August 26, 2005

The Name in the Stone


On Living with the Loss of a Son in Wartime. Written and first published on Memorial Day, 2003

MY NAME, "GERARD VAN DER LEUN," IS AN UNUSUAL ONE. So unusual, I've never met anyone else with the same name. I do know of one other man with the name, but we've never met. I've seen his name in an unusual place. This is the story of how that happened.

It was an August Sunday in New York City in 1975. I'd decided to bicycle from my apartment on East 86th and York to Battery Park at the southern tip of the island. I'd nothing else to do and, since I hadn't been to the park since moving to the city in 1974, it seemed like a destination that would be interesting. Just how interesting, I had no way of knowing when I left.

August Sundays in New York can be the best times for the city. The psychotherapists are all on vacation -- as are their clients and most of the other professional classes. The city seems almost deserted, the traffic light and, as you move down into Wall Street and the surrounding areas, it becomes virtually non-existent. On a bicycle you own the streets that form the bottom of the narrow canyons of buildings where, even at mid-day, it is still cool with shade. Then you emerge from the streets into the bright open space at Battery Park.

Tourists are lining up for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. A few people are coming and going from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. There are some scattered clots of people on the lawns of Battery Park. Everything is lazy and unhurried.

I'd coasted most of the way down to the Battery that day since, even though it appears to be flat, there is a very slight north to south slope in Manhattan. I arrived only a bit hungry and thirsty and got one of the dubious Sabaretts hot dogs and a chilled coke from the only vendor working the park.

The twin towers loomed over everything, thought of, if they were thought of at all, as an irritation in that they blocked off so much of the sky. It was 1975 and, Vietnam not withstanding, America was just about at the midway point between two world wars. Of course, we didn't know that at the time. The only war we knew of was the Second World War and the background humm of the Cold War. It was a summer Sunday and we were in the midst of what now can be seen as "The Long Peace."

In front of the lawns at Battery Park was a monument that caught my attention. It was formed of an immense stone eagle and two parallel rows of granite monoliths about 20 feet wide, 20 feet tall and 3 feet thick. From a distance you could see that they had words carved into them from top to bottom. There was also a lot of shade between them so I took my hot dog and my coke and wheeled my bike over, sitting down at random among the monoliths.

I remember that the stone was cool against my back as I sat there looking at the stone across from me on that warm afternoon. As I looked up it dawned on me that the words cut into the stones were all names. Just names. The names of soldiers, sailors and airmen who had met their death in the north Atlantic in WWII. I was to learn later that there were 4,601 names. All lost in the frigid waters, all without any marker for their graves -- except those in the hearts of those they left behind, and their names carved into these stones that rose up around me.

I read across several rows, moving right to left, then down a row, and then right to left. I got to the end of the sixth row and went back to the beginning of the seventh row.

At the beginning of the seventh row, I read the name: "Gerard Van der Leun." My name. Cut into the stone amongst a tally of the dead.

If you have an unusual name, there's nothing that prepares you for seeing it in a list of the dead on a summer Sunday afternoon in Battery Park in 1975. I don't really remember the feeling except to know that, for many long moments, I became suddenly chilled.

When that passed, I knew why my name was in the stone. I'd always known why, but I'd never known about the stone or the names cut into it.

"Gerard Van der Leun" was, of course, not me. He was someone else entirely. Someone who had been born, lived, and died before I was even conceived. He was my father's middle brother. He was what my family had given to stop Fascism, Totalitarianism and genocide in the Second World War. He was one of their three sons. He was dead before he was 22 years old. His body never recovered, the exact time and place of his death over the Atlantic, unknown.

As the first child born after his death, I was given his name, Gerard. But as a child I was never called by that name. I was always called "Jerry." "Jerry" is not a diminutive of "Gerard." There are none for that name. But "Jerry" I would be because the mere mention of the name "Gerard" was enough to send my grandmother into a dark state of mind that would last for weeks. This was true, as far as I know, for all the days of her life and she lived well into her 80s.

My grandfather could barely speak of Gerard and, being Dutch, his sullen reticence let all of us know very early that it was wrong to ask.

My father, who was refused service in the Second World War due to a bout with rheumatic fever as a child that left him with the heart murmur that would kill him shortly after turning 50, was ashamed he didn't fight and wouldn't speak of his brother, Gerard, except to say "He was a great, brave kid."

My uncle, the baby of the family, spent a year or two of his youth freezing on the Inchon peninsula in Korea and seeing the worst of that war first hand. He was my only living relative who'd been in a war. He would never speak of his war at all, but it must have been very bad indeed.

I know this because, when I was a teenager, I was out in his garage one day and, opening a drawer, I found an old packet of photographs, grimy with dust at the back under a bunch of rusted tools. The black and white photos with rough perforated edges showed some very disturbing things: a helmet shot full of holes; a boot with most of a leg still in it, some crumpled heaps of clothing on patches of dirty snow that proved to be, on closer inspection, dead Korean soldiers; a pile of bodies on a snowbank with black patches of blood seeping into it. The full horror show.

He had taken them and couldn't part with them, but couldn't look at them. So he shoved them into a drawer with other unused junk from his past and left it at that. He never spoke of Korea except to say it was "rough," and, now that he lives but has quit speaking of anything, he never will. His only comment to me about his brother Gerard echoed that of my father, "He was a great kid. You can be proud to have his name. Just don't use it around Grandma."

And I didn't. No one in my family ever did. All through the years that I was growing up at home, I was "Jerry."

In time, I left home for the University and, in the manner of young men in the 1960s and since, I came upon a lot of new and, to my young mind, excellent ideas. A minor one of these was that it was time to stop being a 'Jerry' -- a name I associated for some reason with young men with red hair, freckles and a gawky resemblance to Howdy Doody. I decided that I would reject my family's preferences and call myself by my given name, 'Gerard.' In fact, in the callous manner of heedless boys on the verge of adulthood, I would insist upon it. I duly informed my parents and would correct them when they lapsed back to 'Jerry.'

This attitude served me well enough and soon it seemed I had trained my bothers and my parents in my new name. Of course, I'd taken this name not because of who my uncle had been or because of the cause for which he gave his life, but for the selfish reason that it simply sounded more "dignified" to my ears.

I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley and it was 1965 and we had no truck with the US military that was "brutally repressing" the people of Vietnam. We were stupid and young and nothing that has happened at Berkeley since then has changed the youth and stupidity of its students. If anything, my era at the University just made it somehow possible for Berkeley students to think that their attitudes were as noble and as pure in their minds as they were stupid and selfish in reality. I was no longer a "Jerry" but a "Gerard" and I was going to make the world safe from America.

My name change plan went well as long as I confined it to my immediate family and my friends at the University. It went so well that it made me even stupid enough to try to extend it to my grandparents during a Thanksgiving at their home.

At some point during the meal, my grandmother said something like, "Would you like some more creamed onions, Jerry?"

And because I was a very selfish and stupid young man, I looked at her and said, "Grandma, everyone here knows that I'm not Jerry any longer. I'm Gerard and you've just got to get used to calling me that."

Immediately, the silence came into the room. It rose out of the center of the table and expanded until it reached the walls and then just dropped down over the room like a large, dark shroud.

Nobody moved. Very slowly every set of eyes of my family came around and looked at me. Not angry, but just looking. At me. The silence went on. Then my grandmother, whose eyes were wet, rose from the table and said, "No. I can't do that. I just can't." She left the table and walked down the hallway to her bedroom and closed the door behind her.

The silence compounded itself until my grandfather rose from his chair and walked to the middle of the hallway. He took a framed photograph off the wall where hung next to a framed gold star. It had been in that place so long that I'd stopped seeing it.

My grandfather walked back to the table and very gently handed me the photograph. It show a smooth-faced handsome young flyer with an open smile. He was dressed in fleece-lined leather flying jacket and leaning casually against the fuselage of a bomber. You could see the clear plastic in the nose of the plane just above his head to his right. On the picture, was the inscription: "Folks, Here's my new office! Gerard."

My grandfather stood behind me as I looked at the picture. "You are not Gerard. You just have his name, but you are not him. That's my son. That's Gerard. If you don't mind, we will continue to call you Jerry in this house. If you do mind, you don't have to come here any more."

Then he took the picture away and put it back in its place on the wall. He knocked on the bedroom door, went in, and in a few minutes he and my grandmother came back to the table. Nobody else had said a word. We'd just sat there. I was wishing to be just about anyplace else in the world than where I was.

They sat down and my grandmother said, "So, Jerry, would you like some more creamed onions?"

I nodded, they were passed and the meal went on. My parents never said a word. Not then and not after. And, to their credit, they continued to call me Gerard. But not at my grandparents' house.

In 1975, I sat against a monument in Battery Park in New York and read a name cut into stone among a list of the dead. That long ago Thanksgiving scene came back to me in all its dreadful detail. I tried to understand what that name in the stone had meant to my family when it became the only thing that remained of their middle son. A man who'd been swallowed up in the Atlantic during a war that finished before I drew breath. I tried to understand what it meant, but I could not. I was a child of the long peace who had avoided his war and gone on to make a life that, in many ways, was spent taking-down the things that my namesake had given his life to preserve.

These days it makes me feel cheap and contemptible to think of the things I did to point out all the ways in which this country fails to achieve some fantasied perfection. I was a small part of promulgating a great wrong and a large lie for a long time, and I'm sure there's no making up for that. My chance to be worthy of the man in the photograph, the name on the wall, has long since passed and all I can do is to try, in some way, to make what small amends I can.

Remembering these long ago moments now as we linger on the cusp of the Long War, I still cannot claim to understand the deep sense of duty and the strong feeling of honor that drove men like the uncle I've never known to sacrifice themselves. Lately though, as we move deeper into the Fourth World War, I think that, at last, I can somehow dimly see the outlines of what it was. And that, for now, will have to do.

Since finding his name on the stone in 1975, I've been back to that place a number of times. I once took my daughter, Justine Van der Leun, there, but she is much more spoiled than I had been. She didn't get it, was quickly bored.

After September 11th, I made a point of going to the monument as soon as the way was cleared, sometime in 2002. It was for the last time.

But if you go the monument, you can see the name in the stone. It's not my name, but the name of man much better than most of us. It's on the far left column on the third stone in on the right side of the monument looking towards the sea. The name is usually in shadow and almost impossible to photograph.

Like most of the other names carved into the stone it's up there very high. You can see it, but you can't touch it. I don't care who you are, you're not that tall.

Note: Since this essay was first written in 2003, several thoughtful people have supplied me with photographs. As you can see, the name still remains difficult to photograph. I also have found and reproduce here a photograph of Gerard Van der Leun, as he was and as he shall remain.

Gerard Van der Leun, GN, Air Corps, Pennsylvania

The Name in the Stone. Click to enlarge.

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Posted by Vanderleun at August 26, 2005 6:33 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

What a beautiful, moving tribute on this Memorial Day. Thank you for some important things to think about.

Posted by: Peg C. at May 31, 2004 4:18 PM

You are very welcome. I appreciate your kind words.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 31, 2004 4:23 PM

I am a 78 year old retired physician, who served in WW 11 as a navy pilot. I cannot thank you enough for this beautiful tribute, which brought tears to my eyes.
Human society has suffered continual violence throughout history. Bless the men and women who sacrifice to make life a little safer. And bless you for understanding this. Seymour D.

Posted by: seymour dubroff at May 31, 2004 6:26 PM

Thank you, Dr. Dubroff.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 31, 2004 6:37 PM

Thank you for the essay about your uncle. Memorial Day is always a sad anniversary for me. My father died on Memorial Day weekend of a heart attack 40 years ago. He was a veteran of World War II, 82nd Airborne. I often think of him as one of Hitler's delayed-reaction statistics-- the coroner told my mother that he was seeing a lot of veterans dying suddenly in their late 40s and early 50s, and he assumed it was the aftereffects of battle stress.

I never went through a politically radical phase in college, mostly because I was too aware of the price my father had paid for my safety and my freedom. I'm older now than my father was when he died, but I'm still grateful for the life as well as the love he gave me, and I try to live my life in a way that reflects that gratitude.

Once again, thank you for the honesty as well as the thoughtfulness in your writing. God bless.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at May 31, 2004 7:53 PM

Your honest tribute brought me to tears. Life can
bring surprises that are meant to teach us and
help us to grow and understand ourselves and others in a deeper way.

What a wonderful family you have, they love very

Thank you for your tribute, it is one I will remember.

Posted by: Carole at May 31, 2004 7:56 PM

Thank you very much for sharing this story. Beautiful.
Carl O.

Posted by: Carl Oesterle at May 31, 2004 8:32 PM

What a touching story, beautifully told.

Posted by: sammy small at May 31, 2004 9:29 PM

Thank you Gerard.

If we cannot die with his honor, my we live...with your honesty.

Posted by: Stephen at May 31, 2004 10:12 PM

I followed your uncle to Korea, during the hottest part of the unwar period... 1965-69...

Driving from our island on the DMZ, I was armed and riding outside as the classified materials we were carrying filled the trucks cab...

Wearing army-issue underwear and fatigues and boots and fiberglass jacket and gloves, I was still feeling sorry for myself, when I saw way up ahead, a boy walking beside the road, coming toward our barreling deuce-and-a-half.

He was wearing torn jeans which ended at the knees, no shoes, a levi vest over no shirt, no hat and nothing but jeans and vest. I could see his ribs and gaunt collarbones, as he lurched along unevenly because of cerebral palsy or polio.

He grinned and waved lovingly to me as we raced past in the blistering, sub-Siberian cold.

To this day, I thank God I had the good grace to quit my bellyaching and recognize at least SOME of the many bounties I was receiving then, and receive now.

Your growth and insight blesses America, and all Americans grow when you grow.

Posted by: Eye Opener at June 1, 2004 7:23 AM

Thanks for the story. What a shocking event it would be to have that experience. I am deeply touched. I came from a sort of pacifist family of Democrats and it took me until my forties to sort out the truth. I can relate to your process of maturation.

Posted by: pbird at June 1, 2004 9:06 AM

Lovely post, Gerard.

Forgive me for wasting your bandwidth, but I really want to share something I wrote back in 1998. Much of it still applies today.

Posted by: growler at June 1, 2004 3:06 PM

Beautiful, moving, and wiser than perhaps you give yourself credit for. Thank you very much.

Posted by: Paul Stinchfield at June 1, 2004 7:06 PM

As I read I was reminded of my cousin Sonny who died in WWII. I never knew him but through his mother. His picture and flag hang in our hall now. Your words reminded me of all the families who gave their best for the safety we have. Thank you for telling us all again. Susan

Posted by: Susan Perkins at June 2, 2004 1:07 PM


Thanks. The middle son in my family was also a flier in that war, and perished in a bomber over Germany. His name was Marion, and no one in my family bears his name... because people don't give boys that name very much any longer. But it was apparently popular back in the '20s. His son was a sullen and morose kid whom I haven't seen since childhood, and who has pretty much disappeared from the family. I think he obtained a Ph.D. in History at the University of Washington at one point, but the last anyone saw of him he had become an habitual drug user, and was on his way to live in the woods in Oregon or Washington. I don't know anyone who has seen him in over 30 years...

I'd like to say that if someone reading this happens to be named "Bruce," with a father who died over Germany named "Marion," and if you have a cousin you haven't seen since childhood named "Scott," give me a call and we'll talk this out. I took the blue pill this time. And if I ever have a son, and it's getting pretty late to consider it frankly, I'll think about naming him Marion. I sort of like that name, actually.

Posted by: Scott at June 2, 2004 10:26 PM

Mr. Van Der Leun,

Thank you for this beautiful piece. I am sure I have never heard the love of family and our country more beautifully expressed. I hope you will not be upset that I copied your words and sent them to several of my friends. I am a retired US Navy officer from the Cold War and my father was a World War II vet (Burma). Even when I was serving, I never heard anyone express the cause he and I served in as moving and beautiful a manner as your words have for me. Thank you for your sentiments and may God bless you and your whole family.

Posted by: Frosty in Houston at June 3, 2004 2:55 PM


Posted by: Gerard Dols at June 5, 2004 6:21 AM

I wish every child in the country could read this. What a tribute to our men and woman in harms way. Sam Corbitt

Posted by: Sam Corbitt at June 5, 2004 8:50 AM

I read this again today while America is paying tribute to another great American, President Ronald Reagan. There are still some great Americans out there. I found your story very heartwarming and poignant. Thank you for sharing it with us. I would love to see it get very wide dissemination.

Thank you very much for sharing it.


Posted by: Gene Castillo at June 10, 2004 5:07 PM

Fantastic post, Gerard.

Posted by: Allah at December 9, 2004 9:05 AM

As always, you have made a heartbreaking tribute beautiful and inspirational. Thank you. And if creamed onions exist, I want to try them . . .

Posted by: Uncle Mikey at December 9, 2004 10:15 AM

Gerard, I'm a little behind in my reading but I am glad I caught up with this one - this one I understood every word! Keep up the good work. See you soon. Bob B

Posted by: Bob B at December 9, 2004 8:01 PM

What gifts you have - a meaningful life and this stunning ability to write beautifully about it.

Posted by: Barbara in CT at August 26, 2005 6:03 PM

I live 25 years in Canada.I was very happy, that I could travel SW of USA.4 months.28,000 km.I can say I love USA at this time even more than Canada.
Internet is giving to me possibility to live and to travel through sites of internet again in USA.
It is for me very painfull to see how some people,institutions,media are dealing with today heroes of your nation, fighting for their freedom and possibilietes to say what they are saying.To live how they are living.
Those young men inherited ways and responsibilieties
of your brother and other young men from his time.
Please, if you will again to go to see that monument,say "Hi" to your brother and to all men whose names are on those slabs, from one unknown man with origin from middle of Europe.
Thank you.

Posted by: Al.Dr. at August 26, 2005 9:31 PM

During a conversation we had about the best cuts of meat and the best markets to obtain them our talk turned to the really good stuff, hot dogs. Some of the good ones, Boars Head, Hebrew National, Nathans, Karl Ehmer, and for old times Nedicks. But get down and dirty curbside gourmet muddy waters, Sabrettes with mustard and onions, hm, hm, hmm.

That other stuff you mentioned? That picture on the wall that had been there so long you no longer saw it. That's the thing, you spoke for a name, yours, Gerard was someone you knew of but didn't know back then. Now you do. Now the same thing repeats itself today with youth knowing so much, whether it true or not, they can be arrogantly self righteous, knowing they are right, taught by people that never were able to admit they were wrong and incapable of making amends, and lacking this gift they grow into this description by PASCAL that I found at the beginning of Eric Hoffer's book, True Believer.

Man would fain be great and sees that he is little; would fain be happy and see that he is miserable; would fain be perfect and sees that he is full of imperfections; would fain be the object of the love and esteem of men, and sees that his faults merit only their aversion and contempt. The embarrassment wherein he finds himself produces in him the most unjust and criminal passions imaginable, for he conceives a mortal hatred against the truth which blames him and convinces him of his faults.

Right under that is this line.

And slime they had for mortar.

Sorry, all that talk about hot dogs got me going.

Posted by: Dennis at August 26, 2005 9:39 PM

Not at all. A most excellent response from which I have gleaned a most valuable series of quotations and the idea to read Hoffer's book again. I thank you.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at August 26, 2005 10:04 PM

Just lovely, and such good medicine for those of us battered and weary from the She-Man debacle in Crawford. I often wonder if the Pink People, the Soros Minions, et al., ever stop to read something like this essay.

I never before thought about the unique pain associated with soldiers lost in a completely unknown place and time... damn, that's a cold and sour feeling.

Through your powerful talent and often jolting honesty, both Gerard I and Gerard II live on... in yet another most commendable and generous essay. I sincerely thank you for this gift.

Posted by: SallyVee at August 27, 2005 12:16 AM

I can only imagine your family's pain, but you have served your uncle's name well in sharing this story.

Posted by: Carrie at August 27, 2005 9:22 AM

"The Long Peace" ? -- I couldn't read much beyond the "Vietnam notwithstanding" comment.

Posted by: David Tribbles at August 27, 2005 12:56 PM

A very moving post.

The loss of a son to war is beyond
imagining and the anguish lasts a lifetime.

Your post brings honor to the families that have given up their loved ones to the cause of freedom.

Posted by: Bleeding Brain at August 27, 2005 7:42 PM

Thank you so much. More "memorial", less "three-day-weekend". I wonder if when my dad was crossing the Rhine around Mannheim with 7th Army he could have imagined in his wildest dreams that 60+ years later his son would be standing smack on the other side, working for a German/US company with the finest people you could hope to know. Strange, tiny, crazy, hopeful world, huh. I'm sorry you never knew your uncle. What a gift they gave us all.

Posted by: tb at August 27, 2005 11:23 PM

Having lived and worked near Battery Park, I’m familiar with all the monuments there. But I never had a personal story to connect to the names. Every one of those names has such a story.

My uncles and father physically survived WWII with injuries that weren’t life threatening. The debt we owe those great fighters is beyond all measure. Honoring their examples is the best expression of respect.

Posted by: Jason Pappas at August 29, 2005 5:52 AM

Gerard -

Excellent, and moving. Your grandparents handled that with love and respect.

I'm a little too young to have gone through that - I was 6 in 1965 - but had I been older I could easily have been pulled into that movement that ensnared so many young people. Youth is the time to be foolish, after all.

And, I have to wonder if the radical pacifism of the 60s was inevitable, given the ways that huge numbers of war dead tend to push societies that way, as in post-WWI Europe (though their numbers of dead in WWI were much higher than ours in WWII). Add to that the prosperity of the 50s, and the tendency of youth to think they figure it all out by the time they are 20, and it all seems so inevitable, looking back.

Anyway, thanks again.

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at August 31, 2005 5:22 AM

Todd Beamer's dad found the Battery Park monument and writes about it in a 27-APR-2006 Wall Street Journal OpEd on the movie "Flight 93"

I remembered this excellent piece of yours and thought you'd like to know about the OpEd.

Posted by: Yanni Znaio at April 27, 2006 4:45 AM


I am an African who have always love the Name "GERARD" because of the English Footballer - Steve Gerard and its uncommon nature, which propelled me to search for its meaning on the net because my wife is expecting a baby.

After reading this story, i am more determined to give my child the name but as an African, we attach alot of things to the MEANING of a name.

Please Mr.GERARD VAN DER LEUN what does "GERARD" Mean?

Thank you for the wonderfull story for it has further reassured me that "A GOOD NAME IS BETTER THAN RICHES"

Posted by: Po'-Bany at May 8, 2006 7:29 AM

Gerard is , in this variation, from the Anglo Saxon and means, I believe, "Strong with spear."

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at May 8, 2006 7:34 AM
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