Harold Becker [bottom] holds the rifle that belonged to his father, Charles Conrad Becker [top], who fought in the Civil War.
I remember in high school I had a teacher with whom I became friendly. In conversation one day, she mentioned that her father had been born in 1870. "1870!?!?" I said, with my sledgehammer tact. Indeed, 1870. It turned out that her father - a German immigrant - fathered her when he was 70 years old, dying shortly thereafter. Later, I'd learn about the founding of the German federation out of a series of city-states - Prussia being the largest - in 1871 and realize that my teacher's father had been older than the nation of Germany itself.
Today, there are a few examples of such primogeniture that even outstrip that of my teacher. One such case is that of 93-year old Harold Becker, a retired chemist from Western Michigan. Becker is a rarity, what is called a "true son": a man whose father fought in the Civil War in the Union Army.
The story is pretty amazing. Becker's father, Charles Conrad Becker, lied about his age in 1864 to enlist at 17. Like in the case of my teacher, Charles Becker was 70 when Harold, his youngest child, was born. Charles lived to be 87, thus leaving his son with plenty of stories and memories about the war.
"I think my dad was always interested in keeping the country together," Becker told the Detroit Free-Press, explaining what motivated his father to fight for the Union. "He'd go to the porch overlooking White Lake and tell me stories about the Civil War."
Today, of course, is Memorial Day. While there is much confusion in popular culture as to the origin of the day - it was a holiday created in 1868 to honor the Civil War dead - we all know it is a day to honor those who have died in our wars over the last 235 years.
Today, Harold Becker remembers seeing his father's blue Union Army uniform hanging in an upstairs closet, the pockets always filled with chocolate for a curious little boy. He remembers the Civil War veterans pension checks -- about $100 a month -- that were used to pay bills. He remembers the short, mustachioed figure, dashing in Grand Army of the Republic regalia, heading off to a meeting at the G.A.R. post.
Becker is among fewer than 50 men nationwide who can say their fathers fought in the Civil War, which began 150 years ago last month. His father died of a heart attack when Harold Becker was in his late teens. This left time for Charles to pass along to Harold numerous stories of the conflict that divided the nation.
Charles Becker was just 17 in 1864, but claimed he was two years older to join Co. H, 128th Indiana Infantry. He saw action at the Battle of Franklin [Tennessee], telling his son of a supply line that stretched for a mile. After the war's end in April 1865, Charles was one of many given the morbid and solemn assignment to disinter the dead from mass graves and bury them individually.
Harold Becker recently visited the historic Tennessee battle site. "The [guide] showed me where my father actually fought," Becker told the Free-Press. Becker also traveled to the storied Gettysburg battlefield, where he even met the son of a Confederate soldier.
Becker said his father had four or five children - he was never clear on the exact number - with his first wife and then married Elizabeth Ofenloch, a woman 30 years his junior, with whom he had four more children. Harold was the youngest of all Becker's children. When he was still a boy, his father, who had owned a grocery store in Chicago, relocated the family to Montague, Michigan. There Charles Becker, who died in 1934, is buried.
Occasionally, Harold Becker said, his father would regale him with stories of Civil War experiences he shared with other grizzled soldiers from the Grand Army of the Republic Lyon Post No. 9 in Chicago, where he was a member and former commander. "I don't think he enjoyed the fighting. I think it went against him," Becker said of his father. "I'm guessing on this. From all the things he told me, he wasn't proud of the fact he could kill someone. He ended up feeling that way. I know he didn't dislike the South or the people, necessarily."
Today, 19 true sons and 21 true daughters of Union soldiers are still alive, according to Bruce Butgereit, a Grand Rapids-based Civil War historian, who has done extensive research on Harold Becker's father [although the Michigan Historical Center counts 16 sons and 23 daughters] . According to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, about 30 men known as 'real sons' are still living.
"One thing Mr. Becker loves to do is meet and greet the children, and he loves to be able to tell when they shake hands that you just shook the hand of a man who held the hand of a Civil War soldier," said Butgereit, the historian. He has created a card featuring photos and biographies of father and son that Becker autographs.
The star of these appearances enjoys doing them.
"It makes me think about my dad," Becker said. "It just amazes me. We go to Pontiac, and there's thousands of people there and hundreds of people who are redoing some of the work the Army did."
Ironically, Becker the son never served in the U.S. military. A bad left eye kept him out of World War II, which angers him to this day -- after being taught to shoot by a man who learned as a soldier eight decades before.
Instead, Becker studied chemistry in college and went on to work as a chemist and an engineer for a variety of companies throughout the Midwest. He and his wife of 69 years, the former Dorothy Reynolds (a distant relative of Benjamin Franklin), moved to Rockford, Michigan in 1963 and had five children. They now have seven grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
He's a member of the Grand Rapids-based John A. Logan Camp No. 1, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Unfortunately, a fire years ago robbed Becker of almost all of the mementos of his father's Civil War service. Only a picture of the elder Becker -- a compact, clean-shaven 5-foot-6 man -- and his heavy, military-issue rifle survive.
On this Memorial Day, as he has on so many other special days, Becker will hang out the American flag that his father adored, although with 16 more stars than the banner under which his father served.
"I've always flown it at the right times," Becker said.
Today is the right time.
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