On a mission of honor, compassion
Frank Richards was too young to understand what was going on when the first telegram arrived, saying that his Uncle Bobby had been killed in battle at Guadalcanal.
But he was 8 years old and remembers when the second telegram came, in 1945. His Uncle Red had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge.
They buried Uncle Bobby in the Punchbowl, the cemetery in Hawaii, and his family was left with only memories.
Uncle Red was buried where he fell, in the Ardennes, but the Army sent a flag. Frank Richards remembers his grandmother hugging that flag when it arrived at the house, tightly and for a long time, as if it were the sons she’d never hold again.
The family had a flag pole outside the house, on Gibson Street in Dorchester, and as a boy Richards or his grandfather or his father or, eventually, his sons would raise Uncle Red’s flag in the morning and take it down at night. They did this, religiously, for decades, before they learned that military protocol had changed and it was OK to leave it up year round.
Frank Richards joined the Navy right out of high school. He was on a submarine in Key West when he caught his leg on a rung sliding down a ladder. He snapped his leg so bad that he had to leave the Navy.
He came back to Gibson Street, feeling sorry for himself, but as he was limping up the driveway he saw Uncle Red’s flag flapping in the light breeze and suddenly he didn’t feel sorry for himself anymore. He made a life for himself, selling rare coins and stamps, had a store in Quincy for years. He raised five kids.
The generations came and went on Gibson Street. At one point, there were four generations living under one roof. But the years passed and so did the generations. His mother, who lost her two brothers to war in far-off lands, got Alzheimer’s and he struggled mightily with the decision to move her from Gibson Street to a place in Braintree that could treat the disease.
On the day his mother died, Richards looked up at Uncle Red’s flag and wondered what was worse: dying young and alone on a foreign battle field, or dying old and alone in your own mind.
Then his wife, Margaret, who had sat with his mother at the place in Braintree day in and day out, got sick. It was cancer and since she died eight years ago Richards has been alone in the house on Gibson Street. His health is failing. His bum leg aches. He has more ailments than he can count; he needs a cane and sometimes a crutch to get around. “My kids, God bless them, they’ve invited me to live with them,’’ he said. “But this is my house, and I’m going to stay here.’’
The neighborhood changed. The Vietnamese replaced the Irish and the noodle houses replaced the pubs and just about the only thing that stayed the same was Uncle Red’s flag, flapping in the driveway off Gibson Street. Then, one day not long ago, Frank Richards stepped outside and found Uncle Red’s flag on the ground. It was torn and Richards was convinced someone had pulled down the flag and ripped it up.
Patrolman Joe DiMaggio got the call. It came in as a possible hate crime. The house is so close to Station 11 on Gibson Street that DiMaggio just walked across the street and knocked on the door. “I’m a veteran. I’m an American,’’ Frank Richards told him, choking up. “That flag means everything to me.’’
DiMaggio started working at the Dorchester station 14 years ago, and he had seen the flag every day he went to work. But when he examined the flag, it looked more old and worn than vandalized. He promised Richards he’d look into it. He walked across Gibson Street, into the police station. He logged on to a computer and saw that the winds had reached 60 miles per hour the night before. He had solved the mystery, but that didn’t solve the problem.
Joe DiMaggio was a Marine, and Marines like to solve problems.
“Lieutenant,’’ DiMaggio said, approaching Lieutenant Chuck Kelly, “do we have any petty cash laying around?’’
DiMaggio told him the story and Kelly said, “Go buy the poor old guy a flag.’’
Joe DiMaggio hopped into his cruiser and was heading down Freeport Street, trying to figure out where he could buy an American flag at 8 in the morning when he spied one. It was abandoned, jammed into a chainlink fence, dangling on the ground. It looked like a stray animal, waiting for a kind stranger.
DiMaggio headed back to the station with the flag. He told Patrolman Jimmy Lydon, a Navy veteran, the story. Lydon’s partner, Patrolman Mike Sullivan, an Air Force vet, was enlisted, too.
Joe DiMaggio knocked on the door and Frank Richards opened it to find three police officers. “Mr. Richards,’’ DiMaggio said, “we got you a flag.’’
With slow and practiced precision, the three cops unfolded the flag.
Frank Richards disappeared into the house briefly. He emerged wearing his blue Disabled American Veterans commander’s cap.
Jimmy Lydon raised the flag and tied off the rope while DiMaggio and Sullivan stood at attention. The flag flapped, rhythmically, against the pole.
The cops turned and saw Frank Richards standing there, his hand held tightly against his forehead in a salute, warm tears streaming down his face, from where they fell to the ground, like rain.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org