With more than its share of blue police lights and boarded-up houses, the West Baltimore neighborhood seemed an unlikely place to find a Memorial Day celebration. For most, the day is celebrated at the beach or in the backyard, or, for those who hold to its original intent, at a parade celebrating veterans or at a cemetery honoring the war dead.
But here indeed, in Leah Hamm's rowhouse, was the true spirit of Memorial Day, as family and friends of her nephew, Jonathan Hamm, celebrated his life even as they mourned his death in Iraq, just 11 days before the holiday.
"I really still can't believe it," an uncle, Reggie Swan, told the group. "It still hasn't registered yet."
It was a day of sadness and pride, of tears and prayers, as one by one they remembered the 20-year-old Army private first class who sought to escape the troubled streets of Baltimore only to meet his end in Baghdad.
"We grew up together in Baltimore, in the inner city," said his cousin Kisha Ford. "Basketball took me away from the street life, the drugs, all the inner city stuff. The military is a good way to get out of it, too."
But while basketball took Ford to the heights of her sport - she was a standout high school player, at Western and then Bryn Mawr, and became the all-time leading scorer at Georgia Tech before being drafted into the WNBA in its inaugural season of 1997 - her cousin's military career was barely under way when he was killed in Iraq on May 17, just a month after he arrived in the country.
"Some of us survive wars," Swan said. "Some of us don't."
Swan, 59, survived his - 1 1/2 years in Vietnam - and he is one of several relatives of Jonathan Hamm to have served in the military, including one who expects to be deployed to Iraq in the coming year. Swan went on to work at Bethlehem Steel and other jobs before settling into his current one, as a barber.
He credits the military for giving him discipline and had hoped the same for his nephew, who had lost his father to liver failure in 2000 and his mother to breast cancer just this February.
"After my brother died, he strayed," said Leah Hamm, who retired this month as a Baltimore City police officer. "They were very close, and he started getting into trouble."
Jonathan Hamm had struggled in school, but graduated from Carver Vo-Tech in 2004 and enlisted in the Army a couple of years ago. There too, he struggled and even went AWOL once, taking a bus back home to Baltimore.
But there, Swan put him back on another bus to Fort Benning, Ga. "I felt bad, and now I wish I hadn't," Swan said. "But I had to do it."
Now, it is with pride that he remembers his nephew, sticking with his training, becoming a private in the Army, based in Fort Lewis in Washington state, and ultimately dying in service to his country
When Swan looks back on his own military service, he feels "blessed" to also have served and survived. But he leaves the comparisons between the two wars to others.
"At least you knew who you were fighting [in Vietnam]," Swan said. "There weren't suicide bombers and the landmines like in Iraq. It's not the [Iraq] war that's killing people, it's the suicide bombers.
"Now, the only thing I think about is how glad I'll be when it's over," he said. "It seems like it's never going to end."
Today, Jonathan Hamm will be buried in Salisbury, where other relatives live. But Leah Hamm wanted to mark his life here in Baltimore, so she opened her doors yesterday, offering a quiet place amid the holiday weekend for them to join together in prayer, share a memory and a home-cooked meal and somehow find consolation in their shared grief.
Her sister, Leslie Hamm O'Nwere came in from Henderson, Nev., for the ceremony. Her daughter, Ford, came in from Atlanta where, after a five-year career in the WNBA, she now works as a white-collar crime investigator for the accounting firm KPMG.
"I got the call from my mom last Saturday, and I went to church on Sunday and cried," she told the group gathered in her mother's rowhouse, "because I never told him how proud we were ... of him representing our family there.
"Although we are going to be here today in sorrow, we are here as a family," she said through her tears. "Everybody comes together; we stand as one."