GUYS like Stanley Funderburg are just around the corner.
They are always there with the same tricks to beat you in driveway basketball and the same jokes that make you smile even though you've heard them a thousand times.
Growing up down the street from Mr. Funderburg, I thought I knew every punch line the man had to offer.
But when a guy like Stanley calls you out of the blue to tell you about his brothers, his seven brothers, who collectively served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, you stop what you're doing because the life of the neighbor you thought that you've known since you were 10, suddenly has a movie-script twist.
You shut up and listen as he tells you about how he and his brothers tried to repay the love of their parents by serving their country, how the ultimate sacrifice of one brother affected them as a family and how they go on now in hopes of telling their stories so others won't forget.
As the ragged piece of 1943 newsprint from Wilburton proudly stated about the Funderburg family, “Praise be to Mr. and Mrs. Funderburg for giving their honest and morally true sons to the cause of Uncle Sam's Army.”
‘We were always happy'
Growing up in Wilburton, there were two sounds you didn't hear in the Funderburg house; the sound of meat frying in the kitchen and the sound of spare change jingling in pockets.
John Henry Funderburg and Rhoda Katherine Funderburg made a lot from very little.
Their 10 children, Eula, OC, Lewis, Floyd, James, Bennie, Jack, Charles, Stanley and Norma Jean, were often thought to be more entertaining than the circus when you put all 10 of them around the dinner table.
The house they lived in was a refurbished cow barn, no running water, no electricity and no room to breathe.
Stanley remembers sleeping three deep in the living room that was converted to the boys bedroom.
If you got cold, just throw another kid on top, his momma always said.
While John Henry worked the coal mines and later laid track on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad to put food on the table, Rhoda ruled the house with an iron fist, teaching the children to watch out for each other but making sure they didn't get into any unnecessary fights.
If you picked on one Funderburg, you got to feel the force of 10.
Rhoda spent the summers growing fruits and vegetables in her garden so she could can them for winter.
When those ran out, family meals consisted of biscuits for breakfast, cornbread for lunch and cornbread for dinner.
“Daddy had a third-grade education, and Momma had a fifth-grade education,” Stanley said. “In those days you had to work to eke out a living, but us kids never knew any better. We were always happy. We never knew how hard Mom and Dad worked to give us the little that we had.”
The oldest son, OC, joined the Civil Conservation Corps before the start of World War II to get a little money flowing for the family. Cutting down trees and fighting wildfires, he was able to help pay $35 for the family's house.
When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, OC was the first of the boys to be drafted, working throughout World War II on a B-17 bomber in Alaska and parts of Canada.
OC would just be the start of the family's military history, as every Funderburg boy followed in his footsteps.
For God and country, Mom and Dad
When James Funderburg saw his brother with his head wrapped up like a mummy, he knew immediately that he was gonna be in trouble back home.
Just days earlier, Bennie Funderburg had been injured while his company helped take the town of Rosario in the Philippines in spring of 1944.
A mortar round was fired from what defenses the town had left, and Bennie took shrapnel wounds to his body and head.
As the older of the two boys stationed together and the third oldest of eight, James was going to have to explain to Mom and Dad why his younger brother had gotten hurt.
“You get a lot of pressure from your mother and father when it comes to being the older brother in a war,” James said. “Mom would ask why I wasn't taking care of my brother. Of course she had no idea what we were going through in combat or anything else. When we were together, I guess I didn't really think of my own safety as much as I was always thinking about Bennie's.”
Bennie was sent to the hospital infirmary while James, who was a platoon sergeant over the light machine guns in a rifle company, was mobilized to another position to help protect a dam that was coming under heavy artillery fire.
James watched as another platoon tried to change positions during the battle and were struck, killing dozens and sending shrapnel flying in all directions.
James' head was struck with a piece that dented his helmet.
“Things like that were always happening,” James said. “I wouldn't report my injuries because I didn't want to put any more stress on my parents than they already had.”
But as the wounded were taken back to the infirmary, one of the soldiers told Bennie that James had died in the battle.
Distraught, Bennie left the hospital immediately to find out the truth.
While trying to make his way to James, he found his brother returning to base. He ran full out in his hospital gown, tears in his eyes, thankful his brother was alive.
“I heard you got killed, and I came to check on you,” Bennie said. “I had to know what to say to Mother and Father and tell them what happened.”
With his backside exposed to the world through the opening of a hospital gown, Bennie stood hugging his brother without shame.
Six of the boys served during World War II, three served during the Korean War. James and OC continued to serve through the Vietnam War.
Try as the brothers might to look after one another, death and war are two inseparable friends.
On Nov. 12, 1943, Floyd Funderburg, who fought in the China Burma India Theater, was returning from a successful bomb run where his plane had flown near the Burma Road.
Flying back out of New Delhi, they were attacked by a dozen or more Japanese Zero fighter planes.
“An eyewitness account said their plane got hit and crashed and exploded into a million pieces,” James said. “They listed him as Missing In Action for more than a year, and that gave us some hope.”
Stationed together in the South Pacific, James and Bennie said they didn't have much time to grieve for their brother since they were fighting battles of their own.
But back home in Wilburton, Stanley remembers the effect it had on his family.
“I was 10 when the war started, and at that time all you did was draw airplanes and shoot Japanese planes down when you were playing,” he said. “We had hope for a long time that he would be found but I remember it being so hard on Mom and Dad. Losing one and having others deployed was incredibly difficult. It was a very trying time with four kids at home and five away at war.”
James said having Bennie with him was an added comfort most soldiers didn't have, but he also lived for the letters from home, especially when they had a special note from one of the younger kids.
Back in Wilburton before the threat of war ever made its way into the small town of about 2,000, the older Funderburg boys loved to play tricks on little Stanley like any older brothers would.
Bennie would tell him to climb a tree only to run away and leave him at the top, James would grab onto his wrist and tell him he would never see his mother or father again, and all of them made him sleep at the bottom of pile when going to bed so he'd have to smell everyone's stinky feet.
“I had a master's degree in psychology by the age of 12,” Stanley said. “Ever trick in the book I had played on me, but it made me tough and I always knew they had my back if anything ever went south.”
So when Stanley would scribble a message at the bottom of his mother's letters to his brothers, it was usually the highlight for the men.
“The thing that kept me going during that time with Floyd was the letters I got from home,” James said as his voice begins to crack. “The little notes in there from the younger kids would always crack you up especially knowing Stanley and how we would play tricks on him. But to get a little comment from him ... it was special.”
For the next 35 years, a Funderburg would be serving the U.S. as James continued to serve through all three wars, eventually rising to and retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Stanley was stationed in Germany and served with his brother, Jack, under the orders of their brother, Charles, during the Korean War.
Lewis, Bennie and Charles went on to careers in oil and gas, OC retired from the Air Force after a 30-year career, Jack retired as the high school principal in Hennessey, and Stanley wound up coaching football, track and teaching at various high schools in the state.
Norma Jean, Stanley, Jack, Bennie and James are still living today, with all but Bennie still living in the state.
Their time serving in the military are some of the moments they still remember the most fondly, the camaraderie between their fellow soldiers from across the U.S., and the celebration they received when they returned home are memories they think about most.
James said he'll never forget the pride in his dad's voice when he would show off his sons in uniform on main street in Wilburton.
“Dad didn't know much about how the military worked,” he said. “But he was always beaming when he was able to show us off to others. To tell them that these are my sons, those moments are ones I'll never forget.”
Now when Stanley watches a soldier homecoming, he thinks about the massive celebrations he and his brothers received when returning from the service.
“People were dancing in the streets when the war was over,” he said. “That touches the very soul of what it's all about, the theme of sacrifice, you're talking about human bodies, and it breaks me up when I see these guys leaving or coming home. I want to talk with them; I want to know what their stories are.
“We think of our time as a tribute to our mother and dad, the sacrifices that they made.”