Saturday, November 13, 2010

My Sunday Feeling

I had not been to the National Cemetery here in Little Rock in years. I don't much like cemeteries unless they are of some historic significance like Mount Holly in downtown Little Rock or the ones at Civil War battlefields. But the dawn of Veteran's Day this year filled me with a desire to go pay my respects to my father who is buried there.

The visual image that confronts the visitor that passes through the gate is intense almost beyond measure. Simple white stones for the most part, standing "row on row" as the old and much overrated poem says, for as far as the eye can see.

Now, we all gotta go. And cemeteries everywhere all pretty much have the same geometry. But in your basic National Cemetery, the headstones are all the same which transmits a powerful message to the visitor. All those resting beneath this sacred ground, despite whatever differences between them in life, are all alike. Walking through the grounds I couldn't help but think of the Paul Westerberg song, "Pine Box" with the hard boiled lyrics "Pine box, white stone. You get a pine box and a free ride home."

Not all of the dead at the National Cemetery were killed in action in the service of their country. Indeed, my own father's service to nicotine is what got him killed. Still, all here wore the uniform, or were related to somebody who wore the uniform, of the Armed Forces of the United States and received an Honorable Discharge.

You can't buy a plot there. But you sure as hell have to earn it. And the coin of this particular realm is duty, sacrifice and honor. Cosi Fan Tutti. They are all alike.

You don't get much extraneous information on the headstones at the National Cemetery. The picture in the post last Thursday just recites the facts. Buck Bowen was a Christian as denoted by the presence of the cross on his headstone. He served in the Navy during World War II. He lived. He died. His rank at Discharge was EM3 which my buddy Don correctly figured out stood for Electrician's Mate, 3rd class.

That makes sense. Dad was a Seabee, which is Navy slang for Construction Brigade.

Which brings to mind the first line of "Pine Box."

"He never hit my mama,

but he hit that beach at Omaha."

My dad hit the beach with the Marines at Iwo Jima. Eighteen. Lied to get into the service. Like most guys who see serious shit, he never really talked much about it. I know he felt comparatively lucky to be a radioman when they went ashore which meant that he was not on the point. That was the upside. The downside was that he got shot at a lot because he had a box on his back.

I know that he helped build airstrips and that he wore a machine gun as he climbed the telephone poles they set up for telephone and telegraph. I know that he learned basic electrician skills because he wired the addition to our house in Mabelvale much to the horror of my Mother who just knew that we would be incinerated once and all due to Dad's handiwork.

"Hell, Donice," I remember him telling her. "I learned how to do this in the Navy. Besides, AP&L (as it was known then) won't let me throw a switch until they approve it." That latter bit of information comforted her only slightly.

I also know that my father didn't consider himself to be much of a hero. He was just glad to get through the war in one piece and return to Porter County, Indiana where, incidentally, his Discharge papers entitled him to lifetime hunting and fishing privileges. If his Discharge would have entitled him to play golf for free he could have gotten greater use out of that.

I don't suspect that many of the dead at the National Cemetery considered themselves heroes either. Sure, some of them signed up to go to war. But some signed up to learn a trade. Some signed up to see a bit of the world. Some signed up to stay out of jail.

There can be dignity in simplicity. And the simple government issued tombstones convey a powerful message about those that sleep beneath them at the National Cemetery.

They are there because they wore the uniform. They are all alike.

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