Decoration Day

“You went where?”

All right, we do need to back up here and give my wife a break.  It’s Sunday morning.  Because of the chaos of Indianapolis 500 traffic, our church basically shuts down on Memorial Day weekend, so I should have been snoozing in bed, that’s true.  Now, of course, she knew that I was going to have to go down to the hospital at some point today to pick up some papers (no PHI, fellow employees and supervisors, don’t panic!), so it really shouldn’t have been that much of an issue, and after all, she and the kids had been fast asleep when I left, so I figured, heck, everybody will probably still be in bed when I return, so I’ll just run down right now and then make my little side trip before the sun gets too hot and everybody’s done with church and finished lunch and therefore heading on out, so given that nobody at my house will probably even notice anyway, no harm, no foul, right?

Well, now, yes, there’s a bit of an unusual piece, that’s true:  I did take Sasha, the wonder terrier-mutt, with me, but only because I didn’t want her barking reveille once I walked past her and woke her up and got her all stirred, and believe me, my kids wouldn’t have done a darn thing to stop her if that’d happened (“It’s not my turn!”), so I thought I’d be a nice guy (right?) and take her with me, as she’ll only be in the car a few minutes while I get the papers, plus it’s not hot yet, and the windows will be rolled down that appropriate amount, enough for air, but not enough for freedom, and then I’ll take her with me as I go walking, because it’ll be quiet and relatively cool still and probably not that many people around, if any, and then when I’m done I can go to Einstein Bagels and pick up a few of the asiago cheese and everything variety, and all the world’ll be happy, and God’ll be in His heaven, and that’ll be it.  Right?

No good deed goes unpunished.  My wife woke up around 0830h, military time.  She texted me.

“Where have you been?  Where’s the dog?” she asked, more puzzled than miffed, when I called to confirm bagel orders.

“Oh, I just went down to the VA and took Sasha with me.  She was just in the car a few minutes.  Then I went over to Crown Hill for a little bit, and now I’m on the way home, and I thought I’d stop by and . . .”

Insert at this point the opening line of the post.

Crown Hill Cemetery, located in the far Northwest corner of the center of Indianapolis, near both Butler University (of Bulldogs basketball fame) and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was, according to its website, incorporated as a cemetery in 1863, and the federal government purchased land in it for a National Cemetery in 1866.  It remains one of the largest non-government cemeteries in the nation, and many residents of Indianapolis, from the well-to-do and (in)famous, such as President Benjamin Harrison, the writers Booth Tarkington and James Whitcomb Riley, and the gangster John Dillinger, down to the most lowly (and sometimes unnamed) have found there their final rest  As a National Cemetery, it originally served as the burial ground for the remains of Civil War soldiers, but through the years veterans of all wars have been interred on grounds, including a special area for Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned in a POW camp that had been outside the city.  In the late 1980′s an additional section was set aside for the burial of veterans from the modern area, now called the Field of Valor, at which there is an eternal flame, along with a large mausoleum.

All right, now, further background: I can’t remember the last time I went to a cemetery on Memorial Day weekend.  As I was growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, my rural family had had a certain fascination with burial grounds, so I was no stranger to such plots of land.  To the end of her life, for example, my grandmother always referred to the holiday as Decoration Day, the original name dating back to the Civil War era, only changed officially to Memorial Day in 1967 (according to Wikipedia, the be-all/end-all of all knowledge).  And decorate on Decoration Day she did, although never the graves of any fallen in battle, as my mother’s family had been quite fortunate not to have lost anyone in World War II, Korea, or Viet Nam, and the body of my father’s elder brother was never returned from France.  Still, many a plastic hyacinth remains a memorial in some landfill somewhere to the dearly departed of my ancestors.

But you must remember: from junior high on, I grew up in Indianapolis, on the west side of the city, well within earshot of the Motor Speedway and the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”  Quite frankly, Memorial Day to me has often been little else than a day to avoid getting anywhere near a major artery of traffic until well after the sun starts fading into the western sky.  Trust me, don’t head out, it’s not worth it, and the stale beer smell, good Lord, I can’t even begin to tell you, Schlitz, picked-over chicken bones, and urine, all in the high heat, what memories, what memories, be still my beating heart . . .

This is my third Memorial Day as an employee of the Veterans Health Administration.  It is my first, however, as a blogger–and the follower of many blogs of combat veterans, their families, and their supporting organizations.

I knew that today I needed to head out to Crown Hill.

You must also understand: I am not “patriotic” in the usual, colloquial sense of the term.  I am glad to live in this nation, and I do believe that as a people we are committed to justice and freedom.  I am proud of that.

I have always, however, been somewhat wary of the Nation-State and especially of its leaders who have often, although perhaps with the best of initial intentions, led us–and even more, led our young men and now young women–into engagements that have not, shall we say, always been in the clear pursuit of the “freedoms” that they kept telling us needed to be fought for and preserved.  I grew up in the Viet Nam era, after all.  I remember Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger.  I even have a vague, distant memory of the Gulf of Tonkin.  It was all, again shall we say, complicated–and carried out on the backs of American youth who merely desired to be honorable and grateful for the privileges that they had enjoyed.

As a result, I’ve never been what you would call a flag-waver.  I respect the flag.  I honor the people, all of us, whom the flag represents.  I do not, however, necessarily find myself enthralled with the leaders who make the decisions that they request us to label as “patriotic” and, thus, frequently symbolized by that waving flag

So here I was, driving through the gothic front gates of Crown Hill Cemetery, met by a young women ready to give me a map of the area and a “would you like a flag?”

It took only a moment’s reflection.  I was not there for Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Bush, or Obama, for the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the military-industrial complex.  I was there for the men and women I sit with day in and day out, for the ones whose writings I read.  For the ones they loved who did not return home with them.

“Yes, thank you.”  I donated five dollars, and I drove on.

Eventually I ended up at the Field of Valor.  There was only a red Honda Civic parked there along its edges, and an older woman, probably no younger than her late seventies, was slowly walking back toward it, away from the main area.  As I headed up the walkway, we passed, briefly greeted each other.  Why she was there, for whom, I do not know.

I walked up to the enclosed area that contains the flame.  The mausoleum behind it is covered in markers of many who have apparently not yet passed, but whose remains will one day fill those vaults, proudly announcing to future generations their years of military service.  On the way up, I had walked past multiple flat grave makers, essentially all of individuals who had served in World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, or at least in those eras, given the dates on the plaques.

Along the sides of the mausoleum, however, radiating out from the four corners in an X-pattern, were rows of tall, noble limestone headstones, surrounded by well-tended mulch, guarded by small, but full-leaved trees.

I walked down all four rows.  Many of the markers were engraved only with the names of a man and a woman, usually only with a birth date of each.  At the top of the markers was the seal of the military branch that had been the pride of the (almost always) man to serve.  A few were of World War II era, a few more of Viet Nam.  A few had dates of death.

Periodically, however, I passed the only graves that I saw today of men who had died long before their thirtieth birthdays.  Most had died before their twenty-fifth.

All these graves were well-decorated, as my grandmother would have whispered reverently, admiringly: small floral sprays, wreaths, stained-glass plaques, stones with phrases inked in the most beautiful of calligraphy, even a few crosses with an Irish Blessing engraved on them.  Yellow ribbons with brief notations recalling outings still remembered.  A well-sanded piece of driftwood with a platoon’s ID written carefully with black felt-tipped pen.  A stone that merely recorded that he “always had our backs.”

As I stood before each head stone, my own names came back to me.  Danny.  Mike.  TJ.  I thought of the young men who had sat in my office, none still yet age thirty, each whispering one of those names, his voice catching, his eyes slamming shut, the silence, the tear streaming down his cheek.

In front of one the grave stones was what looked perhaps to be a tract of some kind, maybe from Crown Hill?  I picked it up.

It wasn’t a tract.

It was a card.  “The Three Most Beautiful Words in the World,” it said on the front.  On the inside?  “Happy Birthday, Son.”  Signed, with love, in honor of his twenty-seventh birthday.

Looking at the stone, I could see: he had died right around the age of twenty.

Just down a few stones was another young man’s.  And next to it?  A stone of a man and women, both apparently still alive.  Same last name.  The stone proudly announced that the man had been Navy.  It quietly announced that he and his wife would one day lie forever next to their son.

According the date on the stone, the father had been born almost exactly four months before I was.  In another life, we could have been high school classmates.

On the other side of the cemetery is the Civil War burial ground, row after row of white markers, with simply a name (or “unknown”) and a regiment.  Across from it is another, relatively large monument of shiny black marble, dedicated to veterans of all branches, the emblems of all services etched along its side.  As Sasha and I meandered past the markers in front of it, I stopped at one almost directly in front of the monument.

To my utter surprise, it was the marker of the mother and father of one of my private patients.

I have known my patient for a long time.  He is a good man, smart, funny, quite talented, married for many years, a father and a grandfather.  His has been a complicated life.  He has struggled.  He has grown.  He still struggles.  I went to the callings of each of his parents.  They too were complicated people.  I can’t say that they ever were able to see their son for who he really was.  He has a paid a price for that.  Yet they did love him, and deeply.  They were good people, the product of their times, the outgrowths of their own parents’ fundamentalism.  The father served in World War II.  I would have remembered them as one of the “older folks” had they attended the church I did growing up.  I would have remembered them well, I’m sure.

As Sasha sniffed around, she finally gave in to my preoccupation, my standing there, holding tight her lead.  So she just plopped herself right down,  about two markers to the west of me, to bask in the sun, to enjoy quite blithely the fruits of the here and now.  I knelt down, balanced on my haunches.

Here was the confluence of so many aspects of my life: memories of my own departed, memorials to veterans of all ages, thoughts of men and women who have paid me much to work so hard together to find a deeper purpose in their lives, visceral experiences of men and women who have paid me so much–as a citizen, as one who lives under that flag–not with money, however, but with their youth, with their lives, with the lives of those whom they have loved, their Danny’s, their Mike’s, their TJ’s.   The sons and daughters of my peers.  The sons and daughters who still draw us to the local Hallmark store one more year, what number is it now?  The ones who had our backs, all our backs, whether we think they should have had to be there for us or not, no matter whether the Nation-State stirs us or enrages us.

I pushed the end of the small flag I had paid so little for into the ground, just in front of the name of my patient’s father.

So many have paid so much:  for the men fighting next to them who went on to be buried years later in much quieter times; for the men who, like the soldier at the end of Saving Private Ryan, have wondered whether, in return, they have truly lived as good men;  for all of us, whether or not we asked those men and women, long buried or only recently, to pay the ultimate price for us, but for all of us who, indeed, are able to sit back today where we are, as we are, simply because each of them was.

I remember each of you, Uncle Raymond, my patient’s father, Danny, Mike, TJ, each of you.

Thank you.

One response

  1. Oh good – I thought my grandparents and mom were the only ones left on the planet who also (only) calls it Decoration Day. :)

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