Mix tape memories: The Memorial Day edition

Yes, it’s another mix tape post.  Have you ever heard the song “Sullivan” by Caroline’s Spine?  It’s a great song.  I was driving home from work one day a couple of months ago, one of my high school mix tapes blaring over the two screaming toddlers in my back seat, and this song came on.  I did a little happy dance in my seat as the opening chords sounded through the speakers, remembering the first time I’d heard the song.

I was with my friend, Christy, and we were driving…somewhere.  To the Rollerdrome, maybe?  Or cruising Uni?  Or maybe we were just bored and cruising the loop one day after school – I dunno.  Regardless, we were together because we did everything together back then.  Christy had recorded the song off the radio.  One minute we were rockin’ out to “Save Yourself” by Stabbing Westward and the next, Caroline’s Spine was singing about the five Sullivan brothers.  To this day, I find the placement of those two songs rather ironic.

It was the word Iowa in the first verse that caught my attention.  There aren’t too many songs about my home state that get regular airplay, see, especially not on Rock 108, the local hard rock station.  (If you know of any Iowa songs, let me know in the comments so I can track them down and have a listen! :))  There are even fewer that mention Waterloo, the nearest city to where I live.  (At least with a population of 68,653 as of 2011, I consider it a city.)  That held my attention when it might otherwise have drifted away.

By the time the band rolled into the first chorus, I had grown quiet.  After all, the Sullivan brothers are famous here.  Well, not just here – they were mentioned in Saving Private Ryan, I think by Tom Hanks’ character.  The five of them enlisted together in January 1942 on the condition they be allowed to serve together.  The Navy had a rule against this but it wasn’t strictly enforced and the brothers were assigned to the USS Juneau.  When their ship was destroyed during the Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942, all five brothers perished, either immediately or in the days that followed the explosion and sinking of the ship.

Mrs. Sullivan’s letter to the Bureau of Naval Personnel

As a teenager, I loved the song.  It’s a great song about a local family who made the ultimate sacrifice for God and country five times too many.  But, as a teenager, I didn’t really think that deeply about exactly what that sacrifice entailed.  I was 17 when the Twin Towers fell, and even after witnessing an event of that magnitude through the wonder of our 24-hour news cycle, I still couldn’t comprehend the greatness of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan’s sacrifice.

That day in my car two months ago, I finally understood.  In some ways, the experience was a bit like déjà vu – once again, I was in my car, listening to the same tape I’d listened to with my friend all those years ago, and my initial excitement quickly faded.  This time, though, when my excitement faded, it was less out of a sense of respect for the men who gave their lives – though I have the greatest respect for them – and more out of a feeling of solidarity with their mother.

President Roosevelt’s letter to Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan

It’s not hard to reach back to the day
When the war finally came home
Uncle Sam will send you a telegram
So he doesn’t have to tell you over the phone
I heard she cracked up
When they found out what the war had cost
When all five of the boys were lost

So say goodbye Mrs. Sullivan
Go ahead and cry
“…We regret to inform you
That all your sons have passed away.”
All five…
So change your blue star to gold

I have three sons of my own.  My husband served in the Army.  It is his hope that all four of our children will serve our country someday and I know that if they do, I will be just as proud of them as Mrs. Sullivan was of her sons.

But as the last verse and the final chorus rang through my car that evening, I found myself in tears.  Though Alleta Sullivan was reunited with her sons over forty years ago, I felt a smidgen of what she must have felt the day her worst fears were confirmed.  The thought of losing any of my children is one I find abhorrent, but to lose all my sons like she did?  I could feel my heart break as the final words of the song washed over me.

I still love this song.  It really is great, from the driving tempo to the intensity of the finish.  But I have a whole new appreciation for this song now that I have my own children, and typing the lyrics out nearly had me in tears once again.  I don’t know that I could ever have appreciated this song in this way if I had not had children.  And I hope, for the sake of all the mothers out there, that such a tragedy will never have to be endured again.

*Lyrics courtesy of metrolyrics.com; complete lyrics may be found there.  Further information on the sinking of the USS Juneau is widely available; one interesting article I found pertaining to both the Sullivans and the Juneau is here.

(c) 2013.  All rights reserved.


2 thoughts on “Mix tape memories: The Memorial Day edition

    • Kay Kauffman says:

      Thanks, Tara! I’d probably never have heard it if not for Christy. My tape is actually starting to wear out from use; I’ve listened to that song a lot. Hope you’re staying dry!


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