On Memorial Day weekend my thoughts turn to Jerry Coleman, and if that’s the case, raise a glass for Max Harper.
Somewhere between the tsunami of Memorial Day ads hawking beer, tires and pickup trucks, remember Harper.
I’ve never forgotten Harper after spending an afternoon talking with Coleman, the late Padres icon and World War II and the Korean War veteran. Harper’s memory always burns bright, but especially this weekend when honoring America’s bravest.
Is there anything more significant than acknowledging men and woman sacrificing their lives for people they don’t know?
I didn’t know Max Harper. I do now because of Coleman, and yeah, I miss The Colonel, just like you.
But when chatting with Coleman, you never called him a hero — despite him being one. It mattered to Coleman that you get it right.
“The only heroes I know are all dead — period,” Coleman told me years ago. “They are the heroes.”
You can hang a gold star on Coleman’s words as they still ring true.
Those men and women we mourn from military conflicts is Monday’s focus: not Coleman, not my dedicated father, Jack Paris, who served on the USS Colorado during World War II, not the current military members — God bless ’em, just the same.
Monday was, is and should always be special, as a grateful nation bows its heads on a day which, to me, is the most sacred of the year’s 365.
My dad, now 88, was an 18-year-old loading guns hugging the USS Colorado when a Kamikaze pilot smacked into the glorious ship in the Pacific Theater. A Navy man serving the same role as my dad — but on the ship’s opposite side — paid the ultimate price that day.
My dad isn’t sure of his name, just of his courage, guts, commitment, and that he is no longer here. Somewhere that man’s family still misses him, a hole in their heart that aches to this day.
Coleman, my favorite Padre, knows the name of the American giving his life. Every day since Coleman lost him, he kept him close to his heart: Max Harper. Except Harper has company on Memorial Day, and Coleman wished he didn’t.
“I had eight friends that died and I tear up every time I think about it,” Coleman said.
But Harper stands above them, in that he was Coleman’s tent mate. In that Coleman saw his final moments. In that Coleman had to deliver the news to Harper’s wife, confirming that, yes, the father of her children wouldn’t be there to help raise them.
“Max Harper blew up in front of me in Korea,” said Coleman, the only Major-Leaguer to see combat there and in World War II. “I can still see the face.”
We all can, really. A strong, strapping young American pilot willing to go headfirst into battle, the consequences be damned. But Harper, like thousands of others, didn’t make it home.
Coleman was among the lucky ones. He always touched down from his 120 missions, earning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Air Medals and three Navy Citations.
But Coleman, who lost some four seasons with the Yankees fighting for the U.S., shrugs that off like Padres often do potential rallies. He remembers something more important that runners left on base – Marine pals left behind.
Especially Max Harper.
When Coleman returned from Korea in 1953, the Yankees honored him with “Jerry Coleman Day”. That morning, Coleman’s hotel phone rang.
“The voice said, ‘I’m Max Harper’s brother-in-law and his wife is here and wants to talk to you,’’’ Coleman said.
Mrs. Harper wanted confirmation that her husband had died. She clung to the hope he landed, survived and was a prisoner of war. Coleman, with a baseball-sized lump in his throat, told her otherwise.
“His plane blew up and I turned around and watched him all the way in,’’ Coleman said. “I knew he was dead and I had to tell this poor woman with five kids that her husband was dead.’’ But not forgotten — especially on Monday.
“There are so many Marine heroes that gave their lives for their friends,” Coleman said. And he need not say anything more.
If Coleman was here — his impact certainly is — Monday wouldn’t be about him. There would be one name to remember. One that, when Coleman told this heartbreaking story, made his eyes misty.
My eyes mimicked Coleman’s and I’m not ashamed to say so. What would be embarrassing if American treasures like Max Harper are forgotten.
So while scampering about this Memorial Day weekend, take along an American hero: Max Harper.