The Cottonwood and the Little Boy
Editor’s note: The following Memorial Day address was given by Legionnaire Richard Wilfahrt in 1984 at the New Ulm, Minnesota cemetery and was sent to us by Richard and Mary Niemann.
“Hello there, little boy. How are you? I can feel your warm hands trying to reach around me as many other boys, years before you, tried to do. But, I’m a big tree – 18 feet around my girth, 6 feet thick and almost 80 feet tall! For a cottonwood tree, 80 feet doesn’t seem high but I have been taller, and it’s only because Mr. Otto Oswald had me topped that I am not. My last haircut cost him $100. I have stood in front of his house, where he lived, here in New Ulm for almost 130 years. Once I was a little seed, not much bigger than the seed you were when you were planted in your mother’s womb. The wind took me from my parent tree and planted me in the wilderness which was the beginning of New Ulm back in the year 1854. In 1858, when I was your size, a kind man by the name of Mr. Behnke adopted me and put me where I now stand. Just four years after that. the Indians came and almost destroyed my city, but we both survived that war of 1862. Not long after that, the city wanted to put in the first sidewalk fashioned from the likes of me. But, Mr. Behnke loved me so much that he charged out of his home with a gun and dared the men to cut me down. His threat held sway – my life was spared, and the sidewalk was built around me. Because of his love for me, I shaded him for many years.
“I watched the progress of the ‘City Beautiful.’ I have seen the dirt streets turned into wooden block streets, and finally into the paved avenues of today. I have seen small wooden buildings replaced by strong brick ones and, I’m sorry to say, I have seen some of them eaten by fire. You might think that fire and lightning might have struck me down but the good Lord protected me. Wind, hail, snow, rain and storm all molested me but never overwhelmed me. Young lovers have passed under my limbs in the dead of night to steal a kiss.
“In 1898, 1917, 1941,1950 and again in the 1960’s, I watched with a saddened heart as the young men I cherished so dearly marched and walked under me to depart for the greatest manmade curse the world has ever known – war! I silenced for a moment when the New Ulm National Guard left for Camp Hahn in 1941, and again when Captain Al Polta led the guard to the railroad station during the Korean war. Some of them never came back alive and on a clear day I can see the emerald green cemetery that has swallowed them and which is now their final resting place. How well I remember their warm hands as little boys as they comforted me in the cold Minnesota winters. Every year on Memorial Day, men march under me to commemorate and remember these brave men who were willing to give up their lives so that you and I might still be free. I remember John Laudon and Jake Klossner who went off to war when we fought among ourselves so that we might remain a united nation. I remember Fremond Eibner, Sr. who went to fight the Spanish in Cuba at the end of the 19th century. I remember Charlie Wilfahrt who was part of the Company that relieved the ‘Lost Battalion’ in World War I. They weren’t really lost, it was just that they were given up as lost because they were surrounded by the German army, and when the Germans called out to them to surrender, they replied, ‘Gehen Sie Zu Der Teufel!’ (go you to the devil!).’ Their love for their country was so strong that they held out against overwhelming odds until they were relieved. I remember James Gerber, Leonard Saffert, Roland Domeier and many others during World War II. It was in March of 1942, when Otto Seifert, Jr. was having a few farewell drinks with two of his friends at the old South Side Tavern next to me. Otto was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and he was leaving for the South Pacific for war. A few months after that farewell word came back that Otto was shot down. I remember Captain Willibald Bianchi who fought at Corregidor and was in the death march of Bataan. He survived that only to lose his life as a prisoner of war on a Japanese ship that was sunk by the Americans. I remember George Schuck, Jr., Charlie Fast, and Robert Niemann (Otto Oswald’s grandson) who lost their lives in Korea. I remember Henry Polzin who lost his life in the steaming jungles of Vietnam.
“One day, during the Korean War, a father and son paused under my branches. The soldier son was leaving for Korea. The father cupped his son’s shoulders with his beefy hands and said, ‘I never seem to find the time to tell you this -1 love you.’ ‘I love you, too, dad.’ And with that they parted forever for you see, little boy, that son is listed as ‘Missing in Action.’ Year after year, that father pauses beneath me. His walk is slower, his shoulders bent, his hair almost white, and I can hear him say, ‘I love you, son.’ And a voice far away seems to say, ‘I love you, too, dad.’
“The sap in my veins quickens as I hear the band each Memorial Day. I witnessed many parades but this one is always my favorite because it’s like a homecoming – time to reflect on the ones who gave their lives for you and me. Many others also served honorably and were fortunate to return home alive and live a useful life. These I remember, also.
“But one of the greatest friends that I have ever known, I lost about 10 years ago in 1974. He watched over me for several decades and although he was 90 years old, he still was young enough to be my son. That was the man I spoke of earlier, who gave me that $100 haircut, Mr. Otto Oswald. He was a kind man who not only looked after his family, but kept in touch with his friends and helped with New Ulm’s civic affairs. He proved that a good life can be lived and that his fellow men will respect him for it. I was very sad at losing such a good friend because for many years I shaded him in front of his house. I loved him and he loved me, too. When spring comes each year I miss the touch of his wrinkled hands. But I let the sap flow up the veins once more and bear the greenest leaves in his honor. I do not know how many more years I can do this since I, too, and growing old and tired.
“Little boy, there are many men like Mr. Oswald who have lived and loved New Ulm. Many of them never had to put on a uniform but they loved their country just as well and served in other ways. Sometimes they felt uncomfortable when their friends talked of their war experiences, but I know they were patriotic and loved the same flag.
“But lastly, little boy, I remember the mothers, the wives, the sweethearts, the sisters and brothers and the children of these men who served their country. The soldier and the sailor would receive the Purple Heart medal when he was killed or wounded in action. But there was no medal, no decoration, for these women whose hearts labored with sadness when they heard that a loved one had been killed or wounded. Death is final but the wounds inflicted on these women would last a lifetime. Just as your mother prays for you, little boy, these women prayed for the safe return of their husbands, brothers, fathers and boyfriends. Truly, these women were just as much a part of war as were their men. Sometimes some of them would stop in my shadow and talk about where their men were serving and it made me happy to hear that they were still alive, but sad that their men were dirtied with the awful task of war. When you grow up, be sure to tell everybody how I miss them – but more importantly, don’t ever forget them and what they did.
“Yes, little boy, I am much older and wiser than you. I hope that you won’t have all the heartaches that I have had and that you won’t have to go off to war, but if you do, do as I do every day – 1 look up to Heaven and put my trust in God.
“I have to leave you now because here comes the Memorial Day parade and I don’t want to miss a chance to salute the red, the white and the blue and say a prayer for its safety.”