When we all tumbled out of the car into the bright, hot Texas Afternoon, I wasn’t impressed. I had seen cemeteries before. I had walked past the gravestones and looked at all the markers. It had been quiet and warm, like today, and had the same shapes and colors of stone. The only difference in my mind was that there were more fire ants here than in North Carolina.
My parents went up to a white-haired little man with glasses and a hat that said “U.S. Army. Vietnam” In my head I calculated his age to be about the same as my Papa’s, who had been a Telegraph Operator in the army and had died in 2015. We had visited his grave in April, when we drove down to North Carolina to visit family and spend our vacation at the beach. The man was holding an armful of flags and a flat-head screwdriver, and there was a woman with him, probably his wife. My dad asked the man if we could help decorate the graves.
It is May 28th. Memorial day. That is why we were at the cemetery. We were there to place flags by the graves of soldiers.
I teamed up with my sister Grace and my brother Sam. I looked for the graves, Sam poked a hole in the ground with a screwdriver, and Grace stuck a flag in. We wandered from one end of our corner to another, looking like patriotic grave robbers. It was difficult to tell which graves had been made for soldiers. The big, impressive ones that were easy to read had no useful information on them. They simply said the person’s name, his date of birth and death, and perhaps an inspirational quote. Nothing helpful.
After a while we realized that someone, probably someone in the government, had given the soldiers grave markers that were all the same size, shape, and color. The stone was a light gray, about three inches thick, and the size of a doormat. On each headstone was a black carved cross, the name of the soldier, which war he fought in, sometimes his rank and company, and his dates. The uniform stones made it easier to tell which ones to honor with flags, but it was still difficult. You really couldn’t tell until you were right on top of them.
A bit irritated by the heat, sun, ants, and mosquitoes, I wasn’t too interested in what we were doing until we arrived at a questionable headstone. There was the cross, all right, but the rest of the headstone had been covered with dirt. I couldn’t tell if this was a soldier or just someone with a cross on their stone. To make it worse, an ant hill had settled itself right in the corner. I brushed off as much yellow-white clay dust as I could without being bitten. There was a name, a date, and…no war. But there, under my feet, someone had been buried. Someone who had once been alive, and alive for a good while, judging from the dates. I wondered who he was. I wondered why they had let his gravestone become so….dirty. It was almost as if the earth was trying to swallow the marker, swallow the last evidence of this man’s life.
His wife’s stone wasn’t in much better shape, or at least, I guessed it was his wife’s. The earth had eaten it completely, leaving only the top exposed. I wondered what the etiquette of graveyards said about shovels. I wanted to get one and use it to clean up the stones. If shovels weren’t allowed, were brooms?
Other stones were covered in mold, mildew, and fungus. One had a bush growing over it, obscuring its inscription. Some were so old the carving had been worn away, leaving only a stone, with words so blurry that you could barely read them. I saw one stone that read 1869. The man who died had been born at the end of the civil war years.
As we continued our quest for soldiers, I looked for different wars on the tombstones. World War I. World War II. Korea. The Spanish-American War. Vietnam. That one made me think about the Soldier who gave us the flags. Did he do this every year, alone? Did he go through the cemetery, bending over to poke the hole, and carefully place every flag, every year? The cemetery was large. It took us about an hour to place the flags. I wondered how long it would have taken him. Why did he do it every year? Did he know someone who had died, and who was buried there?
I ran out of flags and borrowed some from Adam. Reality cut into my musing when I stepped into an ant hill on the way back to Sam and Grace. I had been skirting danger with ants since I stepped foot in that place. They had made their burrows all through the ground, turning it all from packed clay to turned-up sand. Any Texan knows that when the dirt is clumped into tiny circles, and starting to mound, you shouldn’t step there. But the tiny mounds were everywhere, and it was impossible to avoid them all for long. Ant bites make it hard to reminisce. Especially in Texas, where Fire Ants have a strange taste for revenge.
“Thank you for your help.” The soldier said, after inquiring about my ant bites. I was standing with one foot on his tailgate, trying to obliterate the little red demons scurrying about in my shoe and on my foot. “You’ve made this much easier.”
“You’re Welcome.” I said. I wanted to say something else but I couldn’t think of anything other than “I’m glad to help.”
The Soldier thanked us all before we left. We had decorated the graves of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen. It was a little cemetery. It didn’t take more than an hour to finish. I had broken my pencil trying to poke holes for the flag, and my foot was itching horribly from the ant bites. It was hot, and there wasn’t any shade. We climbed back into the car and attacked the cooler, pulling out chilled water bottles.
Mom and Dad and Adam talked to the soldier. Joel tried to beg a flag from him, but we didn’t let him have it. He wouldn’t really appreciate it the way it deserved. I thought about how passive we are about the flag. It’s just a symbol, after all, isn’t it?
A Vietnam veteran went every year to decorate the graves of his fellow soldiers. He told us emphatically to never let the flags touch the ground. To him it was important.
As we drove away, Adam mentioned a set of graves he had seen on his side of the cemetery. “Two boys.” He said. “They both died on the same day.”
“Were they soldiers?”
“I don’t know.” He admitted. “But they were eighteen. And they were right next to each other. I wonder if they were friends.”
There were so many mysteries in that graveyard. The stone for the unnamed infant, who was given a month and a year, but no days for his birth or death. The person in the back whose stone was so badly damaged by mildew, so that it couldn’t be read. A grave with a little cat figurine on it. All of these people were alive. But now they have been forgotten.
Except for today, when some of them, the ones who gave everything for their country, were remembered by a former soldier, who still honored their sacrifice, his flag, and his country.
And by us, who had never understood Memorial day.