Start of Summer.
The cemetery lies in a shady stand of pine, a stone’s throw from a busy four-lane highway that speeds drivers through town. It dates from the 1890s, when it served as the military cemetery for an Army fort that stood across the road.
I parked my motorcycle outside the gate; the bark from the pipes seemed rowdy and irreverent for the setting. The crunch of boots on gravel faded as I moved from the entrance road onto lush, green lawn. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for as I read the inscriptions on each gravestone. The dates varied widely, with noteworthy clusters of wartime deaths. I recognized no names. I knew none of the souls interred beneath my feet.
The intention in my visit had been to seek meaning in what we call Memorial Day. A day set aside to honor and mourn the men and women who died while serving in the US Military. A holiday that seems to be in danger of being eclipsed by more enticing pursuits. Just as this little-noticed cemetery is invisible to the thousands of cars zipping past, the meaning of Memorial Day has been forgotten by those of us who are on the verge of jumping into summer fun.
Maybe so many of us breeze past the solemnness of Memorial Day because it doesn’t feel personal or relevant. If we didn’t lose a parent, spouse, or child to military action, it’s pretty easy to gloss over the somber, reflective part of the holiday. I don’t have any personal ties to a fallen service member, so the meaning of this remembrance is vague to me.
As I processed the names, dates, and epitaphs on the weathered granite slabs, I waited for some understanding to wash over me. Hundreds of soldiers, sailors, and airmen are buried in this ground. Every one of them different. Coming from varied backgrounds, races, and circumstances. Some volunteers, others conscripted. It’s possible some were war heroes – selflessly facing danger in the heat of battle. Just as likely, some did not act too honorably when they saw the horrors of war in front of them.
It finally hit home when I realized that all the differences didn’t matter. I don’t care if the soldier volunteered or was drafted, or about their rank, age, or color of skin. Bravery, cowardice, or somewhere in between; it is of no account. I don’t need to agree with them on the politics of a war or disparage their views on conflict. I don’t need them to be related to me as a family member or try to find a point of comparison with them. There is a singular commonality among each of them: every single one of them died in service to our country. Willingly or not, they gave their lives as sacrifice when their nation called. That is reason enough to honor their memory and recognize the grief their families carry.
In the shade of a pine, with the black flies buzzing around, I turned that thought around and around. Seemed fitting, in a small Vermont cemetery, to take a moment of silence and honor those who have fallen. I will still follow along with all of the things that the weekend has come to mean: the kickoff to summer, cookouts and such. It’s come to be the gateway to summer, after all. But you can be sure that I will stop and take a (long) moment of silence to remember and honor those who died in service to our country.
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.
– President Harry S. Truman