The woman wiped tears from her eyes as she gazed at the grave of a young Marine at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery, recalling a love lost more than four decades ago to the Vietnam War.
Denise Racky was 18 when her boyfriend asked her to marry him on the curb of 106th Street and Maplewood Avenue in Beverly during the summer of 1969, just before he left for boot camp. They exchanged high school rings. She told him they would wed when he returned.
But Lance Cpl. John Anthony Guldan was killed in action on Aug. 3, 1970, at age 20.
Racky never married him, or anyone else.
"I keep thinking, what if?" said Racky, 66, of Oak Lawn. "I don't think he's gone. It's like arrested development, in a sense. I miss him every day."
People gather May 29, 2017, at Mount Olivet Cemetery for a Memorial Day service to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
People gather May 29, 2017, at Mount Olivet Cemetery for a Memorial Day service to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)See more videos
She was among the crowd of around 150 folks who came to pay their respects at the Memorial Day Mass at the Southwest Side cemetery on Monday. They sang "American the Beautiful" together and crossed themselves in unison, seated in lawn chairs sprinkled among the headstones of strangers. It was one of the dozens of memorial services held at cemeteries across Chicagoland over the holiday weekend.
"We do something very holy when we pray for the dead," particularly those who lost their lives serving their country, the priest told them. Afterward, the crowd scattered to pull weeds and plant fresh flowers at the graves of their loved ones. Many placed American flags at the headstones of their own departed veterans.
Before the service, Racky already had left a crisp new flag at Guldan's grave. A small group of his family and friends joined her at the gray headstone, which reads "Rest Easy Marine."
Jim Bansley, Guldan's uncle and godfather, said he's come to Mount Olivet on Memorial Day every year since Guldan was laid to rest.
"I think about him all the time, all the good times together," said Bansley, who's from Beverly. "He was a good kid. That's all you can say."
Childhood friend Neal Beatty called the fallen Marine charismatic and a born leader, referring to an old photograph of a handsome, serious looking man in uniform.Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune Terri Guldan, left, and Neal Beatty stand near the graves of family and friends after a Memorial Day ceremony at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago on May 29, 2017. Terri Guldan, left, and Neal Beatty stand near the graves of family and friends after a Memorial Day ceremony at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Chicago on May 29, 2017. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)
Much of John Guldan's story was captured by younger sister Terri Guldan of Elmhurst in a book she wrote last year, "The Letter: A Family's Tale Unplugged." She was just 11 when her brother was killed, so she pieced together letters he wrote home along with present-day interviews with loved ones. She traveled to Vietnam and brought home dirt from the place he died.
At the cemetery on Memorial Day, Terri Guldan said her brother – a former cross-country star at Marist High School – enlisted because "he really believed in what he fought for."
She said she wrote the book in part to help her family heal.
"1970, a turbulent time for all Americans, was especially tumultuous for my family," she said in the book's introduction. "While war waged in the combat zones, our family suffered in the noncombat zones and continued after the war ended. Johnny's death nearly tore my family apart and yet, we never talked about it. We never talked about our feelings about his death, implying to each of us that our feelings were not important."
He left for boot camp in August 1969.
"Tell me not to and I won't go," he said to Racky, according to the book and her recollection.
"I could not tell him not to go," Racky said Monday, tearing up again. "How do you tell someone not to do something they believe in?"
In one of his letters to Racky from overseas, he tells her that if they have a son together some day, he would like to name the baby David Anthony.
"I am afraid and life is so precious because of you Denise, just you," he wrote. "I still keep staring at death & tempting fate."
Racky said she too hopes to be buried at Mount Olivet one day, next to the fiance she never stopped loving.
"It's an honor," she said.
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