"The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
-- Abraham Lincoln
I was attending the 90th birthday party of my sister-in-law's grandmother, Eva Mae. My brother, Jerry, was telling me of a book he had just begun reading about World War I when this gentle lady said, "I remember when they came home."
One look at her revealed that her mind had returned to an event that was now more than 70 years past, but was as fresh to her as if it had happened yesterday. Sitting serenely in that room filled with party guests, she told of living with her parents on Greene Street in Augusta when they both fell ill with the flu in 1918. Eva Mae, 16 years old at the time, was sent to find the family doctor.
She was directed to the railroad station by a nurse, and walked through the crowded station to the platforms where passengers exited the trains. As her eyes became accustomed to the dim light, she became aware that it was filled with row upon row of flag-draped wooden caskets. Her voice lowered to a reverent whisper as she told of seeing the flags and the ropes holding them in place. Then, pausing for a moment, she returned her misty gaze from that long-gone scene: "You know, I can still smell that damp wood."
The small white stones lie in quiet fields like skeletal remains of the hopes and dreams of past generations. Sometimes we fail to see that those who fought for this country sacrificed their most cherished possession in order that we might all enjoy our freedoms -- they sacrificed their futures and their stability.
Too often, we think of the sacrifices made by those killed in action only in terms of how many graves are occupied, and forget that they sacrificed not only their bodies but their hopes, their aspirations and their future contributions to America and the world.
For these honored dead, the bright future vanished with the crack of a musket or the crash of artillery. They did not blindly follow their leaders into the darkness of the battlefield, but went with conscious effort; knowing full well that they might never see their families and loved ones again. Most of these men were not professional soldiers; they were farmers, laborers and teachers, the men you see every day at our malls and upon our streets.
They also were not hate-filled terrorists who killed without conscience; they were moral men who mourned each life they were forced to take for the cause of freedom. These were America's finest who stood upon the mountaintop of battle and peered into the world of tomorrow, then voluntarily traded their dream of a long and successful life for the coldness of the grave so that their descendents might have the freedom to fulfill their own expectations.
One can only wonder how many young girls like Eva Mae might have had their lives, and the lives of their descendents altered by the sacrifices made, from Lexington, to Bastogne, to the dusty roads of Iraq. I can only wonder how many scientists, doctors, artists and industrial giants were buried in Arlington before they could reap their full potential. My heart mourns for the lost prospects for America, and for sons and daughters never born, as much as for the brilliant men who lie beneath Arlington's green turf.
There is a scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan in which an elderly survivor stands over the grave of a fallen comrade and asks his wife if he has been a good man. As his deep blue eyes swell with tears, one can almost feel the emotional turmoil which has infested his soul since that long ago conflict.
These young men, many too young to have a clear concept of what life had to offer, felt the cold ground beneath them as they took their last breath and no doubt wondered if they, also, had been good men. And by their sacrifice they assured that their surviving comrades and their descendents would have that choice to make; an option of being good men, or evil.
From the whispering voice of future generations comes the answer, like the relentless pounding of waves upon our shores, "Yes, you were. You were all good men. And a grateful nation thanks you."
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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