The Boston Globe
May 17, 1998, Sunday, City Edition
SECTION: MAGAZINE; Pg. 14
HEADLINE: Of memory and hope;
On Memorial Day, the town of Lincoln, Vermont, honors the dead who are its past and the children who are its future.
Chris Bohjalian is the author of six books. His most recent novel, Midwives, was just published in paperback.
BYLINE: By Chris Bohjalian
They come with dandelions, since dandelions are plentiful in the last week of May and may be picked with impunity. They arrive around 9:30 in the morning, and as they walk underneath the wrought-iron gate that is three and four times their height, they abruptly stop hopping or skipping or trying to step on the heels of the child in front of them.
Suddenly, they are attempting to behave like grown-ups. They disperse into small groups, but they walk slowly among the tombstones and markers, pausing when they see a name that they know, squatting when they discover a relative. The boys stand with their hands clasped before them, replicating the way they've seen their fathers and grandfathers stand, while the girls sometimes hold hands.
Every year on the first school day after Memorial Day, the children of the Lincoln, Vermont, elementary school walk about a mile from the red cedar building that houses the school to the village cemetery. The school is east of the center of town, and the cemetery is to the west.
The result is a rambling parade through the village: 106 students, kindergartners through sixth-graders, 14 teachers and administrators, and perhaps a dozen members of the support staff. They walk across the narrow bridge spanning the New Haven River and then past the line of Gothic Revival homes built a century and a half ago. They pass the gray clapboard general store and the brick monolith that serves as the town hall. Then they wander around the hill upon which sits a church built in 1863, and down the short street that once housed the village's modest creamery. They walk right past my house. And, all along the way, they stop, bend down, and pluck the dandelions they will use to decorate the graves, many of which will have small American flags.
For some of the children, there is a special satisfaction when they find a rusted star on a pole in the ground. Underneath the corrosion on that star are the letters G. A. R., signifying the Grand Army of the Republic. Finding a G. A. R. star is a bit like finding Waldo. It means that someone has found the grave site of a Civil War veteran.
Finding a G. A. R. veteran is not the sole reason they come - that war, after all, is ancient history to them, as unreal as the struggles of Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon. But it does help explain why Mom and Dad didn't go to work on Monday, and why they themselves haven't gone to school for three days.
Their search does, ironically, bring history to life. After all, Memorial Day, now a three-day festival of barbecues, beach picnics, and golf, has its origins in the carnage of Chickamauga, Antietam, and Petersburg. The idea of taking next week's holiday at face value and pausing to memorialize or remember the fallen war dead is considered by some to be unstylish at best, militaristic at worst.
Certainly, I, at first, had mixed emotions. I'm a 30-something kid from the suburbs of New York City who never even considered enlisting when I registered for the draft 20 years ago. The notion that Memorial Day had meaning beyond a long weekend was beyond me. But then I moved to Vermont, a decade ago, and in Lincoln, I learned that Memorial Day is neither anachronistic nor sentimental.
The holiday is still called "Decoration Day" here by the elderly who can remember grandfathers and great-grandfathers who helped quash what Memorial Day founder General John Logan termed the "rebellion." It has metamorphosed into an opportunity to honor all the grandparents and parents and uncles and aunts who have come before us. It doesn't seem to matter whether they served the country as warriors or served the community by plowing the roads in winter.
The kids, more times than not, simply place the dandelions atop the graves of the names they know. And while Decoration Day may have been proposed by a general, it seems appropriate that the long-dormant tradition of visiting the cemetery in Lincoln was resurrected 16 years ago by Phoebe Barash, a school principal who spent her adolescence at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania and rallied against the Vietnam War while at Wheelock College, in Boston.
A century ago, it wasn't uncommon for Vermont schoolchildren to be taken to the village cemetery to decorate the headstones of veterans with flowers and flags. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a Vermont author and one of the first members of the Book-of-the-Month Club selection committee, observed the ritual in "Memorial Day," a short story she wrote just before the Second World War:
"Flags lay flat on the wreaths of flowers held by the little country boys who filled the car to the brim. When it stopped at the gate of the cemetery, the little boys spilled themselves out. Like the grass and trees and other growing things, they were quivering and glistening with vitality. Their small bodies were clad in their Sunday clothes, their hair was smoothly brushed back from their round, well-soaped faces. Everyone wore a necktie. Everyone carried on his arm a wreath to decorate a soldier's grave."
The irony of Fisher's tale is that while it's clear the author appreciated the pomp attending the cemetery visit, the story offers a decidedly antiwar message. As the boys fantasize about the heroism of the men beneath the ground, glamorizing their deaths, the ghosts of the dead soldiers are screaming silently for them to go away, wishing desperately that the living could hear them. The presence of the children has awakened them from their sleep, and once more they are feeling the bullets and bayonets that killed them.
Barash - like Fisher, like me - once had a decidedly love-hate relationship with the holiday. On the one hand, Barash recalls, when she decided to resurrect the tradition in Lincoln, she wanted to be sure that she wasn't deifying battle; on the other hand, she wanted the kids in her charge to have a sense of history. "Children who went to elementary school in the 1970s missed out on the part of our heritage we call patriotism," Barash explains, "and so bringing back the visit to the cemetery was a way to give them a taste of it. It was an opportunity to honor people who've come before us."
No one is sure exactly why or when the Lincoln school stopped decorating the graves on Memorial Day. In all likelihood, it was simply logistics: Today, Lincoln has a single large, centrally located school, but at one point, the 1,063-person community had five tiny ones spread out among 26,000 acres of dairy farms, woods, and dirt roads. Pure and simple, most of those schools were too far away to have the children walk to the graveyard.
Might other Vermont communities have given up on the ritual for a similar reason? Perhaps. Some may have grown too large for the practice, while others may have grown too small. In some towns, the fathers and mothers and teachers who would have had to coordinate the tradition may have grown indifferent once the last surviving Civil War veterans died.
Or maybe the tradition simply faded when the adults discovered they could have a parade instead. Parades, after all, are considerably less morbid than a visit to a graveyard, especially if you muster the local firefighters in their trucks and put a few aged veterans in convertibles.
Today, as many as a quarter of Vermont's 251 towns may have a Memorial Day ceremony or parade, but no more than a handful have an organized school visit to the cemetery.
Clearly, however, the Lincoln children do not find their excursion to the cemetery frightening. Nor do they find the rite hollow. Alice Leeds, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at the school, has noticed that once the children have found their share of G. A. R. stars and American flags, they begin what is for them the real work at hand: They visit their family plots. Sometimes that means running their fingers over the name of a distant aunt or a grandfather they barely knew. But sometimes it means something more.
In the case of Rebecca Wedge, now 14, it meant visiting the spot where her father was buried. Leeds will always remember the way Wedge's friends had wrapped their arms around the young girl as they approached the grave site. Likewise, Leeds will never forget the way Matthew Miller's friends had stood like an honor guard before Matt's father's plot. "It's more about ancestry than warfare," Leeds says of the school's tradition. "For the kids, it's one more way of discovering their connection to their community."
Building contractor Terry Farr and his dog, a golden retriever that he calls The Boss, will wander up and down the rows of Lincoln's Maple Cemetery this Saturday, looking for veterans' graves. Whenever he finds one, he will stick a small nylon flag into the ground beside the tombstone.
Farr, 40, is a member of the Sons of the American Legion, a group that includes anyone who is not himself a veteran but is a direct descendant of one. (Farr's grandfather fought in the First World War.) The Bristol Post of the Sons of the American Legion takes responsibility for decorating the cemeteries for Memorial Day in Bristol and the surrounding communities, which includes Lincoln.
It will take Farr a little more than two hours to comb the Lincoln cemetery. Altogether, he will find the graves of close to 150 veterans, including 101 from the Civil War. But he will also find five from the Revolutionary War, two of whose names still resonate in Lincoln: Briggs (on a hill), and Burnham (on the town hall). There are veterans in the cemetery who fought in the War of 1812, the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, and in Southeast Asia.
Douglas Gordon Orvis, a first lieutenant in an air cavalry division, was 26 when the patrol he was leading in July 1968 was ambushed in Vietnam, and he was killed. His marker is one of the most visited in the cemetery, because engraved on a plaque on a rock beside it is part of a letter he penned when he was only 21: "There is something infinitely strong in a mountain. If only a man could mold and nourish something of it within himself." From his plot, there is a magnificent view of Mount Abraham, the giant toppled peach of a mountain that towers over the village of Lincoln.
What seems to matter to the children, however, is less the notion that Orvis may have been a hero than the fact that he was an Orvis - a common name in the town and a link between the present and the past. Once I listened to a group of older elementary school kids as they stood by his plot, and the focus of their conversation was not upon the war but upon his family. Everyone knew someone who was related to Douglas.
Once the children have had a chance to roam the cemetery, they gather near the flagpole west of the entrance, where a member of the Bristol Band plays taps on a cornet and the Rev. David Wood, the pastor of the local church, speaks briefly about the meaning of the holiday.
For him, Wood says, the meaning of the day has changed over the years. While there will always be a certain wistfulness to any genuine Memorial Day commemoration, Woods believes that "the holiday is as much about life as it is about death. It's a way of celebrating the life of anyone who has come before us, regardless of whether they were in the military."
Indeed, on a morning at the very end of May, when the sun is high and the sky is cerulean - when the grass is neon green