For 40 years, they've remembered Skip Bye
She slips her son's military dog tags around her neck every day. Every night, a leather pouch containing letters he wrote home from Vietnam lies within reach on a nightstand by her bed.
Every Memorial Day, she leads four generations to the grave of her first-born, Marine Lance Cpl. Robert "Skip" Bye, in Crookston's Oakdale Cemetery.
Monday will be their 40th reunion there.
"I take them out now and then," Helen Bye, 81, said of her son's letters, opening the pouch to press fingertips to faded envelopes. She has brought them from her home in Devils Lake to granddaughter Nikki Holter's farm home near Larimore, N.D., to prepare for another Memorial Day.
"I take them out, and I read them again," she said. "And I have a little cry."
From her artist's post nearby on the floor, Hannah Holter, 13, hears the catch in her great-grandmother's voice and glances up. Reassured by a smile, the girl smiles, too, and turns back to her pencil sketch: a likeness of a handsome young man, killed 40 years ago when he stepped on a mine.
"I haven't had a chance to read all his letters yet," Hannah said, carefully attending to the smartly uniformed Marine's eyes, working from a framed photograph.
"I didn't know him," she said. "But I think he was brave."
Dawn Marie, the daughter Skip Bye never saw, born weeks before his death, will visit the gravesite this weekend, too.
Living in Florida, with a daughter of her own, she wrote a letter to her father as foreword to a book of Memorial Day reunion photographs assembled this year by Nikki Holter and another niece. They plan to give a copy -- and a collection of Skip's letters from Vietnam -- to each of the 50-plus relatives expected at this year's ceremony.
"Dear Daddy," Dawn Marie wrote.
"Just a little note to let you know what has been happening since you left us.
"I graduated high school. Started college, met a man and got married. I had your granddaughter, Paige Lynn. She is very smart and a great kid. You would be very proud of her.
"I have been told that she looks a lot like me. In turn, I have been told I look a lot like you."
A happy child
Helen and Howard Bye moved their growing family from the Devils Lake area to east of Euclid, Minn., in 1952. Robert, the first of nine children, was 4.
"He looked after the other kids as they came," his mother said.
His father gave him the nickname Skip, and it stuck. He loved helping out on the farm, a happy-go-lucky guy who seldom got mad. He played football at the former Northwest School of Agriculture, a high school in Crookston, but at home he often played peacemaker between his father and a more rebellious younger brother.
On Oct. 7, 1967, he married his high school sweetheart, Mikal Chapman. The next summer, he joined the Marines.
"I wasn't really happy about it," Helen Bye said. "But I didn't try to talk him out of it. He always wanted to be a Marine.
"The day he left ... I can still see him as he was leaving. I was crying, like I am now. He turned around and gave me a hug and said, 'Mom, Marines don't cry.' And he walked away."
By October, Skip was in South Vietnam, leading a fire team into the jungle.
With his parents, eight brothers and sisters and others writing frequently, Skip shared the wealth. "There is a guy from Florida who
doesn't get any mail," he wrote to his sister Carol, 15. "Tell all the girls in school if they want to write to a swell guy in Vietnam to write to him. He's 20, blond and good-looking."
Carol copied Jim Futch's address, then scratched it out of Skip's letter so nobody else could write to him. Futch came home from Vietnam and, in May 1971, he and Carol were married.
Nikki Holter, 37, is their daughter.
"He's told us a ton of stories about what it was like over there," she said. "Cooking a chicken in a helmet. The day he met Skip. The day Skip died."
Skip's letters home increasingly reflected his unease about the war.
"Dear kids," he wrote to his brothers and sisters on Oct. 25, 1968. "I don't like it over here too well, but there isn't much I can do about it but pray and keep my faith. I just hope I can stay alive and come home.
"I want you to think of me as the same when I come home. You take care of my wife and baby when it comes."
His letter dated Jan. 8, 1969, three days after his daughter was born, ranges from elation to deep anxiety:
"Dear Mom and Dad and all ... Well, how does it feel to be grandparents? Sure hope you feel as proud as I do to be a father. ... It sure was a nice way to start off the New Year. ...
"I just hope and pray every day that nothing goes wrong over here and I don't make it home. I've got about nine months left and I pray to God that I don't get killed before I get to see my wife again and know my first child. ... I have had a lot of close calls."
At 2:30 p.m. on a Friday in February 1969, Helen Bye answered a knock on her door.
"Our priest from Euclid was there, and two Marine officers," she said. "Of course, I knew right away."
Skip's wife was staying with the Byes.
"She came down and saw the Marine officer's hat on the table. She turned around and went back upstairs."
For Helen Bye, the pain has eased over the years, but little things -- a word, an old song, the bark of a dog or the flight of a bird -- can trigger sad memories. Memorial Day weekend always brings memories, she said, "some happy, some sad."
Several years ago, Skip's dog tags were found in a Saigon pawn shop and eventually made their way to his mother. That could have been a bad moment, she said, but she took comfort in seeing his name. "It was like having a part of him back," she said.
The funeral was at St. Mary Catholic Church in Euclid. Skip's father, Howard, wasn't Catholic, but he struck a friendship with the priest, the Rev. John O'Toole. He visited the priest frequently in the months after Skip's death, but Helen didn't realize he was taking classes.
"He said he wanted to surprise me," she said. "He said he wanted to take Skip's place in the church."
Howard Bye died in 1993.
'I miss you so'
As Hannah continued to work on her pencil sketch, the other Holter children -- Isaac, 11, Elijah, 9, Abigail, 7, and Bethany, 4 -- revolved around their great-grandma like erratic little moons.
Each is a Memorial Day veteran. Each has stood at the grave of Lance Cpl. Robert "Skip" Bye, near a towering evergreen that was a seedling when he was laid to rest. Each has listened for the muted playing of "Taps," standing with parents who themselves know Skip only from stories.
"The kids come home for this more than they do for Christmas," Helen Bye said.
"I hope they'll continue to do it," Nikki Holter said. "It's important that he be remembered and that they realize that freedom isn't free."
Skip's wife, Mikal, has drifted from the family, but there is no resentment. People grieve loss and move on in their own ways, Holter said, and her grandmother nodded.
But the daughter that Skip knew only from a few photos is hungry to know more about her father.
"I will make sure that Paige knows everything that I know about her amazing grandfather," Dawn Marie wrote in her letter to him for the Memorial Day reunion book.
"I wish more and more every day that I had my dad here to tell me that he is proud of me and all the accomplishments I have made in my life.
"I miss you so much."