Late one Friday afternoon, I stumbled across a pile of stones stacked up in a secluded area behind an old railroad boxcar near my office. I bent down and brushed away the leaves and loose dirt that had gathered atop the stone, revealing Otto’s name, branch of service, date of birth and date of death. “What? Why would this man’s headstone be back here?” I rushed back to my computer, Googled his name, and found he is buried at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia. I immediately called Quantico but unfortunately they were closed for the day. I would have to agonize over this for an entire weekend.
Meanwhile, my friend Steve, who’s kind of like Red in the film Shawshank Redemption—you know, a guy who can get things for you—found Otto’s daughter Erica online. I was unsure of what to say, but I left a post on a blog she had recently written about her dad. I introduced myself and told her I found something she needs to know about regarding her father.
Eventually I reached Quantico and told them about my discovery. The skeptical voice on the other end of the line was unmistakable. Otto’s wife Joan passed away 16 years ago and a new stone was in place with both of their names. Why would his old stone be 700 miles away in Franklin, Tennessee? That’s what I wanted to know. And sadly, I never will. Erica was skeptical of me too. She thought I was trying to scam her out of money or something. All I really wanted was for a veteran to not have his grave stone piled up like trash in some random field. Our veteran’s deserve honor and respect, as do their families.
Another friend of mine hooked me up with the Nashville National Cemetery, and with Erica’s blessing, I had Otto’s stone and a few others in that pile carefully removed and disposed of with honor.
And now I know. I know Otto Kirchner-Dean was here. He was born in Austria and he came to America after both of his parents died. He was adopted, served this country, served his church and raised a family. He loved and cared for people. He built a life. And now I know.
We all live our own individual lives. So often we build walls and bubbles, insulating ourselves from one another. This episode is a poignant reminder that people remain connected. We need each other. And God places people and circumstances in our paths. On her blog, Erica wrote that God brought me, her and her father together for Christmas. Overstated? Perhaps. I’d like to think that God gave Erica a little wink; as if to say, “Hey kid, I got your dad. He closed his eyes to your world almost 30 years ago, but his eyes are wide open here.”