Ft. Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers was once the frontier.
Today, it lies in the confluence of the airport and I-94, the final resting place of the Greatest Generation.
Headquarters Grand Army Of The Republic General Orders No.11,
WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
A slightly absurd honor guard stood on the median in front of a tragic little display of flowers, boots and a helmet. A bagpiper in sunglasses, an old Vietnam era vet with his trousers bloused into his old black boots and PFC Ellison wearing the 18th Aviation Brigade patch in his BDUs and desert boots stood at parade rest in the wet grass and I took their picture.
C and I walked among the graves. Here and there, groups gathered around the tombstones of those they loved. C was in the Air Force and finds the graves of women who served in the military, their husband’s names on the back of their tombstones, the reverse of the usual pattern of servicemen whose wives’ names adorn the back of their tombstones. I hold my camera over my head, peering up to the viewfinder hinged over, sweeping the camera from left to right, making panorama shots.
Quiet, muggy morning, the early threats of rain give way to bright sunshine. A little boy runs from stone to stone, stabbing little American flags into the thick green grass.
As we walk north by unit memorial plaques and stones, the big gathering at the end of the flag-dressed avenue breaks up and walks south. Notable burials are alongside the sidewalk: two Medal of Honor winners catch my eye, many DSCs, Navy Crosses and Purple Hearts with oak leaf clusters. A boy of six is buried alongside his father.
A gathering of Vietnam era vets catches my eye, gathered around a single tombstone. I wait for the little memorial service to end, walk over to the gathering.
“Tell me about this man, and why he mattered so much to you guys.”
“Larry Vossler was from Hopkins. He was the president of Chapter 62 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. We’re getting older now, and it’s getting tougher to go out into the graveyard to find all our veterans, wheelchairs you know. So now we gather here on Memorial Day. It’s closer to the sidewalk.”
The big ceremony is over and we missed all of it. Crews of volunteers fold up chairs and stack them, little honor guards move down the sidewalk, still displaying the colors if not so formally as before. I hate all such displays. I never miss Memorial Day and always try to miss those mawkish affairs: they’re nothing but displays of saccharine sentiments and opportunities for shameless politicians to pontificate. My business is with the dead. Once they visited their own dead, as I visit them now. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds.
Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners.
Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect,
no ravages of time testify to the present
or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people
the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack,
and other hearts cold in the solemn trust,
ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Row on row on row, they’re all there. We think of them on Memorial Day as an honorable host, but they were individuals. Larry Vossler died in 2002 at the age of 57 and I cannot find more information on him than his obituary at the Vietnam Veterans of America website. The inscription on his tombstone reads “I’d rather be at the VFW”.
In an odd reversal of fate, the individual grave of SP4 Larry L Vossler has become a collective place of gathering. The men chat in their silly old fatigues, retiring their colors to their truck with honor. You’d never get me back into any semblance of a uniform, nor will I ever darken the door of a VFW again.
As we grow older the world becomes stranger,
the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living.
Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
The crowds leave, past the plastic pylons and the policemen, up toward the airport and around to the expressways, back to their homes. The day burns bright, hot enough to warrant turning on the air conditioner in the truck for the first time. It doesn’t work. It never does after the winter. I’ll have to take it in for service.
I am done with any semblance of happy memories or even sad or angry ones of my time in uniform. I am not done with it in the world of dreams and wish I were. I will live in the light of the present and return next Memorial Day, a reverent visitor, that this honorable host will not be forgotten.