It’s the phone call no parent wants to receive. Ever. But on Thursday, February 28, 1991, Cecil and Ruth were both informed that their son, PFC. Clayton Carpenter, was killed in action in the Persian Gulf War. In an instant, their lives were changed.
Until the phone rang again.
The middle-aged residents of Kansas received the notification of their son’s death in separate places; Cecil at City Hall in Humboldt and Ruth at a factory in nearby Chanute. Though they had divorced several years earlier, both parents felt the sting of death as it ripped through their family.
The father and mother were informed that on the previous day – just 2 hours before a cease-fire was declared in the war – their son, a tank mechanic with the 1st Cavalry Division, had been struck down by a cluster bomb on the Kuwaiti border.
Both Cecil’s and Ruth’s world went blank. “It was all a haze,” remembered Cecil. “‘He’s dead’ were the only words I remember them saying,” Ruth recalled. After receiving the terrible news, the two parents retreated to their own places to deal with their grief. Friends, neighbors, and other family members streamed by, bringing comfort, food, and flowers to help ease the suffering of the grieving parents. They each recounted their favorite stories of Clayton, “a light-hearted, affectionate boy with a mischievous wit.”
Sympathy cards filled their mailboxes. All around town, ribbons were tied to trees. A wooden plaque was even hung in memory of Clayton at Johnson’s General Store.
Sleep evaded Cecil and Ruth that night. As they looked at pictures of their son, they both started the trek through the stages of grief, beginning with denial. “He can’t be dead,” thought Ruth. “This has got to be a mistake.”
And that’s when the phone rang again.
When Ruth picked it up and said hello, she expected another loved one to be on the other end of the line wanting to share their condolences over Clayton’s death.
Instead, it was Clayton, himself.
“Hi, Mom. This is Clayton.”
Ruth halted. “Are you sure this is Clayton?” she exclaimed. “You’ve been declared dead.”
“Come on, please believe me, this is me,” Clayton pleaded. The young soldier informed his mother that he was calling from a hospital in Saudi Arabia, where he was recovering from light wounds. He said he’d been accidentally placed on the casualty list instead of the wounded list.
Unconvinced, Ruth tore into a barrage of personal questions. “What did I call you when you were little?” the desperate woman asked the voice on the other end of the phone. Clayton panicked; for a moment, he couldn’t remember. Then it finally came to him. “Little garbage disposal,” he said, remembering his staunch appetite as a growing boy.
Ruth started to shake. Her son was alive!
The next day, Clayton’s father led a makeshift parade downtown to Johnson’s General Store. He dismantled the plaque, and tossed it into a trash-barrel fire along with all the unnecessary ribbons and flowers. The high school marching band could barely be heard playing The Star Spangled Banner above the cheers of the crowd.
Everyone celebrated. The son who was dead, was alive again.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)