Family: May 2008 Archives

A Good Turn

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Sunday afternoon we met a massive herd of Scouts at the Jefferson Barracks' National Cemetery for the annual Memorial Day Good Turn, which began here in St. Louis during the 1800s. The gist of the observance is to pay a good deed back to the brave men and women buried there by sticking American flags by every headstone. There are a lot of those simple white headstones: from satellite it looks as though the earth is perforated.


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(I've written before how my family has a thing for cemeteries. (OK, fine, to an extent I suppose I do as well.) They engage in what I call a Southern Graveyard Vigil, wherein they habitually visit our family's ancient cemetery atop a hill in the Ozarks, and gaudy it up with Wal-Mart gewgaws like wind chimes, scary resin angel babies, and expensive fake flowers. You've only to step one foot in our family cemetery before knowing which headstones are those of our most immediate kin: they're literally covered up with stuff. I imagine some of my aunts going up together and gathering 'round the headstones like the Peanuts gang around Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. It's like they're trying to incur favor after the fact or make up for a mistake - some of them are. My mother has tried in vain to involve me in this morbid family tradition. I have resisted mainly because I think it's weird and because I don't believe that people are tied up with their bodies anymore after death. I feel that a person's memory is best honored by acting decent and converting their death to legend by describing them to the next generation. If a person is able to somehow visit the earth I think that the last place they'd loiter is the place they're buried. That's the last place I'd go, anyway. I'd haunt the hell out all those I didn't like just for kicks.)


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When I told my mom about the Good Turn I heard her face crack a smug expression through the phone line. It wasn't the same but yet it was. For us, it was more about making a public statement of support and using it as a physical lesson to teach Liam about the cost of liberty. I know this is America and all, but it's one of those things that you can't put on credit. During the flag ceremony they played "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes and holy Moses that, coupled with anything from Allison Krauss on the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, and Susan Tedeschi's "Angel from Montgomery" are the only pieces of music that move me to tears. As the flag raised black storm clouds pushed across the sky; the wind blew and the rope clanged against the metal flagpole and kept cadence with the music. All were somber.


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Afterwards the Scouts were let loose in the cemetery; each troop had its own section. We picked up our flag bundles and quickly, yet respectfully, weaved through the headstones sticking flags into the ground as instructed. We were warned that we had but minutes to do the job before the storm arrived. No one balked at their duty. Then the heavens opened up as though mourning the loss of all those put into the earth by war. I snapped a couple of photos from under my umbrella before putting it away and joining my gleeful boys who traipsed about the tombstones waving their flags in the rain. That's when I wish life had a button I could push to change the pace of living to "slow." There are moments you have as a family that you instantly know will define you as a unit, moments that you'll all preserve in your skulls and reminisce over when around the holiday table. This was one of those for us.


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We ran out of flags after the rain stopped. Together our troops had covered every headstone in our area, an older part of the cemetery on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Our job done, we trekked back to our can holding hands.


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Click any photo for the caption; click here for the entire set. These are some of my favorite photos that I've taken.

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