Our current Upshur County Schools students are learning hard knock lessons about life from the coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, members of the Buckhannon-Upshur High School Class of 1966, more than 50 years after graduating, are still learning hard knock lessons almost too grave to bear. The pandemic has been likened to war; the Vietnam Conflict continues to have all the effects of war, including secondary post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Saturday morning September 5th, our Buckhannon-Upshur High School Class of 1966, along with friends and family, gathered on the Elkins-Beverly 5-lane near Elkins Fordland. We came for the dedication of the Isner Creek Bridge honoring one of our Buckhannon-Upshur fallen heroes—U.S. Marine Corps L. Cpl. Fred Michael Kerns. Henceforth the renamed bridge will be a visible memorization of Fred’s life.
Memories welled up with our tears, including the speech we memorized in our 11th grade American History Class. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address given in a parallel occasion was a memorialization of a Pennsylvania battlefield. President Lincoln said, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
We who live feel the same way. Fred’s death left a void we cannot add to nor detract from. In life, Fred loved growing up in Buckhannon. We, in turn, loved him. A poignant example of Fred’s stage-center life includes the occasion of our Junior-Senior Prom. An after-event was the screening of a popular movie “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” starring Don Knotts, who grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia. A running gag in the movie was the line “Attaboy Luther!” We adapted this to our own loud, ringing chant throughout the evening: “Attaboy Fred!” Our friend was the life of our party. “Attaboy Fred! Attaboy Fred! Attaboy Fred!”
Our looming crisis on the horizon at that time was the War in Southeast Asia. I looked around the attendees at the bridge dedication. I spied living heroes now in their 70’s. We came to honor Fred Michael Kerns, who joined the U.S. Marines and served with valor. His big heart for children led him to volunteer his spare time at a local orphanage. There he began to dream an impossible dream of adopting a child named Hong. Signing up for a new tour in order to complete the documentation required, Fred died in a helicopter crash. Such a brave heart!
Fred gave the last full measure of devotion. A hard knock lesson learned for sure. Are we worthy to have lived out our three score and ten years?