“I'm going for me, but I'm especially going for Carl.”
At that point, I had to look through my own tears to see those in Vernon Keepers' eyes.
Vernon's 84-year-old voice faded.
His past and mine had just collided around the memories of one deceased man, Carl W. Keepers.
To him, Carl was an older brother.
To me, a second-grader at the time, he was the man who didn't talk just right, who wore a long coat even in the heat of August, but was a very kind and giving soul.
Carl would bring coins to my dad's corner booth at the swap meet under the stadium at Garfield County Fairgrounds. This whiskered friend always had a coin for me. He asked nothing in return just smiled and walked on, leaving me with a grin, and a wheat penny that possibly dated back to about the year his life changed forever.
Tuesday night, I was floating from table to table at Rose State College visiting with World War II veterans scheduled to leave the next morning for the fifth of Oklahoma's Honor Flights. This one was taking 103 men to their see their memorial in Washington.
While interviewing one of these individuals, I noticed the eyes of the veteran across the round table fixed on mine. Long story, a little shorter, I made my way around and started to introduce myself, but he interrupted and said, “I knew your dad and your uncle.”
I went ahead and said, “I'm Bryan Painter, with The Oklahoman,” in case he was confused.
He continued, “I knew your uncle, Bonnie, and your dad, Clarence.”
There was no name tag on me. This man lives in Boise City in the far western Panhandle. He had no idea where I worked, or that my father died Sept. 3, 1999.
Vernon didn't know who I was, but I guess through resemblance, he knew whose I was. He had grown up in Enid, around the corner from my dad and uncle. This left me stunned.
Recovering a little, and not yet having asked his name, the stick-on tag read “Vernon Keepers.”
“Who was Carl Keepers?” I blurted out.
“He was my brother, he died in August, 12 years ago,” he said. “I'm going for me, but I'm especially going for Carl.”
Sadly, I'd missed an article written by my co-worker Michael McNutt in late March 1995. It was a story about a man who received a Purple Heart and other medals almost exactly 50 years after he was wounded for a second time during World War II. That man was Carl W. Keepers, a Marine paratrooper.
Carl suffered a leg wound at the island of Bougainville near the Solomon Islands. Having recovered, he was sent to the 27th Regiment of the 5th Marine Division as part of the ground force attacking Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945.
Carl was critically injured on March 11, 1945, during the battle for Iwo Jima. The machine-gunner corporal was hit in the head with shrapnel from an explosion. Doctors operated but left pieces of shrapnel close to his brain. Hospitalized for months, he received his honorable discharge in February 1946.
“They brought him back to the states at Camp Pendleton while I was in the boot camp in the Navy in San Diego,” Vernon told me. “I got to go see him.”
Vernon went from boot camp to engineering school and days after graduation, World War II ended. Still serving, he was on ships with assignments including picking up Army soldiers in the Philippines and bringing them back home to the U.S.
“After the war, Carl would never talk about it,” Vernon said, “and I didn't ask. Sometimes trying to relive those things is more difficult than experiencing them.”
Carl lost some mental faculties and, after going back to Enid in '46, was unable to keep a full-time job.
He never married.
In his apartment, he kept a little replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial and some pictures.
“That's where he almost lost his life, so it was very important to him,” Vernon said.
“That's why this trip is so important to me.”