A patriotic memory, a Fourth of July tradition

I wrote this story when I worked at The Sun in San Bernardino, Calif. in 1990. It was a Fourth of July story. 

Fourth photo

Helen and Harlie Bohner


July 4, 1990

By Mike Gordon , Sun Staff Writer

The boy Harlie and Helen Bohner remember is always a smiling rascal with a heart of gold.

He is a boy who liked to pitch baseballs, a boy who nursed wounded animals, a boy whose freckles gave way to manhood.

He was their boy, Leonard Allen Bohner, all of 19 when they last saw him.

That’s his flag in the Bohner’s front yard. It flies proudly from a homemade flagpole. Harlie made it from tetherball poles.

On this day when most Americans celebrate their patriotic roots with parades, picnics and fireworks, the Bohners will do what they have done every day for 23 years: send Old Glory to the top of that flagpole.

They do it for patriotism — Harlie’s a World War II vet — and they do it for Leonard, who died in Vietnam in 1967.

“He really believed in the flag,” says Harlie, 66.

“We wanted something that would be a constant reminder to his friends,” says Helen, 63. “He was very well-liked.”

“He had a million dollar personality,” Harlie says.

Leonard grew up in this house on this tree-lined San Bernardino street. His friends were always trooping through. Helen kept a big old cookie jar in the kitchen. And how many times did those kids stay over for dinner? Why, she just can’t remember.

There was a basketball court in the backyard. Harlie, a retired heavy equipment operator, made sure the play was sportsman-like.

Those were fun times, they’ll tell you.

They have a lot of scrapbooks to remind them.

There’s 8-year-old Leonard in a Little League uniform. There he is on Santa’s lap. And there’s that three-legged turtle he nursed. How proud the family must have been when they took those graduation pictures — San Bernardino High School, Class of ’65.

Then there’s the telegram. A gunshot wound to the chest. Somewhere near Danang. President Johnson sent a letter of condolence. So did Leonard’s commanding officer.

Helen says it isn’t easy to look through her scrapbooks, to find the tattered all-star team baseball cap or the little boxing gloves. But she knows she’s lucky to have them.

And that makes her smile.

“This young man cared enough to give his all,” Helen says. “When he said he joined the Marines, I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t have to go to Vietnam.”

When he did, he told his parents, “If I die, I die,” Helen says. “And he said he truly believed his presence there could be felt. He said, ‘I think I can make this a much better world for others to live in.’”

Neighbors still tell the Bohners how much they enjoy seeing the flag. So do people driving by. Maybe that’s why the Bohners fly Old Glory.

But there’s another reason the Bohners find just as comforting.

Little boys who stop and salute.

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