Dear Mr. Flagman,

Back in December, the day after Christmas, I received a message on Facebook from someone I did not recognize. It was late and I was in bed unable to sleep. I read it and looked at the accompanying photo and my heart fluttered and I sat up. Memories flooded my mind. Yes, yes I do remember this, I quickly wrote back.

When we moved to Huntsville, I was 9 and my brother was 12. Deddy drove us to school every day. In Hattiesburg, we had always ridden Ms. Peacock’s bus so having our own person ride was pretty amazing. I have a lot of memories of these trips across town.

Many good ones, like when it was my turn in the front seat and I could have all the AC vents blowing my direction and when I was older and it was just me, the occasional Hardees drive thru for a plain biscuit, if I was ready extra early that morning.

Some not so good, like the time Deddy dropped me off at the kindergarten drop-off because I was acting like one. Yes, the whole safety patrol and crossing guards were there to witness! (I was in 9th grade at the time)

And the many trips he threw packing peanuts out the door when I got out of the car, such a regular spectacle that my friends would gather to watch me being dropped off. His secretary had packed his tiny Toyota full to the brim with packing peanuts. I had made the mistake of asking him to drop me off at a rarely used door because I was embarrassed. Then I made the mistake of cleaning out the entire car to avoid this happening, but missed some under my seat so he would reach waaayyy under to retrieve a handful to throw out his window as he drove away. No matter how fast I got out of the car the peanuts would follow.

Maybe there were more not so good memories. Deddy would probably disagree.

This particular memory, I was in the 5th grade, it was 1979. On the way to school we passed by a tire shop that most days timed exactly when they were setting up for the day. A man would be rolling out tires to stack up and placing flags around the perimeter. It became a regular topic of discussion. If the flags were already up we would look at the clock thinking we were late or if the flags weren’t up yet we would be early or maybe the flagman was having a slow start. We’d speculate on what delayed him or made him early. But most days he was busy carrying around the large bundle of flags making his way. Deddy started talking about how consistent the man was, I talked about how heavy those flags looked.

One day Deddy suggested I write him to tell him what a good job he does.

So I did.

I always had a nice selection of Current Catalog stationaries. I remember picking one out with lines because I always had a tendency (still do) to write with a slant. The only lined one left, didn’t have a matching envelope. I remember thinking on this. Maybe even asking mom. I can hear her saying, he won’t care about that. Why do children ponder these things and remember them 40 years later?

I wrote it and mailed it. It was March 1979. I remember wondering if he got it yet as we drove by the next day. And the next.

Some time later sitting in Mrs. Ferrell’s 5th grade class, I was told that the Flagman had come to my school to thank me for the letter. The principle passed on the Flagman’s thanks to me and then called my parents to tell them of the visit. I remember being slightly embarrassed, thrilled and maybe a little scared that he had come to thank me. We talked about this at the dinner table that night.

The next day I looked closer at the man putting up the flags.

Years went by and I would still find myself glancing that way, noticing the flags getting dirty and worn and then being replaced with new ones and then one day eventually no flags at all.

December 26, 2020 and I open the Facebook message. It was from Hila saying her grandfather-in-law had passed away and they were going thru his files and found this letter in his desk drawer. She had put it aside to see if she could find me and return it.

She wondered if I even remember writing it.

Of course I remembered it! I really couldn’t wait to call Deddy the next morning and tell him about it. He remembered it too. I started thinking that Dan would have been in the car too as he was in middle school so I asked him. Do you remember the tire company we would pass on the way to school, Haywood Tires? His response was yes, didn’t you write them a letter?

The next day I received a call from Deddy. He had been thinking about the letter I sent. He said when you reach out to someone, you never know what that kindness does to a person. In his life, he had someone reach out to him out of the blue and the words of encouragement he received changed him forever, they were received in a time when he needed them most. And that person never knew the impact her words had on him. He had since prayed that he would be able to do that to someone else and never know. He liked to think my letter must have done the same for the Flagman.

In early January I received my letter returned to me some 42 years later. Enclosed a handwritten letter from Phylis, the daughter of the Flagman, who owned and operated Haywood Tire Company, and his granddaughter, Catherine.

Their words so sweet. The kindness to write them. The warmth I felt reading them. And reading again.

Phylis sent me a friend request and I went back through her feed to see if she had something about her dad’s passing so I could learn a little about him. This is what I found.

We buried Dad yesterday during a very small graveside ceremony. His daughter, some grandchildren, a “grandspouse,” and a son-in-law worked together to provide music and to stream the ceremony so friends and relatives could “attend” from the safety of their homes. Dad’s wonderful friends served as pall bearers; they also coordinated a stirring flyover of the type of plane Dad trained in during World War II. A bugler played Taps, a vocalist sang, the flag was folded and presented to a daughter–it was a lovely ceremony despite the interference of Covid-19 which forced us to have a very small gathering. Thank you to everyone who participated in any way, and thank you to everyone who sent flowers and cards or donated in Dad’s memory. Proper thank you notes are coming, but I wanted to thank you here, too. I know Dad would have been touched and humbled by the beautiful ceremony and the generous outpouring of love.

And another post.

My wonderful dad isn’t here this Veterans’ Day (he passed away in August at the age of 94), but he was a WWII veteran, a Naval Aviator. I’m very proud of him, not just because he was a veteran but also because he was a man of integrity, strength, generosity, and compassion. He was a good person who grew up during a tough time, and he learned to be tough on the outside and kind on the inside. We didn’t agree on everything, but I learned a lot from him that I still use today. I always try to behave in a way that would make him proud of me. I love you, Dad. Thank you for being the man–and the dad–you were.

I had written a hero.

I wish I had met him.

I know I would have liked him and I would have thanked him and told him about our own hero, Pappy.

I’m thankful that Deddy suggested I write him. I’m so thankful that Hila took the time to find me and for Facebook that connected us. And for Phylis and Catherine writing to thank me, so I would know how my letter touched the Flagman.

xo Katey

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