get to where they are going, honked and cursed as I held up traffic trying to pull on to the busy street. All I could think of was that these people have no clue, and probably didn’t give a damn, about the pain and sacrifice that I had just witnessed within those cemetery gates.

It was then that it hit me. A stranger died for me and all the other ungrateful people I was sharing the road with. Chad Maynard didn’t know me or the millions of others he died for, but he did it anyway.

The realization slapped me square in the face. Even though my own nephew had been serving in Iraq for seven months, even though a hometown boy had been killed, I still thought the war was not my problem. It was literally a world away.

I cried the entire 180 miles to my home. And I asked myself, “What have I ever done that was worth a stranger dying for me?” I didn’t have an answer then, so I continue to ask myself every day, “What can I do to be an American worth dying for?”

Copyright 2009 Lorraine Melgosa