‘Travels with Charlie’ by Charlie Coon
He is shuddering. Shoulders uncontrollably lurch as he stands to speak to her. He is crying and the tears come from a childhood place. Deep emotion ushers forth in words to her. He isn’t facing the grave marker. He stands beside it as if she is in a bed there and can hear every word.
Florentine Blue Thunder has made this Memorial Day Weekend journey every year since Rose Stewart died in 2003. Florentine drove from Valentine, Nebraska to the Black Hills National Cemetery near Sturgis, SD so he could be at Rose’s side. His father’s sister joined her brother in the military during World War II. Rose was a nurse. She helped many, many injured soldiers hospitalized in Germany and France. Rose spent the rest of her life serving veterans as a nurse for 30 years at a South Dakota VA Hospital and volunteering at the American Legion post on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
The Black Hills National Cemetery is situated on more than 100 acres and the Department of Veterans Affairs reports approximately 680 burials on the site each year. This is the homeland of Lakota Sioux Indians who lived here before the arrival of Europeans in the mid-18th century.
After time alone with the spirit of his father’s sister Florentine agreed to remember his Lakota family matriarch with me. We share a part of that conversation here sandwiched between staggering rows of white markers memorializing thousands who wore the uniform and served America.
Be advised the cemetery is very near Interstate 90 in western South Dakota. Florentine Blue Thunder is a soft spoken man and the highway din is strong so you’ll have to adjust your system speakers and ears accordingly:
Veterans and spouses are provided burial benefits at no cost in the Black Hills National Cemetery. Grave assignments are made without regard to rank, ethnic or religious background, branch of service or other factors. The cemetery is open to the public daily from sunrise to sunset.
‘Travels with Charlie’ is a series of features by Charlie Coon produced exclusively for the Wrangler Network. Using the penname Curtis Scott, Mr. Coon has provided stories for the past 20 years to such outlets as The History Channel Magazine, American Heritage and the Denver Post. He is based in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he serves as coordinator for the state of Wyoming’s cowboy marketing program. Coon and cameraman Mike McCrimmon put together news, sports, and human interest features on a semi-regular basis for TV stations in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.