Monday, May 30, 2011

On this Memorial Day, some names to remember

As we were driving to the next town to take in a Memorial Day Parade, we passed a cemetery I've driven by hundreds of times over the years. I took notice of all the flags. I told my 17-year-old and my 7-year-old who were in the car with me that each of those flags was there because that grave site is one of someone who had served in the military.

Following the small town parade we attended, I asked the boys if they'd like to stop in the cemetery and take a closer look at the markers where the American flags were placed. They nodded in agreement. So, I pulled into the cemetery. It felt a little strange. I didn't know anyone buried there. I kind of felt like a trespasser.

It also felt strange because when I thought about it I have never gone to visit the grave site of a loved one. I have attended funerals, but have never returned after the burials. I've been in cemeteries, mostly on vacations in historic places where out of curiosity I've read the grave markers and wondered about the lives of those whose names are carved into the stones. I'm fascinated when I find extremely old ones or when it indicates that the person buried there lived a short life.

I'm lucky that I haven't lost many loved ones in my life. I didn't really know my grandparents. One died before I was born. Two died when I was a baby. The only one I really remember at all is my paternal grandmother, who I saw a handful of times before she died when I was around age 10. To be honest. I'm not even sure where they are buried, which I'm ashamed to admit. I've lost some beloved aunts and uncles who I saw from time to time growing up, but who lived in different parts of the country and are buried hundreds or thousands of miles away.

As I drove along, I noticed how well-maintained the cemetery was. Many of the graves that had flags beside them also had large plaques on the back side of the headstones with their name, rank, branch and war served. The first one I saw read "Peter Rickers. LT COL US ARMY. WWII  KOREA VIETNAM. 3RD ARMY 112TH DIVISION. LIASON FOR GENERAL PATTON. 1916 - 2006."  I was brought to tears instantly at the site of that. This was a man who had served his country in not one, but three wars.

We moved on from grave to grave. I wrote names down. I wanted to remember them. I wanted to look them up and see what I could find out about them. It was Memorial Day. I wanted their memory to mean something to a stranger on that day.

Clarence Shililng, US Army
World War II
1915 - 1994

Henry Verbeek, US Army
World War II

Robert Mauck, CPL US Army

Paul T. Woodnorth, Jr., US Army Air Forces
World War II
1924 - 2010

Julius Spoolstra, S SGT US Army
World War II
1916 - 1973

Andrew Vogel, US Army
World War II

Edward Van Kley, Jr., SGT US Army
1932 - 2009

In our time going through the cemetery, we noticed many visitors. I saw an elderly woman kneeling alone on the ground at a grave site. A bearded man in a leather vest with a military insignia who appeared not to be with her, helped her get up on her feet and then he walked on. Another elderly woman stood before a grave with her hand over her mouth, overtaken with emotion. Others were carrying dirt and flowers to plant. It appeared to be a pretty busy place as you might expect on Memorial Day.

We left after a few minutes and another cemetery sits down the road. It's another one that I've passed more times than I can count. And knowing that many of my towns early settlers are buried there, I've always wanted to stop in there and see what familiar names I'd find. It seems to be a much older cemetery than the first we stopped at. When I tried to pull in where a sign was marked to say "Cemetery Entrance," I realized it was too narrow for my SUV - or at least I'd be cutting it very close getting in. I drove around the block and parked on the street and my teenager and I walked through the gates.

While there were many flags that could be seen it was quite a quiet and lonely place. Not another person in the entire cemetery. We were all alone among the dozens of flags. Traffic whizzed by, radios could be heard from the car stereos as the windows were fully opened on the first sweltering day we've had in a while. The only other person that entered the gates was a slender teen in basketball shorts sneaking a short cut to his destination. Flags were everywhere, but no visitors.

It was immediately apparent that many of these graves hadn't seen a visitor in a long time. Of all the grave markers I examined, only three people had died this century, the most recent in 2004. Old simple stones were flush with the ground. They'd have been easily missed if it weren't for the flag sticks poking up. Grass and dirt had crept over the edges. Names and dates weren't visible. I wondered who had put the flags there. Perhaps some volunteers? A veterans group? Some members of the church next door? I really don't know. There has to be someone doing some kind of maintenance to the place. The lawn has been cut. A small garage is situated in the back and pick-up truck was parked beside it. However, many, many of the graves were sadly neglected. Veterans who sacrificed years of their lives were beneath my feet. As I followed each flag and stopped to try and read each stone, I pictured a young man in Army greens, an eager smile on his face that said he was ready to go off to a foreign land and leave everyone who he knew and loved not knowing what his fate may be.

My son and I spent the next thirty or forty minutes pulling back grass and wiping dirt to expose the life of another hero. A life summed up in a few lines etched into a stone. A stone that had been overgrown and forgotten. Here's who we met today:

Herman Whiteman, S SGT US ARMY
World War II
1914 - 1991

Charles Isaacson, US NAVY
AM 53
1936 - 1958

Roger Haschan, SN US NAVY
1949 - 1998

Ray Bales, PVT US ARMY
World War II
1917 - 1976

Wilbert H. Riches, 2D LT
1931 - 1958

John A. Pekownik
World War I
1989 - 1961

Harold E Hix, PFC US ARMY
World War II
1909 - 1975

Donald E. White, PVT US ARMY
World War II
1910 - 1985

Carl M Prizhorn, TEC US ARMY
World War II
1907 - 1976

Donald G Petersen, PFC US ARMY
World War II
1925 - 1944

Jack E Sweatt, PRC ARMY
1924 - 2003

George Petersen, PVT US ARMY
World War I
1896 - 1978

Dennis Paul Mason, SGT US AIR FORCE
1954 - 1980

Ralph C Mason, MAJ AIR FORCE
World War II
1920 - 1992

William M. Staley, FA US NAVY
1930 - 1973

George B Ander (there may have been more to this name - likely Anderson, but it was covered with too much dirt to be read.)
World War II

Frederick M. Semmelhack, SM2 US COAST GUARD
World War II
Buried beside Frederick, was his wife, Evelyn, who had "Gold Star Member" printed below her name.

Andrew Liptak
BTRY E83 Field Arty
World War I
1890 - 1960

Richard C Valdivia, CPL US ARMY
World War II
1925 - 2004

Emil J Kalguth
World War I
1894 - 1959

Michael C Horn, SP4 US ARMY
1949 - 1982

Julius Horn, SGT US ARMY
World War II
1920 - 1993

Joseph D' Angelo, US ARMY
World War II
1919 - 1980

Benjamin Orville Burt, MSOT US AIR FORCE
World War II
1917 - 1980

1946 - 2004

John Frank Baranowski
World War I
1890 - 1953

I hope I got the information correct as I was scratching down what I could read onto slips of paper in my purse. We kept going until I ran out of space on my scraps of paper. My son was a bit puzzled and dismayed. "Why is it like this?" he asked of the poorly maintained markers. "These are veterans and they're put here and just forgotten." I wasn't sure how to answer his question.

It doesn't look like burials take place there anymore, so I don't know how much of the responsibility goes to the cemetery. As for family, many of these men died long ago. Many of their spouses are no longer living. Their kids may no longer been living. Descendants may not know they are there. Spouses, children, grandchildren may live far away or have moved away. For some, it may be too painful to revisit the loss. Or there are relatives like me, who haven't an inkling that the uncle who dodged bullets and saved lives as a member of the greatest generation is buried beneath the ground in a grave marked by a simple overgrown stone where a stranger places a flag once a year in a town they've never heard of.

Memorial Day is to honor the fallen of our country's wars. From looking at the dates on the markers, a few of them likely did die at war. And even if I was the only one who glanced at their grave this Memorial Day - a stranger rather than a loved one - it means they were remembered. And for all those who also served at war and then came home to be wrapped in love in amidst post-war celebrations or those who came home treated like the enemy and viewed as a disgrace for following their duty, a duty they may have been drafted to do, I remembered them today. I don't know their stories. Some may have come home and buried the scars of war as they found happiness in becoming fathers and grandfathers. Others may have endured nightmares and demons from those wars that led them to their graves earlier than they should have.  I just know that they are there now and it looks like it's been a while since they were remembered.

So, perhaps as you sit down to dinner tonight or as you say bedtime prayers with your children tonight, you can include one of these names. The name of one of these fresh-faced young boys who went off to war and came home forever changed -- for us. And you can thank the Lord for them and remember them. We owe it to them. Remembering is what this day is all about.

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