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Old Tombstones

Memorial Day, Grandpa, and The Burial Grounds

(originally written in 2000)

Today is the day after Memorial Day. It was supposed to be a day for remembering, but I’ve come to think of it as a day of unemployment. Take yesterday. The sun was shining, my wife and I were arguing, and I had no plans for remembering anything. My only plan for the day was to cart my family two hours away to Lake Freeman and let the kids enjoy the day of sun, water, and cousins. But I had underestimated the power of Memorial Day and the power of a memory, because memories are like unexpected house guests. They invite themselves and drop in when you least expect them.

It happened to me enroute to the lake. The kids sat in the back seat playing and giggling, and my wife and I sat up front in silence because she was no longer speaking to me. It was like two different temperate zones, all within the confines of our van. Had we not been arguing, I might have overlooked the memory that was about to join me, but in the arctic silence, it hopped aboard and kept me company for the rest of the trip.

The day just felt like Memorial Day. Flags were flapping in the breeze, people were out brushing off their grills, and aside from the two passengers in our van, all the world seemed happy. It was in some happy speck of a town that I saw a middle aged couple pulling weeds from a flower bed. They caught my attention because they looked like those lovely yard ornaments that have infested much of the midwest known as the “bottoms up people.” Two seconds later, I realized they were cleaning up an area around a tombstone that stood among a thousand tombstones each adorned with plastic flowers. It was right then that the memory, carried by the wind, rushed in through the window, up my nostrils, and settled deep inside.

Seeing all those cemetery markers reminded me of sunny Memorial Days that I spent wandering the “burial grounds” with Grandpa and the rest of my family.

Each year we made the annual pilgrimage to Martin County, Indiana. That was my grandfather’s homeland. Fifty years ago the Navy evicted all the residents, put a huge fence around the forty square miles, and made it into an ammunitions depot. As a consolation prize, they named it after them.
The day started early. Grandma cut red peonies from out back and put them in a coffee can filled with water. Mom packed a lunch to feed the little army of people, and the kids complained about having to go. Back then we didn’t get to vote, so we piled into the van, dad at the wheel and Grandpa sitting straight and tall in the seat usually occupied by my Mom. Two hours later, traveling the best and worst roads southern Indiana has to offer, we pulled up to the main entrance of Crane Naval Depot.

Now you just can’t stroll through the gate like some city park. It’s only opened to the public on that one weekend of the year, and they might shoot you if you were to try such foolishness.

As was his custom, Dad got out of the van and explained to the uniformed guards who we were and what our business was for the day. I just assumed a common Russian spy maneuver was to masquerade as an old man and a woman traveling with half a dozen hot, sweaty kids to sneak in and steal top secret plans for nuclear submarines. So they couldn’t be too careful.

After a brief interrogation, the guards put down their donuts, came out to the van, looked us over carefully making sure Grandma wasn’t packing any automatic weapons, and then escorted our car to the burial grounds.

The scenery along those roads was pretty enough, but the absence of any houses, farms, and people, plus the presence of huge underground bunkers, added an air of intrigue to our somewhat boring tradition.

I imagined that those bunkers were filled with weapons of mass destruction, or at the very least, the base commander’s bass boat. I always wondered what would happen if dad decided to ditch the guard in the car ahead of us causing a high speed chase. Course it never happened, because we were law abiding citizens. Without so much as a single high speed anything, we followed the nice man to the first cemetery on the itinerary.

Oh yes, we didn’t just stop at one cemetery, that would have been too easy. We stopped at several. Every kids dream. A lot like Disney World.

We got out, and like a small herd of cows, followed grandpa up the gravestone dotted incline. I can still feel the heat and hear the sound of locust in the woods. He pointed out a few ‘relatives,’ and we kids chased each other in and around the hundred year old tombstones, paying little attention to the people he remembered so fondly. Once everyone had been visited, we piled back into the van and were escorted out of the “top-secret” zone to drive and visit at our leisure.

About the only stopping place I found interesting, was the one free of grave stones. It was just a bend in the empty road. It looked for all purposes like every other bend in the road on the base, overgrown with scrub trees and brambles. But this one was different.

Growing about sixty feet from the road were pale, lavender irises. Those clumps of pale irises were all that remained of my grandpa’s childhood home. Using his finger to guide our eyes, he pointed to the place where the house and barn once stood, the spot where a favorite shade tree grew, and other spots where growing up memories took place. He told us that his mother, who died forty or fifty years before, planted those irises. In a strange way, I felt connected to that spot, like a McDugle or an O’Brian might feel towards Ireland.

Grandpa never cried or got misty eyed. He wasn’t the type. But there must have been a lump deep in his throat. Every person, house, building, and memory was ripped out, scraped away, and obliterated. And those irises stood like living tombstones marking the place where a home was laid to rest. Of course, I didn’t care, then. All I cared about was eating lunch and getting it over with so we could go home. That’s the kind of person I was.

The last cemetery looked like a page from a calendar and was also the place we ate lunch. The grass was neatly cut, and an ancient oak tree stood in the middle, offering shade to all who came to remember. At the back of the cemetery, there was a clearing that overlooked a valley filled with wilderness and trees. It reminded me of the Smokie Mountains and was about the best place you could find to have a picnic… that is, if you didn’t mind eating on a bunch of dead people.

We carried the coolers, sacks, and blankets to the shady spot and ate sandwiches and Twinkies. There was just one more item on the agenda, which I had forgotten, until yesterday.

With Grandpa in the lead, we walked to an old limestone marker with the name Jacob Wagner inscribed upon it. It was Grandpa’s father. I never knew him. Grandpa had a picture of him on his wall in his den. He was pioneer stock. And it showed on his hardened face, with thick dark hair and shaggy handlebar mustache.

With all eyes on the tombstone, Grandpa told the same stories he told each year about buggy rides to school, scraps with other boys, and how they used to call him Bud. While he remembered out loud, grandma placed the coffee can of peonies on the tombstone and adjusted them to look their best. And then, with the sun high in the sky, Grandpa walked to the edge of the cemetery that overlooked his childhood and stood with his back to us, thinking thoughts he never shared. I remember one time my Mom walked out to join him on that lonely hill, and they just stood there with their arms wrapped around each other as we watched from a distance. I didn’t know then, how important memories are and how even more important they are to share, but I do now.

Because Memorial Day is more than a day for remembering. It’s about parents reminding their sons and daughters about people, what they stood for, and God’s faithfulness through the years. It’s about talking, sharing, laughing, and picnics… together.

And just so you don’t loose any sleep over it, my wife and I are OK now.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thank you so much, Todd, for allowing me to ride with you and the other kids to a very special place; I could feel just what you were talking about. I, unhappily, find myself getting upset when my son doesn’t seem to care very much about the memories that my wife and I share about our parents and grandparents and our childhoods. It is heartwarming to stop and realize that he will fondly remember much of this when he is a bit older, and then the tradition will continue to his children and soon Deuteronomy 6 will be obeyed more fully as he teaches them as they sit down and rise up and as they walk through the cemeteries and old homesteads.

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