My brothers and I grew up during the 1950s and 60s in Albert Lea, Minnesota. (pop. 20,000.) Our family home, built in 1912, was a four-story rambling, wooden clapboard structure that proudly sat on a hill overlooking Fountain Lake. The lake is six miles of bays, inlets, coves and channels, and old trees that grace the shoreline. Mom and Dad fell in love with this house because Fountain Lake was visible from every room. Conversely, from anywhere on the lake, the house was as prominent as a lighthouse, and served the same purpose, guiding our family home.
As far back as I can remember Fountain Lake was the stage for important holidays and celebrations: The day the winter ice melted, the first and last day of summer vacation, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, the first and last water ski run, and the last sail before the boats were pulled out for the winter. Most of the thousands of family photographs of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and proms were taken with Fountain Lake as the backdrop.
Memories of one annual event, however, live not in photos but in our hearts.
Every Memorial Day, Dad would get up just as the sun was rising and drive—alone—to the small airport near our home. When my mother, brothers and I heard him, we would get up, look outside, hope that the skies were clear, and the winds calm. Then we would walk out and sit on the hill in our backyard and wait for the drone of an airplane engine.
As it became louder, sounding like a baritone lawnmower grinding its way through grass that had grown too tall, we looked up to locate Dad’s 1941 Stearman biplane in the sky. He was flying low, maybe 1000 feet. We could see the bright blue fuselage and sun yellow wings. The plane had an open cockpit so we could see our father in his well-worn, dark brown leather cap with earflaps and chin strap. His favorite stuffed Snoopy dog, dressed as an aviator, always made this trip with him.
None of us kids did. He said it was something he had to do on his own. Dad would fly over our home, tip his wings to all of us waving to him from the hill, then nose the plane down, descend a couple of hundred feet, and head toward Fountain Lake. His mission: to drop a wreath of fresh flowers into the lake in memory of the men and women he served with in WWII.
Dad had been a fighter pilot based in England and considered himself fortunate to have survived his many missions.
After the drop we watched the red, white, and blue chrysanthemums bob and float on the surface. Sometimes there was a slight breeze that, combined with the reflecting sun, produced a shimmer on the water that created a halo for the flowers. Boaters who used the lake on Memorial Day always steered around the wreath, water skiers made sure they avoided it. When it got close to the small dam at one end of the lake, someone would pull it back and reposition it in the middle of the lake. Everyone was respectful of that little wreath, and we were in awe of our father.
Every Memorial Day when we gathered on the hill behind our house to watch Dad drop his wreath, we were reminded what defined his life.