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Kindness endures, the flowers are for you

Leo Eckerle sits in his lawn chair in front of his garage watching traffic go through one of Jasper’s busiest intersections. This is where he spends 90 percent of the time. Photos by Matthew Crane.

The flowers are meticulously planted by hand with seeds so tiny that it only takes a teaspoon to create a brilliant splash of color on the busy street corner in Jasper.

They are a gift from Leo Eckerle to the many occupants of the passing cars.

He considers it his job to go out in the early spring to loosen the soil and sprinkle the cockscomb seeds before pressing them into the dirt. Sometimes, if the nights get too cold, he has to replant the seeds. This year, he did so three times.

Then he watches the patch each day. Any shoots of grass or dandelions that pop to the surface are quickly severed with the razor-sharp shear he has attached to a hip-high handle leaning just inside his garage door.

The flowers remind him of his wife, Lora Lou. One more memory of her etched into the home Leo built by hand at the corner of 36th and St. Charles 72 years ago.

The first seeds came from Germany with Lora Lou’s great-grandparents. The method of planting and ensuring their growth was passed on to her and she taught Leo. For years, she would plant four rows of the bright flowers in their garden adjacent to St. Charles.

Lora Lou passed away eight years ago. Leo continued the tradition of planting the flowers.

Each year, Leo Eckerle plants the flowers that fill the corner of 36th and St. Charles Street that passing cars and pedestrians admire.

Leo and Lora Lou were childhood friends due to proximity. His family owned 70 acres on one side of the gravel road that now forms County Road 300 N. Her family had 80 acres on the other side. As such, the families would spend time together — especially on Sunday evenings.

According to Leo, when families visited back then, it meant all the kids went along. So on a regular basis, the Eckerles would pack up the eight boys and two girls (Leo included) and go hang out at the Renner’s nearby farm. There the children would mix together. “We knew each other and played with each other,” Leo said. “We all became friends.”

Leo and Lora Lou started dating when he was 16. They married in September of 1950.

Leo wanted a home for the young couple but didn’t have any money to his name. He did have that plot of land though. He went to Krempp Lumber — one of two places he could go at the time and the only one that was worth a darn back then, according to Leo — and spoke to them bluntly about his situation.

The manager must have seen how serious he was about building the home. “He came over and whacked me on the back and told me to get my ass home and get started,” Leo laughed.

He worked day and night to get the home ready for his new bride. When they moved in, it wasn’t quite finished but it had a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen.

Then 15 short months into their marriage, the unthinkable happened. “Lo and behold, I got drafted,” Leo said. “It was unbelievable.”

They only had 15 days. Leo was scheduled to board the train in Washington to take him to boot camp 15 short days after he received the notice. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said about leaving Lora Lou.

Leo was in the infantry and spent his time on the front line in the trenches so close to the North Koreans they could see each other across the chewed up ground.

The horrors from the seven months in the Korean trenches still haunt him.

They were always on alert as snipers and riflemen took shots at them. Sleep was no escape for the soldiers as the North Koreans would sneak into U.S. trenches at night to attempt to kill anyone who happened to close their eyes. Leo wonders to this day how he deflected the thrust of a bayonet from a Korean soldier aimed at his neck when he happened to doze off one night.

Leo had three showers in the seven months he was there. After making one of those trips to the base set up away from the trenches for a hot meal and one of those precious showers, the line of trucks they were in came under attack from North Korean artillery.

He and a good friend, Paul Embry, jumped from the back of the truck and huddled by the rear tire as the shells landed around them. When shrapnel exploded through the tire they were beside, Paul told Leo it was too hot where they were at and suggested they take cover at the base of a nearby hill.

They were back to back in the dark against the hillside when a shell landed on top. Suddenly they both found themselves drenched in fuel that was used to heat the cooking stoves at the camp. “The shell had hit a 50-gallon drum filled with gasoline that was on top of the hill where we were at,” Leo explained. “I don’t know how it didn’t catch fire.”

He was promoted and had several machine gun crews under his leadership. During some horrendous shelling, he watched as one of his two-person crews took a direct hit. Another soldier in his platoon asked to go help them. Leo knew the men were dead, they were in pieces down there. He told the young soldier there was no reason to go, but he ignored Leo and went anyway. “He had lied about his age,” Leo remembered. “He jumped on down there and about 15 minutes later he came back. He was foaming at the mouth. He was hollering and screaming.”

Leo didn’t know what to do. The deranged young soldier was inconsolable so Leo knocked him down and held him on the ground with his foot on his chest until he regained his senses.

He also watched as another soldier was eviscerated by a sniper. “It took his belt right off,” Leo said. “He came back down in the trenches and he was carrying his guts in his hands.”

The flowers form thick undulating petals. Leo says you can dry them after about two weeks and they will keep their brilliant color.

Those are moments that haunt him. “I see it every day,” Leo said. “That damn bayonet. That happened 65 years ago and I see it every day.”

He spent the last three months of his enlistment training recruits to be prepared for the do-or-die situation they faced in Korea.

Then mercifully, his time was up and he was released from the Army.

When he came home, he was able to get the bus driver to drop him off at the Evandrew Motel that used to sit at the intersection of Newton and 36th Street. The bus was set to arrive at 3 a.m. so he called his parents’ home to let them know and they passed the message along to Lora Lou.

“The bus pulled up and I got off and there she was,” Leo said through tears.

Leo was a broken man. Lora Lou mended him with her love and tenderness. With dancing and nights out together and with friends. This recipe of consistent love and kindness slowly brought Leo back from the harsh, unfeeling, shell he had created to cope with the horrors in those trenches.

She was his beacon always.

Leo built a construction business in Dubois County. “I always said that I didn’t build houses, I built homes,” he asserted. Through the years, Lora Lou was by his side in their kitchen as he drew up plans for the next home he and his crew would build.

They added onto and completed their own house. Adopted two children and watched the gravel road get paved as Jasper expanded north. Growing up out there, seeing two cars in a day would be busy. The other day Leo counted more than a hundred cars in an hour stop at the intersection near the Jasper Middle School.

He sits in his lawn chair next to the garage door in the shade of the many maple trees he planted 70 years ago. All are welcome to stop by; another lawn chair leans against the garage and a swing is available for anyone to sit and chat.

Many stop by to take photos of the flowers and talk to him. Some ask for seeds and he always obliges them with specific directions on how to grow them.

The tiny seeds fall from the base of the flowers dozens at a time. Leo collects them and picks out what he deems are the best ones for planting. The plants displace thousands of seeds annually.

The undulating blossoms are thick and soft to the touch but solid. The ribbon-shaped stalks provide a strong foundation to hold up the substantial weight of the flowering plant as the blossoms grow thicker.

They blossom in a beautiful vibrant fuchsia. One year, Leo was scratching his head as yellow blossoms spotted the normally deep fuchsia sash.

Leo showed off the many cards he received on his 90th birthday.

They remind him of his wife. “My wife was by my side all the time,” Leo added. “She would do anything for me.”

He thinks it is important for people to know what he and many others went through. It shouldn’t be forgotten. The horror of war and the memories he has are made bearable by the love he still has for his wife and the kindness that endures in the community.

It is what’s helping him get through the recent loss of his son, Duane, and helped him through the loss of his daughter, Sheila. “It is the Lord’s will,” Leo mused about being the only one left.

When Leo turned 90, he received 330 cards from people in the community. He has them wrapped in a piece of leather beside the couch in his living room. He’s read through them all with tears in his eyes. An offering from a community that is returning his kindness through all of those years.

“My mother always told us boys to kill everyone with kindness and we’d never regret it,” Leo said.

These are the things he thinks about as he plants the flowers each year and cares for them.

The flowers are for him.

The flowers are for you.