It was hard to miss Michael Marks as he sat in the front row next to a black and white photo of a soldier in a uniform from the 1940s. Dressed in a bright red shirt made by the Vietnam Veterans of America organization, Marks propped the photo up as if the rakish young man in the picture were sitting next to him at the remembrance ceremony.
The day was gray, an appropriate color for the occasion. The flags hung at half-staff, while the students in the Civil Air Patrol and the Payson Honor Guard waited to present colors.
Marks and the crowd listened as Lou Carpino, a member of the Payson Patriotic Committee, introduced the speakers: Father Lowell Andrews, Tonto Apache Tribal Council representative Louise Lopez, Mayor Kenny Evans, Police Chief Don Engler, and Fire Chief Marty deMasi.
Around Marks, veterans from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines listened to speeches with somber faces. Veterans wore ribbons, pins, medals, caps, and dressed in red, white and blue shirts. When the bagpipe tribute played by Eric Landau floated plaintively across the lush green slopes, many people pulled out tissues to wipe away a tear in remembrance of those who did not make it.
In fact, the photo Marks sat next to was the picture of a soldier who did not make it home — his father.
“He’s listed on the tablets of those missing at Normandy,” said Marks. “I celebrate this day for him.”
Marks’ father survived the Normandy beach landing, but died a week later at the top of the hill overlooking the beach. In that titanic battle that turned the tide of World War II, 160,000 Allied troops — almost half of them Americans — landed on the shores of German occupied France on June 6, 1944.
A strange tale lies behind Marks’ attendance at the Payson Memorial Day ceremonies, with his father seated beside him.
“I never knew about him or my sister until 1985,” said Marks.
Scandalous for the time, Marks’ father had an affair with Marks’ mother and fathered both Marks and his older sister before he went off in the Army to fight the Germans on Omaha Beach.
Marks’ father had eight other children with his wife before he fell in love with Marks’ underage mother.
“When my sister was born, the Catholic charities took her away,” Marks said to explain why he never knew about his sister — or his father.
Marks’ mother was not an adult when his sister was born. However, by the time Marks was born, his mother had turned 18. She was old enough to take responsibility for him, so she raised him.
Yet, his mother never said a word about his real father or sister while Marks grew up. His mother remarried and had five other children before his lost sister found him.
His sister reunited with him because she had to regain her identity to have a passport.
“I was visiting my mother at the time my sister found my mother,” said Marks, reflecting on how close he came to never knowing about his other family. As if finding a long-lost sister were not enough, she told him about their father.
“It took me two weeks to absorb it all,” he said.
He was in his 40s when he learned about his father, but he’s made up for the lost time.
He has gone back to Normandy to walk Omaha Beach. He climbed up the hill to visit the spot his father might have died.
“He died in a firefight,” said Marks. “When they came back to find his body, it was gone. Nothing remained, no dog tags or uniform. They believe local farmers took the body and buried it in a nearby field.”
His father’s family gave him the photo he took to the ceremony in Green Valley Park — the only thing he has of his father.
Others in the tearful and somber crowd in Green Valley Park on Monday had their own tokens and memories.
Like Marks, Payson Fire Chief deMasi also lost family in the nation’s service. He lost a brother in Vietnam. His loss lent weight to his words.
“It can be easy to get distracted by the parties and barbecues of the day,” he said, “but if the smoke from the barbecue blows in your eyes, remember the young pilot with smoke billowing in his face as his damaged plane spirals into the ocean ...
“When you taste the pork ribs, remember the Iowa farm boy who died on the beach at Normandy ...
“When you eat potato salad, remember the Idaho farm boy who died in the wastes of Korea ...
“When you take a shower, remember the lieutenant sweaty and hot in the jungles of Vietnam ...
“Our freedom was made possible by those who sacrificed.”
A sentiment not lost on Marks, whose father made the ultimate sacrifice.