My recollections of Memorial Day are dusty and filled with the creaking sound of the springs on my cousin’s Buick Roadmaster as it forded dry streambeds and trundled along rutted country roads in southern Illinois – and then the thwack of fat June bugs popping on the windshield as she picked up speed on the blacktop down towards the Harmony Grove church.
To the eyes of a suburban boy, the places she took my father and me were just empty prairie. To my father’s eyes, they were filled with the faint lines of places and people he had known as a boy. That caved-in pile of sheet metal and rotten boards was Wick Cage’s general store where his father carried eggs to sell. That empty corner was where his grandfather’s little house had stood in the dirt yard where the old man, standing in his best starched overalls at the head of a long table carried outside for the occasion, had poured dippers of iced tea out of a galvanized bucket. Where the hens watched nervously as one of their own made for Sunday dinner.
Just as my old man would start waxing nostalgic, our tour guide moved us along. We were not there to remember life. We were there to visit the dead. My cousin had been retired from the Air Force longer than I had been alive, and she took seriously her job not just as family historian, but as one who would see that our family would do its part for Memorial Day – for Decoration Day as it was once properly known.
And on to another cemetery we would go, this one clutched by slender locust trees and set back from the road on a rise above Hurricane Creek. Who came to this ancient place keep it up? Who oiled and painted that wrought-iron gate? Who trimmed back the grass from the tiny headstone of an unnamed stillborn child dead for 120 years? Why? No time for questions. Cousin mustered us out and deployed the flag markers for the military men and flowers for the civilians. Back in the Roadmaster and back on the road. A whole day went by that way, graves of my ancestors and graves of those unknown to us. The Black Hawk War, the Civil War, World War I, and on and on.
You can stand at the Dodge Grove Cemetery up the highway in Mattoon, where my grandmother’s people were well-off enough to be laid to rest beneath monuments amid mausoleums. From there you see the rise of the earth reveal the graves of hundreds of Civil War dead, including three generals, as the locals will tell you. And any of them, officers or enlisted, who had no one to decorate their graves that day, got a flag, courtesy of our little honor guard.
Americans don’t much do cemetery trips these days – or cemeteries, for that matter. If you don’t believe in those words “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” then a cemetery wouldn’t be of much use to you. But more than that, we have a culture now based on “closure,” in which we learn to seal off the hurts of our hearts and bury them deeper than the deepest grave. Remembrance is of no virtue to people who believe that their purpose is the pursuit and maintenance of their own happiness.
What an impoverishment of spirit that is. I once had an editor who believed that the best way for foreigners to understand Americans was to read our obituaries – to meet these gentle, kind, faithful, loved and loving people who passed their lives unknown to all but those whom they touched directly. I increasingly believe she was right.
But I have a corollary to add: The best way for Americans to know themselves and their history is to walk among the quiet headstones of our graveyards. See the dates and realize how young they were. Read the inscriptions. Feel the cool marble. Imagine. You can know your family that way, but you can know what America is by placing yourself among the remains of the men and women who died to make her and to defend her.
No politics today. Instead, we offer you a few of the portals from which to begin that journey – places to let that knowledge start to wash over you. Places where you can leave a flag and offer up a little word of thanks.
-- The inscription at the Daughters of the American Revolution Memorial Marker in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania reads “Near this spot, lies Lieutenant John Waterman, died April 23, 1778, whose grave alone of all his comrades was marked.” Some 2,000 Continental soldiers died at Valley Forge or in distant hospitals. Most expired not in the dead cold of winter, but in the spring, when influenza, typhus, typhoid and dysentery more than decimated the camp. Waterman died during this time. His lonely gravestone on the grand parade ground was marked simply, “JW 1778.” He was later identified by his initials as a Rhode Island officer.
-- In Grafton National Cemetery, Grafton , West Virginia rests Private Thornesberry Bailey Brown, believed to be the first Union casualty of the Civil War. Brown mustered into service in Company B, 2nd Virginia Infantry, and served under Captain George R. Latham as part of the “Grafton Guards.” On May 22, 1861, near present-day Grafton, a Confederate sentry ordered Brown to halt. Brown refused and shot the sentry in the ear. The sentry returned fire, shooting Brown in the heart.
-- At Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York lies Sgt. Wilbur E. Colyer. Served in the U.S. Army in World War I and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery near Verdun, France, on October 9, 1918. His citation reads “Volunteering with 2 other soldiers to locate machinegun nests, Sgt. Colyer advanced on the hostile positions to a point where he was half surrounded by the nests, which were in ambush. He killed the gunner of one gun with a captured German grenade and then turned this gun on the other nests silencing all of them before he returned to his platoon. He was later killed in action.”
-- Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee is the final resting place of Cornelia Fort. Nashville’s first woman flight instructor, she was giving a flying lesson as a civilian instructor over Honolulu, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941 and witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Fort was the second woman to join the Woman’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, which ferried planes to free up male pilots for combat assignments. She was the first WAFS pilot to die in the line of duty. Cornelia Fort was killed while ferrying a BT-13 Valiant trainer when it collided with another plane over Texas on March 21, 1943.
--On April 5 1951, Naval Hospitalman Richard D. Wert was serving with the Marines as they cleared North Korean guerrillas from rural areas of South Korea and as they aided in driving the enemy beyond the Thirty-Eighth Parallel. While with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines during an attack on Chinese Communist forces, De Wert continually rejected medical treatment for his wounds to provide first aid to fallen marines. Under intense fire he provided treatment to four marines, De Wert was killed in action while tending to an injured comrade. The Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipient was originally buried in Korea, re-interred at the Woodlawn National Cemetery, Elmira, N.Y, but in 1987 upon request from his family, was laid to rest in his home where his grave can be found in section 5 at the Massachusetts’s National Cemetery in Bourne.
-- At Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, Oakville, Missouri you can find Air Force Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who served in the 8th Special Operations Squadron. He was shot down and killed while piloting his A-37B Dragonfly aircraft in the vicinity of An Loc, in South Vietnam. His remains were buried in Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of The Unknowns as an unidentified soldier from the Vietnam War. After petitioning the United States Government for permission, his family had his body exhumed. DNA tests confirmed that the previously unknown soldier was, in fact, Michael Blassie.
-- Staff Sgt. James M. Christen of Loomis, California died in Kunar province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, on his third deployment overseas. Sgt. Christen previously served two tours in Iraq. His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. Staff Sgt. James Christen now rests with many of his comrades from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan in Section 60, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.” He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.