By Don Bradley
A few minutes early, a crowd began to file out of The Madison senior living center and gather under the shade of the stone portico.
Some used walkers, one in a wheelchair, all came with a smile. There were veteran caps, a Marine shirt, someone even gave a salute. More residents watched from balconies above.
And right in the middle of it all was Thelma Barker, who had decided she had looked at those crooked stars on her husband’s folded flag in a shadow box long enough.
That was what this day was all about.
Then, right at 11 sharp, motorcycle roar filled the morning air and someone in the crowd said, “Here they come.”
A dozen or so riders, part of the Association of Combat Veterans, soon roared up the drive and through the portico. Patches on their vests said Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Desert Storm and Vietnam.
On this day, they came to refold Thelma’s flag. Yes, that’s a thing. Over time, a perfectly folded flag can become imperfect.
Veteran Andy Mynatt told the gathering that generally when they refold a flag they practice with that particular flag. They hadn’t done that with this one so it may take a couple of times.
“But by the time we give it back to Thelma, it will be right,” Mynatt said.
It was a ceremony much like at a funeral. Thelma’s daughter placed a hand over her mouth when the shadow box was opened and the folded flag removed.
“Just opening it again, brings it all back,” Janis Smalley said later standing next to her mother and son.
Dudley Barker, who died in 2021 at age 93, was not a combat vet. He got drafted during the Korean War and the Army sent him to Germany. He was an athlete and ended up playing baseball and basketball as a means to entertain troops.
But that makes him a veteran and that puts him in line for all the good graces of the combat vets motorcycle group. The mission statement of the national organization is “to support and protect those who have defended our country and our freedoms.”
Maybe a granddaughter said it best in a school project, “One of the coolest things my grandpa said while interviewing him was, ‘If they call my number, they call my number and I will do my duty.’
“That quote alone makes my grandpa my hero.”
The whole thing wouldn’t have happened without Kelela Kiyono, senior living coordinator at The Madison in south Kansas City. She sometimes uses Thelma’s apartment for showings to prospective tenants.
They talk. She knows the love story. Dudley and Thelma both worked at Hallmark Cards. One day, Thelma noticed a handsome man. She liked his smile.
“I wouldn’t mind meeting him,” she said to a friend.
In 1954, the two married and were together 67 years.
Thelma also shared with Kiyono that she couldn’t stop noticing those crooked stars in the shadow box on display in the living room. Kiyono went to work. Through a friend and social media she was soon talking with Mynatt. She knew who he was “because he was always wearing that vest.”
And Mynatt and James Spare, who served in both the Marine Corp and the Army, needed only one try at the 13 folds in the hushed quiet of a Saturday morning to kick off a Fourth of July weekend. After the flag was returned to Thelma, Janis Smalley smiled.
“Just reminded me that Dad did good things with his life,” she said.
Thelma seemed pleased with the day. She looked at the crowd in front of her and up on the balconies above.
“They all came out,” she said.
Then the combat vets joined The Madison residents for lunch.
For more information about the Association of Combat Veterans, go to www.combatvet.us