Tending the Past With roses and flags, a son follows in his father's steps

May 31, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

CRISFIELD -- Upshur L. Adams taught his oldest boy right. The learning began in the town cemetery, where roses grew wild and buttercups sprang up in marshy patches underfoot. Come Memorial Day, father and son set to work on the spring grass, the man pushing a hand mower, the boy pulling his red wagon. Together, they cleared a swath among the rows of marble headstones, then knelt to clip stubborn dandelions and scruffy clover at the edges.

There, before a bronze World War I doughboy rising from granite, the boy learned how to decorate Crisfield's war dead -- to center canning jars against stone, secure them with cord, set in a fistful of red roses and drive small American flags into the spongy ground alongside.

Upshur Adams is long gone, dead now 25 years, a World War I Army private buried only a few feet from that bronze statue. Yet each Memorial Day, red roses and American flags have graced (( the veterans' graves, carefully tended by a groundskeeper's son, a once impish lad whose antics Upshur often said signaled the turn of the moon. This year will be no different, except the thin-lipped boy is now a 59-year-old man with a barrel belly and eyes set so deep it's hard to tell their blue color.

Today, the town's last surviving gold star mother of World War II, three prisoners of war from the European theater, Korean and Vietnam era vets, military widows and others will gather to honor those buried in the cemetery established by American Legion Post 16 in 1919. The roll call of the dead -- 942 names who fought in six wars -- will be read aloud by a retired general, the high school band will play, and a color guard will fire a salute.

It will be a scene replayed across the nation in towns large and small.

Here in Crisfield, Charles L. Adams knows he's made his father proud, even if the Memorial Day roses now are fashioned from silk. He pulls up the simple, wooden cross inscribed with the word "POP" from alongside his father's headstone to create a uniform patriotic tableau of flowers and flags as his dad would have it.

"I'm usually in the cemetery some mornings before it's even light," says Mr. Adams, who lives a block from the cemetery in the same white, four-room house in which he was reared. "If the grass ain't wet, you can cut. If it gets real warm, I'll take the afternoon off and come back after supper. That's the way my dad did it. He learned us a lot."

Named for a preacher, Mr. Adams rides his black "beach cruiser" bicycle to the small square-block graveyard most days.

"It looks real pretty when we get it all decorated," says Mr. Adams, who never served in the military because of a medical condition in his teens. "Where I couldn't serve in the war, this is my part."

A small town

On this warm spring day, the air smells of freshly mowed grass. The sun burns white and mosquitoes swarm in puddles overrun with buttercups. Behind the low brick wall at Chesapeake and Somerset avenues, the names of Crisfield rise in marble and granite -- McCready, Tawes, Ward.

Mr. Adams is a solitary pedestrian among these remembrances. Dressed in an undershirt and baggy gray work pants, his shoes covered with a grassy patina, a plumber's cap to shield his head from the sun, Mr. Adams opens a rusty gate to a family plot.

Living in a small Eastern Shore town (pop. 2,880), surrounded on two sides by water, at the southernmost tip of Maryland, people know each other's business.

"This was Miss Gertie, Miss Gertie Somers," he says of the woman buried under a graying headstone after 104 years on earth. "She owned a dry goods store right there before there was a new side of the American Legion cemetery. This is her sis, Miss Hat. They lived together.

"This here, Theodore Sterling," Mr. Adams adds, pointing to a larger stone, "they say he fought on both sides of the [Civil] War, the North and the South. That's what I heard."

A place of history

He doubles back, across the cemetery, past day lilies not yet in bloom and a toppled monument, a vandal's evening of mischief. He points out the graves of the woman doctor who delivered his mama's seven babies, the orphans court judge who collected the insurance on his house, and several unmarked graves, their cement vaults pushing up from their burrows in the soft ground.

"This is Spanish-American," Mr. Adams says, his work shoe pushing the overgrown weeds and dandelions from a stone's surface. "William J. Nelson, 1875. He died October 1962."

Although most veterans are buried on either side of the doughboy statue at the front of the cemetery, others are scattered throughout the graveyard, in family plots behind rusted iron fences, wedged between famous Crisfielders or buried under grassy knolls. All will have flags.

"A lot of these don't got no markers at all. Some in here you just have to guess at 'em," explains Mr. Adams, his black and white dog, Tanya, sitting at his feet. "That's how my daddy did. I learned from him."

Weed cutters and such

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