In 430 B.C., after the first year of the Peloponnesian War – arguably history’s most devastating civil conflict, between Athens and Sparta – the Athenians gathered to bury their dead and hear a eulogy by the general and statesman Pericles. In what has been described as the paradigm for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he uttered these words:
“[T]he whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions … there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men. Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.”
Several years ago, on Memorial Day, this passage found me while driving by Western Cemetery. A wisp of red, white and blue made me pull over. I entered through the Vaughan St. gate and found my way to a grave with a miniature holiday flag planted by it – marking a veteran’s final resting place.
Who had come to Portland’s neglected eyesore to remember him? The gesture reminded me of the millions who donned fatigues, then returned to civilian life as if they had done nothing.
Many years ago, that notion hit home during my Army service. I was stationed at the now-defunct Fort Devens, outside of Boston. As the base closed, veterans’ services were cut. One of the first to go was the funeral detail, an on-call team that paid tribute at grave sites throughout New England.
In its place, authorities sent one commissioned officer to conduct the ceremonies. No honor guard, no rifle salute, no bugler playing “Taps,” just one soldier and a flag. I had the duty several times.
Yet one stood out. I can’t recall the year or the name of the deceased. I remember it was early spring, unseasonably frigid, and near Fall River, Mass.
I arrived at the cemetery to a surprise. A National Guard bugler was present, and we would avoid the tackiness of playing “Taps” from a boom box. The flag was folded on the casket and I took my position graveside.
Several hundred mourners arrived. The departed had been a combat medic in World War II. What struck me was hearing many guests whisper: “I never knew he was a veteran; I never realized he was in the war.”
This startled me, even as I rendered honors. How could they not know what this man, who had saved hundreds of lives on the battlefield, had done?
Back in Western Cemetery, Pericles’ echo joined me amongst the weeds and toppled headstones.
On that day when I was still young and strong, I delivered the widow’s flag and recited the funeral officer’s magic words: “On behalf of the President of the United States and the people of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
She embraced it, her anguish pouring out like our breaths in the morning chill.
I stood guard through “Taps,” final prayers, and dispersal of the crowd. Then I gave a final salute, and headed back to my car.
At the cemetery gates, a limousine idled. Its rear door opened and the widow emerged, still gripping the burial flag. She came to me and rested a hand on my forearm. Far younger than half her age, I must have seemed like a Spartan boy headed to another senseless war, destined to come home on my shield.
While gazing through me, the widow never spoke. But she held on tightly, as if trying to recapture a piece of her loved one’s youth. Unsure of myself, I embraced her. She rested her head on my uniform, its medals a sorely inadequate pillow for her tears.
Years later, I stood in Western Cemetery by a tiny American flag, still haunted by this woman’s thousand-yard stare. Now I appreciate why her husband came home from war, retired his khakis, and went through life calling no special attention to his service.
But Pericles hasn’t made it easy. The impromptu Memorial Day stop did nothing to assuage my guilt for not remembering the man’s name, or the year his wife buried him. I headed back to Vaughan St., wishing I’d find her again, waiting for me at the gate.
Like the eternal search for something greater than us, hope was fleeting. My only comfort was in knowing the Athenians and Spartans finally accepted they were all Greeks.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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