I managed to make sure they never did.
I came of age during the “end of history.” The Berlin Wall fell a week after my sixteenth birthday. I was eighteen when the Soviet Union collapsed. I watched the first Gulf War on TV.
After 9/11, I’d occasionally think that it wasn’t too late to join up. But the notion didn’t take. I went about my business in peace while men and women my age, and with young families like mine, left their homes and fought two wars on the other side of the world.
This Memorial Day just gone by was shaping up like all those that had come before. There would be a parade, some family time, and a hot dog or two. Maybe in the evening I’d catch that PBS concert of patriotic music with Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise. My son thought Memorial Day was the day for fireworks. He was very disappointed when told he’d have to wait a month.
During the last week of May, however, I opened the local paper to see a notice: On Saturday the VFW will place fresh American flags on the veterans’ graves in our local cemetery—all residents wishing to help are welcome.
We live literally steps from the cemetery entrance, so on Saturday morning I headed out with Clara, my 8-year-old daughter, to pitch in.
To my surprise, the other volunteers were not mostly townspeople. Nor were they elderly veterans. They were Boy Scouts—about twenty-five of them from the local troop. Before we began, they recited their Scout Oath:
On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
I was never a Boy Scout. In fact, I may have been one of those too-cool kids that thought it was a bit corny. I was definitely one of those too-cool adults who thought scouting was a quaint relic of a more innocent time.
But to hear twenty-five, shaggy-haired American boys in a prosperous Connecticut suburb saluting Old Glory and promising in loud, clear voices to keep themselves physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight—well, it nearly brought a tear to my eye.
It seems all is not lost. At least not yet.
One of the older Scouts stepped forward. This fellow had recently completed a project to map the veterans’ graves—hundreds in all. Clara and I were given maps and asked to plant flags near about fifty headstones.
It was harder than I thought it would be. The maps were good, but locating the correct plot still required some serious searching. In some cases there were old flags to be removed. I struggled with the new flags tucked under my right arm, the old flags tucked under my left arm, and three double-sided poster-board maps slipping around in my hands.
I felt clumsy, unprepared for a tricky task in difficult conditions. I could just hear my Dad: “Wait till the Army gets a hold of you.”
Luckily, a man in a Boy Scout uniform—one of the Troop leaders—took heed of the oath he had earlier professed and stepped forward to offer some help. I was grateful that men still exist who will volunteer their time to remind youngsters to do their duty to God and country.
For the next hour or so, we explored the past century and a half of American military history together. We planted flags on the final resting places of a Civil War veteran and a young man who died in the World Trade Center. We adorned the graves of Christians, Jews, and—probably—unbelievers. We found fathers and sons who had served in different wars. We even found a French Lieutenant.
I hope I don’t insult you by stating the obvious: It was a humbling experience. A great many men and women gave their lives so that we might remain a free people. They are buried all around us. Walking among them and visiting their graves made me want to know their stories. It made me wish I could somehow let them know that people still remember.
“The Boy Scouts still come around,” I wanted to tell them. “They still pledge to stay physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
The Army never did get a hold of me. But I think the real spirit of Memorial Day finally did. Next year the whole family is going to that cemetery to replace the flags on the graves. And when my son complains, I know what I’m going to say.
“Wait till the Boy Scouts get a hold of you.”