The Dead Forge a New Link in the Chain of History

March 10, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

On a warm, hazy day such as this -- a day filled with the scent of damp, fertile earth and its sly promise of spring -- the breeze is particularly sweet as it blows in over the rows of neat white tombstones, touching each one with the gentle caress of a mother's hand.

It is silent among the white stones, except for the distant sound of a train rumbling by, carrying its passengers to Wilmington, to Philadelphia, to New York, to the future that awaits them. But here in Loudon Park National Cemetery, where those who served their country have found a special home, the future matters little. What's important here is the past.

A whole history resides here, if you take the time to look for it. Over there, for instance, beneath that oak tree lies Joseph G. Hubbell; he fought in the Spanish-American War. And not too far away, there's a white marker that reads: Michael G. Meall, World War II, Korea, Capt. U.S. Air Force.

The Civil War, World War I, Vietnam; all are represented here by soldiers like Boucher Jones (Vietnam) and J. S. Trennan (Civil War).

There are "enemy" soldiers buried here, too. See, down there at the end of the road? That tall, granite stone? It marks the final resting place of 29 Confederate soldiers who died at Fort McHenry while prisoners of war. Their names are listed: William D. England, 2nd Lt. from North Carolina; Pvt. James Murrey from La. Infantry . . . and so on. Did they die, you wonder, sick and longing for their homes in North Carolina and Louisiana?

In the end, this is a place of history and continuity: a beloved community of Americans who link the generations together in a strong, indestructible chain.

Now that chain has another link. And once again, as we remember the bright and tender realities of the singular men and women who no longer walk among us, we struggle to understand the meaning of their deaths. But it may be too soon for that. Perhaps what must come first is a search to understand the meaning of their lives.

The thumbnail sketches we read in the newspapers offered only scant information about those men and women who died in a part of the world far away from the cities and small towns where they grew up: places with peculiarly American names like Bountiful and Pleasantville; Independence and Concord. But if you piece it all together, the meaning of their lives begins to emerge.

And what we find is this: They were us.

"They were all of us," is the way Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey put it. "A high school football star, a lover of country music, a Future Homemaker of America, secretaries and salesmen, hunters and fishermen, postal workers and volunteer firemen." And they were sons, husbands, fathers, daughters, all going going about the business of daily life in their time, as we do now. And some of them were struggling to find their place in the world and others knew -- or thought they knew -- exactly where they belonged.

One other thing we know about them: They all wanted to get the job done and come home.

Now they have done both.

And now the families of those who did not come back from the Persian Gulf war must make a separate peace, if they can, with what they have personally lost. One look at the grief-stricken faces of Marylanders Leona and Paul Randazzo as they buried their son, Staff Sgt. Ronald Randazzo, tells us something about the high price of war. Even a victorious war.

But, victorious or not, few things cut so deeply into the heart of a nation as war. How are we to think about the meaning of death, the meaning of war, the meaning of life?

They are unanswerable questions, of course. Or questions that have different answers for different people.

But for those who wish to meditate on such things, there is no better place than here among these departed soldiers who bear witness to what we were and what we are as a nation.

There is no more moving thing than to stand here in a gentle rain and watch it stream like tears over the names on the white stones: Meall. Trennan. Jones. Hubble. To watch them blur and be replaced by other names: Randazzo. Hailey. Mayes. Lang.

We, of course, will go forward. But there will be days such as this -- days of warm, hazy beauty with the promise of life in the air -- when we will be carried back.

A part of us will always be looking back.

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