Monday, November 11, 2013

Sacred Ground, Veterans Day 2013

Some years ago I took time off from a peace witness in Washington to visit Arlington National Cemetery. From the hilltop in May our Capital stretched resplendently on the other side of the Potomac. A steady stream of planes flew in and out of view like worker bees feeding the colony from a global hinterland. Dogwoods and azaleas in full bloom comforted the fields of graves. Spring green lawns made the monuments look whiter than life.

At the summit stood the Custis-Lee Mansion, homestead of General Robert E. Lee, once Superintendent of West Point and leader of the secessionist army. He married Mary Custis, the granddaughter of George Washington, and oversaw slaves tilling these fields opposite the Union capital. Congress sought to debase his name and plantation by expropriating the land as a burying ground for the Union dead in 1864.

Nearby I found I found my grandfather’s gravestone. When he eulogized Fath at a chapel gathering here my Dad invoked the Long Grey Line of West Point graduates that framed both their lives, as well as that of Uncle Rod. Fath’s other two sons entered national service from the Naval Academy.

In June of 1968 Fath had attended my Regular Army commissioning. Dad was there in uniform, two colonels and a newly minted lieutenant.

I visited Fath two months later in East Moriches. He and Jeanne were closing the family homestead for the last time. He entrusted me with his dress saber, his Indian clubs, and the cast iron water pump that served the household when they first summered in rural Long Island.

Dad called a few weeks later. Fath had died while saying farewell to his pals in town, the day they sold the house. He never made the move to Florida.

Now thirty years or so later I stood before his gravestone as a pilgrim both to and from my past. I breathed out loud my first spoken prayer. “Forgive me, Fath, the ways I have disappointed you and I will forgive you the ways you have disappointed me.” A small cloud crossed the perfect sky streaking tears over the inscription on his stone.

Fath’s three surviving sons inherited the other half of his cemetery plot. They agreed it should belong to Uncle Rod for his eventual interment – Uncle Rod, the baby of the family, wounded at Normandy, and the Third Colonel Ray.

While I was taking care of Dad in the nursing home he reminisced about Fath’s charge to him in 1939 to help prepare Rod for the West Point entrance exam. Dad took on his schoolboy brother as a summer orderly in the horse-drawn artillery at Fort Hoyle, Maryland. He assigned Rod a docile mare named Betty.

When Rod died in 2007 Dad asked me to represent him at the Arlington service. I read the Cadet Prayer, as he had at Fath’s funeral. I spoke his message: “Rod and I have been brothers and close friends all our lives. In the past, I usually led to a meeting of significance or adventure. This time Rod, you have beaten me to it. See you soon, pal.”
Folding Uncle Rod's flag
Family and friends followed the caisson from the chapel to the grave site, escorted by the United States Army Band. Rod was accorded full ceremonial honors. A color guard folded the flag over his ashes and presented it to his widow. A bugler played “Taps.”

Presenting flag to Uncle Rod's widow Dorothy, accompanied by Uncle Alan
We witnessed the re-dedication of the nation to itself as one of its soldiers was laid to rest, a cherished defender of freedom accorded hallowed ground. I looked back across the river. The planes continued to come and go.

My country had said it needed me in Vietnam. People suffered, sacrificed, endured tedium, terror and heroism. Mostly I saw it as an immeasurable waste. I didn’t want to be thanked for my part.

I looked across the river from the sacred ground of citizenship and the sacred ground of my soul. Like the bees I was born for obedience to the hive, but also to question its choices.

1 comment:

  1. Martin, I am proud to have inherited the lineage of that long gray line. I am a huge admirer of Papa John and the goodness of his military heart. I'm proud of the high accomplishments of my great grandparents, which give me courage to pursue high accomplishments of my own.

    I'm more proud to be in the second row of a new line swerving toward a different color, more like the color of flowers and green grass. Thank you for breaking away at great cost to yourself and your relationship with your borebearers. Your children (and I believe someday my children will) thank you.