EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 26, 2013

A Memorial Day reflection: Uncle Duke, an unheralded hero

Barry Mooers
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.

— From Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

It was the eve of Memorial Day last year, and per usual my daily walk took me through Elmwood Cemetery at the bottom of my street in Bradford.

It was a beautiful spring day — a few puffy clouds burnishing a sky of brilliant blue. Veterans groups had completed their work, and the grounds were festooned with tiny flags, tricolored reminders of the day’s original Civil War designation as Decoration Day. A brisk breeze made the cemetery’s five flags strain and struggle against their halyards, as if they had snapped smartly to attention, solemnly saluting those who had given their all for them in the European Theaters, where much of the two world wars had played out.

As I ambled through the tranquil grounds, thinking about the war dead buried there, my thoughts turned to my Uncle Duke.

Uncle Duke was born Joseph Roland Harrigan Jr. on Oct. 29, 1924. Throughout his life, though, he would be known simply as the Duke. One of four children, he grew up in the rough-and-tumble Acre section of Haverhill. There, a boy learned to put up his dukes early and often if he were to survive. My mother told me of several bullies who foolishly went toe to toe with the Duke and walked away regretting their decision.

Perhaps it was his pugnacity as much as his patriotism that prompted him to enlist in the Navy on July 30, 1942. He would go on to see action in both World War II and the Korean Conflict.

By the time I got to know Uncle Duke, his military service had been over for nearly 10 years. Then a man only in his early 30s, Duke was roguishly handsome. With his shock of dark wavy hair, he could have been a poster boy for the Black Irish.

He was an occasional visitor to our home, showing up sporadically for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, sometimes uninvited. To me, his ruddy face and bloodshot eyes always bespoke both of the drink and of the hidden demons lurking behind them.

There was a solemn sadness there, as well. Uncle Duke never spoke of his wartime experiences. He seemed bound by that code of silence adhered to by so many others of that Greatest Generation. What was clear to all who knew him was that something horrific had happened to him while he served his country. The man who returned from the war was not the man who entered it.

Uncle Duke worked mainly at the former Haverhill Paperboard Company, as well as at various odd jobs around the city. There were still enough shoe shops for him to find employment as a day laborer or piece worker. He never stayed at one place for long.

He lived mainly at his grandmother’s Emerson Street tenement or his father’s Burke Street home. Occasionally, Uncle Duke would temporarily take up residence at our house. On those mornings, one of us would find him sleeping off the night before in our back hall, lying beside Troubles, our mangy black dog.

Uncle Duke could often be seen wandering aimlessly around the city or sitting on a bench in the park at White and Winter streets, clad in his tattered brown coat, bleached-out blue Dickies work pants and battered black brogues.

Every Memorial Day, however, with head held high, he would march with his fellow veterans down Summer Street toward Linwood Cemetery. As we stood watching, I could see Ma’s eyes glisten as Uncle Duke passed by — her big brother, who never really returned from the war.

Uncle Duke died on January 18, 1973, his body discovered five days later by the landlord of his Vine Street apartment. The medical examiner said he died of natural causes, probably a heart attack brought on by a lifetime of heartbreak and heartache. He died much the way he had lived — largely unwatched, unkept, unkempt and uncared for. At his burial, the flag that had covered his coffin was presented to my mother, his closest surviving relative and the one who loved him the most.

Uncle Duke never achieved any of what our society hails as hallmarks of success. He never held a steady job, bought a home, married his sweetheart or raised a family. Indeed, the only concrete reminder left of Uncle Duke is the legend “Joseph R. Harrigan Jr. 1924 - 1973” etched in fading gray granite on a gravestone in St. James Cemetery. And yet, one would be hard-pressed to surpass his sacrifice for his country and his countrymen.

Freedom is never free — its cost can only be calculated in the price paid by those fearless enough to fight for it. Its currency is told out in the cold coin of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Sometimes, the fight for freedom can cost one his sanity, his self, perhaps even his very soul. My Uncle Duke paid this price in full. Like so many before and since, Uncle Duke is an unheralded hero.

Barry Mooers is a retired Haverhill public school teacher who enjoys reading, writing, walking and gardening.