GREENFIELD, Iowa | Two old soldiers greet each other as light rain falls north of Greenfield on Tuesday morning, the day after Memorial Day.
“Thanks for your service,” Jerry Aschoff, of Madison, Neb., says to Dan King, of Loveland, Colo.
King extends his hand and says, “Thanks for thanking me.”
The two U.S. Army veterans meet by chance, drawn to this quiet spot on the east side of Highway 25 some 1.5 miles south of Interstate 80. It’s where a 60- to 90-ton boulder has been the focal point for generations, first for graffiti and, for the past 17 years, for the patriotic place it holds in Iowa.
This is Freedom Rock, a magnet for Memorial Day and beyond.
The rock shows the handiwork of artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II, of Greenfield. Sorensen spends most of May at this site, applying his thoughts, talents and $2,000 worth of paint to create patriotic vignettes that keep drawing visitors.
When I reach Sorensen by phone on Memorial Day, he’s at the site greeting visitors. Hundreds stop by on Monday, many of them scribbling name and hometown on a blue spiral notebook Sorensen keeps next to a donation jar in a lean-to shelter.
“I’m out here meeting people, hearing what they have to say,” says Sorensen.
The 2015 edition features a serviceman carrying the U.S. on his shoulders. The shape of the continental U.S. is painted in red, white and blue and features, “Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness,” unalienable rights as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence.
Our fighting men and women, Sorensen says, carry that burden into battle.
The east quarter features the “Immortal Chaplains,” four U.S. Army chaplains who died while serving aboard the SS Dorchester troop ship when it sank on Feb. 3, 1943. The chaplains gave up their life jackets to help save others. They reportedly joined arms, prayed and sang hymns while going down with their ship.
The chaplains included the Rev. George Fox, a Methodist minister; Reform Rabbi Alexander D. Goode; the Rev. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; and the Rev. Clark V. Poling, a minister with the Reformed Church in America.
“I also try to share some pieces of military history at Freedom Rock,” Sorensen says.
This edition also has a likeness of Carlos Hathcock II, a gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and one of the most successful U.S. snipers in history, and a nod to the Combat Action Program, a U.S. Marine Corps effort in Vietnam in which soldiers helped residents of South Vietnam secure food and housing while protecting their villages against Communists from North Vietnam.
“Their combat pin is on the lapel of the Marine,” Sorensen says. “Six of the men in that program met here on Saturday.”
Aschoff and King meet on Tuesday. Unlike the scheduled reunion, these two didn’t know each other and hadn’t served together. They just happened by this site in the middle of a damp morning, very much by chance.
“We were coming from Des Moines and we’d never stopped here before,” Aschoff says. “This is pretty impressive.”
King, who is with his wife and grandchildren, echoes the sentiment. He takes a picture and then heads to the shelter to duck from the rain. And to catch up with Aschoff, while offering his thanks.