"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers theme for TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon artist's musings melding metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Day stories amid the gravestones

Santa Fe National Cemetery, with the appropriately named Sangre de Cristos (Blood of Christ)in the background.
I didn’t know Buster, but I wish I did.
JUNE 30, 1922 SEPT. 24, 1944
I don’t know how he died, but this 22-year-old Oklahoma paratrooper with  the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne fell in Europe not long after D-Day, fighting for freedom. His name is etched in marble on one of the headstones in the U.S. National Cemetery at Fort Smith, Arkansas. I was an infant, safe and secure in my crib in Dallas, not bombed, not herded off toe concentration camps, not tortured. He helped make that possible, along with four of my uncles, three named Clark, one named Culp.
This Memorial Day there will be speeches and flags and flowers  and 21- gun salutes and prayers and Taps at this cemetery just across the border from Oklahoma, and in hundreds like them across the country. There will be similar services in other cemeteries all over America, saluting the veterans.
Roses the color of blood grow on the fences, as about 9,500 grayish-white headstones of veterans from frontier days to the Gulf War sweep over the grassy green hills, like the white stripes on the American flag, gently rippling in the free breeze.
JUNE 2, 1932
NOV. 28, 1950
Most of the headstones are uniform, 24 inches out of the ground, 15 inches wide, gently oval at the top, 3 feet from the next gravestone to the side, 10 feet from the ones above and below it. On some there are small crosses above the names, the service, the dates. Simple. Sparse, Military. The precision is perfect and from any angle the headstones maintain perfect rank order--marching like rows of men going into battle--only here there are no more gaps where comrades are cut down by enemy fire. Here the ranks march on forever, into eternity.  
JUNE 16, 1919 APRIL 13, 1944
Decoration Day, in
Johnsonville, OK
The cemetery office doesn’t have biographical records on how all the veterans died, but some stand out. Like Lt. Pogue of Fort Smith, missing in action since April 13, 1944 over Europe. German historians and the pilot who shot down Lt. Pogue’s P-38 fighter recently located his remains. They were buried with full military honors on Dec. 21, 1996--52 years later. His widow, who never remarried, couldn’t attend because she was in a Ft. Smith hospital, and she’s since died. But his son, Walter Wayne Pogue Jr., who probably never met his daddy, received the folded American flag with triangle of stars showing as his father was laid to rest with 21-gun salute.

JUNE 29, 1920 JAN. 1, 1945
There is a section where men who were buried at sea, and those whose remains were never recovered, are buried. Those graves are closer together, clustered for companionship. They may have died alone, but they’ve joined more than a million other American veterans who’ve died in the defense of their country. Congress approved national Cemeteries in 1862, in response to the carnage of the Civil War. One of the first was at Gettysburg. I've walked there, and at Manassas, and at Vicksburg, and am always stunned to silence and tears. Today they span the country, including one I just saw in Sitka, Alaska, though I didn't take a photo. 

1834 SEPT. 11, 1863

A  Confederate's grave at Purcell, OK.
Fort Smith is one of the few national cemeteries where Union soldiers are buried alongside Confederates, because the South occupied the Fort in the War. Most Southerners are buried in Confederate cemeteries or in thousands of private cemeteries, many in unmarked graves, as at Manassas. More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other, and people still put flowers on those graves. Memorial Day was first called "Decoration day," a time to decorate the graves, a tradition that goes beyond the military and many people still observe it in cemeteries all over the country.
1924 1986
About 350 graves a year are added to the Fort Smith cemetery. Any veteran may request burial in a national cemetery, and the surviving spouse, or a child who dies under 21 years of age, may join him. Every veteran receives the regulation tombstone, and the folded flag for survivors. Retired veterans and those who were killed in action receive full military honors, including the 21-gun salute. A fresh bouquet of red carnations was placed at Pvt. Deason’s grave recently. People remember a long time in a national cemetery.
And there are more than 100 Unknowns in the ranks of these headstones--no stories, no names, no dates--of men who died and are forgotten, except for a marker in a graveyard of heroes, ordinary men who fought and died in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Air Corps, Coast Guard. All are equal in the cemetery--officers rest beside enlisted men. 
The cemetery is quiet but not deathly silent. Meadowlarks and mockingbirds add their songs to the air. The sky is hazy. There is the smell not of bodies cut down, but of fresh-cut grass. Life. A riding lawnmower drones on, moving over the gentle swells, up and down the long ranks of graves,  past the etched names of states--Iowa, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma--past the years--1819, 1864, 1918, 1943, 1950, 1969--the rider like an officer preserving the order of march, marshaling his forces for a final charge.
I wish I’d known them all. Don’t you?
At the two-story brick house that serves as cemetery office and headquarters, a plaque carries President Lincoln’s words as he dedicated a national cemetery at Gettysburg 134 years ago. Hallowed ground. Above, the Stars and Stripes wave in the breeze over the grass patterned with headstones.
Every day at 5 p.m., the haunting, plaintive notes of Taps echoes across the green hills, caressing each white gravestone.
Goodnight, Buster. Goodnight, Lt. Pogue.  
And thanks.
New graves at Santa Fe, where my uncle Mike, WWII and Korean War Navy vet was buried in November.

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