Posted by: trevormeers | May 29, 2010

Stories in Stone

Allison doesn’t want to walk through the cemetery, even though the golden May sunset has brushed the whole thing with a park-like glow. She’s certain that after five steps in, she’ll lose a foot into some lurking zombie pit. (Parental note: If you have a story about the time your foot slid into a sinkhole in a country cemetery, don’t share it with the Scooby Doo-obsessed kid.) But with Memorial Day weekend nearly upon us, I want her to see some things here, so I dig into the Dad Toolkit and turn it into a challenge. Go find the oldest stone. The game’s allure trumps the zombie threat, and she bounds into the grass of Greencastle Cemetery to start pressing her nose to weathered headstones. The dates quickly drop. “I have a 1908!” “Here’s a 1902!” “1880!!”

The sun slides down to the windrowed hay across the barbed-wire fence, and our game slows. Following the good people of Jasper County back in time leads to stones aged to little more than white slabs with dented faces. The freeze-thaw cycle on the hilltop has broken many headstones in half so that part of the fading year appears on the stump, the rest on the slab someone propped respectfully against it.

Finally Allison shouts, “I found an 1871!” and there stands the record as far as we can tell. It wasn’t the oldest stone that caught her interest, though. She found a J.W. Rambo, who died in 1921 and merited an iron star with a GAR symbol on it. “What’s that?” she asks. “Grand Army of the Republic. It was veterans of the Union in the Civil War,” I explain. “The Civil War?” she says. “We’ve been studying that in school. That was like 1880 or something.” I point to the years on the star: “1861-65.” “Wow,” she reflects. “Four years.”

I can see her mind gathering the loose strands that so many history-hating kids never tie together. The war in the textbook=a war that lasted half my lifetime=a guy from my town. We wander a little longer and find six or seven more GAR stars, a lot for this little cemetery, but a representative sample of Iowa’s commitment to preserving the Union. Half of Iowa’s eligible men between 15 and 40 served in the Union army, a higher rate than any state North or South. The numbers totaled 76,534 Iowans in Union blue, with 13,169 dying (65% of those from disease). Farther on, we find a World War II marker decorated with an eagle. Allison does the math on 1941-1945 and discovers four more long years of war. In that one, 226,000 Iowans answered the call of duty. The 34th Infantry (Red Bull) Division—a largely Iowa Guard unit with which a friend of mine will soon deploy to Afghanistan—holds the Army record for the most days of continuous combat (517) in the European theater and took more enemy-defended hills there than any other division.

I remember pulling over to a roadside cemetery in an old Ohio town and wandering around looking for these kinds of markers. Within half an hour, I’d found veterans from Iraq to the revolution. Two-hundred thirty-four years of nationhood and technology, and there’s no escaping that protecting our way of life still boils down to asking our young men to stand in the face of bullets.

These pocket cemeteries may lack the solemn awe of the endless, proper rows in Arlington, Normandy or countless other bivouacs of the dead. But here at Greencastle, with the smell of summer’s first cutting of hay, the hum of tires on Highway 117 and the languid slapping of the flag, the service of veterans is perfectly immediate. Most of our conflicts have been fought by boys who never dreamed of traveling much beyond a place like Des Moines during their lives as farmers. Yet one day, they found themselves marching to the guns in Georgia or Italy, crawling through the mud of places they’d barely heard of and making history they hoped they’d live to read someday. When it was over, most returned to places like central Iowa, picked up where they’d left off or, in the case of World War II, took advantage of the new G.I. Bill to go start a new life. Either way, the years ahead would be spent keeping the memories at bay and savoring every day’s freedom as the fruit of an intense personal labor most us never taste.

The moon is rising full and orange over by Colfax as Allison gets into the spirit, snapping digital photos of every headstone in the place. The stones she discovers speak of the men who came back. But, of course, the stones leave a lot unsaid. What of the Iowans buried on the distant fields where they fell? And how many people named on the Greencastle stones suffered losses of their sons, husbands and brothers? Where are the stories of the wives who carried on in the farm, the factory, the schoolroom and the nursery while so many Iowa men were on the battlefield? We rightfully remember our military men and women at Memorial Day, but every soldier is the most important person in the world to someone. These things have a very long tail.

Dusk fills the valleys and dust billows behind us as we follow the gravel road home. Allison sips a slushie from the Colfax Kum & Go and looks at her pictures on the camera’s screen. School’s out tomorrow, relaying the summer kick-off to Memorial Day on Monday. Most folks will spend this weekend at the lake or enjoying furniture sales. Some old ladies and men will go plant little flags in local cemeteries. I don’t begrudge the former, and to be fair, have never joined the latter. But this year, I did make this one point of getting to the nearest cemetery for a little history lesson. George Washington was talking about our governmental system, but I think it covers our veterans, too, when he asked, “What duty (is) more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

Sometime this week, try to say thanks to someone who wears a uniform. Then say the same to the people who wait for them at home. And try to make sure a child sees you do it.

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