The Good Fight
Carter County Answers the Call to Send Its WWII Veterans to the Memorial
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2004; Page C01
Calling Frank Capra.
We have a story for him. It's about the day Carter County in rural eastern Kentucky came to Washington. It's about yesterday, at the National World War II Memorial.
Unplug your cynicism, get out your hankies, close your eyes. Picture some ideal America of unambiguous wars abroad and neighbors sacrificing to help each other at home. An America where our best "Friends" aren't television characters, and the nation does not need to apologize.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A while back, the people of Carter County resolved to raise enough money to send every World War II veteran in the county on a free trip to see the memorial. Never mind that there's not a lot of disposable income in the rolling foothills of the Appalachians. No matter that those folks had already raised $5,000 to help get the memorial built.
People pitched in any way they could. Retired teacher Bee Pope gave up her annual trip to Las Vegas and donated $500. The children of Prichard Elementary had a "penny war" -- the classroom collecting the most pennies would win pizza -- and raised $2,100. Seventh-graders at East Carter County Middle School recycled soda cans and raised $600. Banjo picker and cabinetmaker Tony Collier donated the proceeds from a bluegrass festival, about $5,000, and he refinished a vintage M-1 rifle that was raffled off for about $2,200. Families who lost loved ones asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the veterans fund. There were bake sales, radio campaigns, surprise checks in the mail.
Farming, construction, teaching the children, burying the dead are some of the careers available in Carter County, population 26,889. There's a new food processing plant coming. Grayson, the county seat and largest city, has 3,877 residents. The mean household income is $26,427. Nearly one in five residents lives below the poverty line. But Carter County raised $50,000 to send its veterans to Washington.
The 438-mile journey began Thursday morning. What a send-off -- they told us about it.
It began in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Grayson. Four generations of Carter County people boarded four buses and accompanying cars -- 66 veterans and 184 friends, spouses, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, 250 passengers in all. The cargo holds were stacked with wheelchairs as well as luggage. (A few Mason jars of east Kentucky moonshine came along. Clear as water. Souvenirs for their hosts.)
A state senator said a prayer and a high school band played the national anthem.
The caravan began a slow and wonderful procession through and out of Grayson. People thronged the sidewalks waving flags and cheering the veterans on their journey. The buses motored past schools and businesses that had raised money for the trip. The children came out waving flags and cheering.
Police cars with lights flashing escorted the buses to the West Virginia border, about 40 miles from Grayson.
The display made the veterans and their families on the buses cry.
A church in Covington, Va., opened its doors to give them lunch. And for the trip home tomorrow, city officials in Staunton, Va., promised a lunch at a VFW Post catered by Wal-Mart. Such are acts of kindness from strangers who have been hearing the saga of Carter County sending its veterans to Washington.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company