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Moments Everlasting: Veterans Day Evokes Memories Afield With Father

November 7, 2012

Ernie Springer visited the Korean Veterans War Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2008. Credit: Courtesy Craig Springer
Photo Caption: Ernie Springer visited the Korean Veterans War Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2008. Credit: Courtesy Craig Springer

The elevator’s bell rang a sharp brassy ding. The doors opened to a view of downtown Albuquerque through the huge plate-glass windows. Outside in the cold wind around the corner from my office, ironworkers were hard at work. 

Passing by, I turned up my coat collar and heard the men hollering. One gave orders to a crane operator. The clomp of mallet on metal filled the air. Like a sculptor shapes clay, these guys turned a tangle of iron and concrete into a downtown building. A young man probably 10 years my junior worked near the street. He heaved heavy re-bar onto his shoulder. His tool belt hung low on his waist from the weight of a spud wrench and his clothes were flecked with burns from welding. His hard hat sported the Union Ironworkers emblem. My heart swelled. 

My dad made ironwork his career. Ernie Springer walked the I-beams of tall buildings in the making, erected bridges, and did fine brasswork trim on occasion. As a youngster, I couldn’t fully know how hard he worked, but I appreciate my dad now more than ever. 

In the summer dad would come home from work, lunch box in hand, covered in dirt and no doubt tired. Still he somehow had the energy to take me fishing on many evenings. Spending time outdoors was always a priority. I recall summer nights with the shadows getting longer while we hoped for one more bluegill. Dad made it a point that I know the outdoors life. When I got big enough, he introduced me to quail, pheasant and rabbit hunting. He was right there with me on a steep hillside when I took my first game, a fat bushy-tailed fox squirrel. Those small moments became everlasting.

Those fleeting moments are all I have left now of my dad. When Veterans Day comes around he is heavy in my heart. He died the day before Veterans Day in 2009, leaving me with many memories and a dearth of answers to questions I never got to ask. Some of those questions arose after his passing.

Sixty years ago, dad was on the front lines in the Korean War, a member of the U.S. Army’s famous Second Infantry Division. His unit was well inside North Korea, and it was a meat-grinder experience, vicious and unspeakably violent, heightened by brutally cold weather. His time in North Korea was something he simply wouldn’t discuss at length. 

Corporal Ernie Springer, right, was drafted from New Mexico at age 22. Credit: Courtesy Craig Springer
Photo Caption: Corporal Ernie Springer, right, was drafted from New Mexico at age 22. Credit: Courtesy Craig Springer

But he couldn’t hide his limp. An enemy grenade earned him a Purple Heart. Only on the day of his military committal at the Santa Fe National Cemetery did we learn that he had earned a Presidential Citation. Like most real heroes, he remained tight-lipped. Through watery eyes six decades after the fact, he once simply remarked, “It was so cold.” 

The Second Infantry Division fought in rugged mountainous terrain that typified Korea. With great reserve, dad once shared that during a month-long battle known as “Heartbreak Ridge,” a grenade exploded in his squad, wounding him and another, while two enlisted men next to him lost their lives; some 3,700 men on our side died on Heartbreak in a month’s time. 

Dad went from a soldier’s steel pot to an ironworker’s hard hat after the war, and he loved his work. Even to his last days, dad showed his fidelity. He identified himself in two ways—a Second Infantry  Division soldier and an Ironworker. He commonly wore a Korean Veteran hat or jacket emblazoned with the Union Ironworker logo.

A Seoul-born pastor whom dad admired officiated his military committal at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. He read Psalm 23 from the very snow-stained Bible that dad carried in combat. The preacher remarked that dad had walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” carrying a carbine. He added that without the sacrifice of Americans, there would be no South Korea. 

The sacrifice was large. According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, 54,246 Americans died in the 37 months of the Korean War; the number is engraved on the Korean Veterans War Memorial in Washington, D.C. The monument also has these words etched in reflective polished stone: “Freedom is not Free.” Freedom comes at a tremendous cost and in the color of crimson.

Dad was proud to have served in the Second Infantry Division, and he was a dad second to none. As another Veterans Day comes and goes, and as a father of three children myself, dad’s devotion to country, family and to his chosen work sit with me as guiding examples. I am reminded of what Gifford Pinchot, the founder of the U.S. Forest Service, wrote in his book, Fishing Talk. “Whenever you go, and whenever you can, take the youngster along.”

That’s a good guidepost for parents of future conservationists. And remember, those small passing moments rightly made can become moments everlasting.

Second Infantry Division soldiers are currently deployed in Afghanistan and Korea.

By Craig Springer, a fish biologist in the Division of Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Conservation and an editor of Eddies magazine. . 

Last updated: November 7, 2012
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