SIOUX CITY | A sharp man who takes but a few minutes each day to breeze through the Journal's crossword puzzle pauses when asked to describe Memorial Day.
He acts like he's stumped.
"Hmmm," Eldon Stolpe says, looking down and rubbing his chin. "You got another question?"
Stolpe, 92, has spent the past few days attempting to come up with just the right space within which he can place a Memorial Day definition. He'll try Friday, the official ambassador who stands at the podium, giving a short talk to start the fifth annual Remembrance Run/Walk at 5:45 p.m. at the Norm Waitt Sr. YMCA in South Sioux City.
The four-hour event brings veterans, their families and the public together as the Memorial Day weekend begins. The occasion, hosted by the Missouri River Runners, raises funds for the new Siouxland Freedom Park in South Sioux City. That's where the run/walk comes to a close at 9:45 p.m., at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
Fireworks follow at 10 p.m.
Fireworks. That's a place where Stolpe might begin his talk. July 4 fireworks in his family cease shortly after World War II. Brother Ray Stolpe, a U.S. Marine and the youngest of five Stolpe brothers to serve overseas in World War II, no longer wants explosive reminders of his life-threatening service in places like Saipan.
Ray Stolpe was a catcher of some acclaim during his youth in tiny Obert, Neb. He used his baseball throwing arm to unload grenades as an 18-year-old fighting for his life, and life as the free world knew it, 70 years ago.
"Ray is the story of our family," Eldon Stolpe says. "He didn't finish high school. He was so young that our folks had to sign him in (for military duty). He was a forward observer and, at one point, had something like 1,000 dead Japanese in front of him."
For weeks at a time, the Stolpes didn't know if Ray was alive, dead or missing. By the grace of God, he came home and, in today's vernacular, would likely be diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
"Our family never did fireworks on July 4," Eldon Stolpe says. "That was our first inclination he had trouble."
Ray Stolpe, who later wrote "Big Blue Ablaze," about his experiences in the Pacific Theater, died years ago, as did the oldest brother, Ken Stolpe, who served with the military police in Italy during World War II.
Three Stolpe brothers are still living: Arvid, 97, who served in England during the war, resides in Rapid City, South Dakota; Cliff, 90, who met the Russian Army as a member of the U.S. Army 69th Infrantry, lives in Bella Vista, Arkansas; and Eldon, 92, a Sioux Cityan, who patched bombers and dodged bullets in Europe seven decades ago as a corporal in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
"I don't know how my mother did it," Eldon says of a woman wrestling with the unthinkable thoughts that accompany five sons fighting abroad.
His father, Emanuel Stolpe, drove from Obert to Sioux City in search of a piece of leather to fix a shoe at some point during the war. The clerk, apparently, dismissed the request amid a period of war-time rations. Turning to the elder Stolpe, the clerk allegedly said, "Leather? Hey, mister, don't you know there's a war on?"
Emanuel Stolpe was all too aware.
Eldon Stolpe thinks of the story on this weekend of remembrance. He also reflects on the life of U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Marvin H. Apking, an Obert native who served as a co-pilot on a B-17 bomber.
Seventy-one years ago this Sunday, Apking's bomber was shot down. He was killed in action.
During a 2004 trip to Europe to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, Stolpe found Apking's grave in Belgium. He stepped back from the white stone. He saluted.
He visited Normandy and knelt beside a cross, offering a prayer and his gratitude to the soldier who laid down his life during the invasion. Stolpe stepped foot on the beach on June 25, 1944, less than three weeks after a bloody invasion that turned the war for good.
This memory stirs an old soldier who sits beneath his U.S. flag, mere feet from a framed photo showing a mind-numbing five blue stars. Through stories and the marks left on his life and his family, he defines the last Monday in May, far from stumped.
"There are 9,300 crosses at Normandy," he says. "Those 9,300 men paid the way for me to go in. I knelt there to thank them all."