Thursday, January 31, 2013

1987. Frederick Piepenbrink

I'll bet a lot of people knew Fred. He worked for the post office for 34 years. But I wonder how many knew of his experiences in World War II.

There were, of course, millions of personal stories to tell worldwide, many of which have gone to graves with their holders. Fred's story can be partly divined from his military marker: "T SGT [Technical Sergeant] US Army Air Forces, World War II, Ex Prisoner of War, 306th Bomb Group 8th Air Force."

Of all the stories that scared me as a kid, even more than dying in war, it was the notion of being held prisoner by enemy forces. It was just such an unknown. What could happen?

Fred was a tail gunner on a bomber, in one of the 2100 American planes flying over Saxony on February 14, 1945. The 306th Bomber Group was the last unit to head for targets over Dresden, Chemnitz and Magdeburg, Germany, supposed to be done and heading home by 12:30 PM. The rule of thumb was that the British bombed by night, the Americans by day.

Of the 1377 B-17s that flew that day, 7 were lost, with 6 airmen killed, 19 wounded, 72 missing in action. Fred was among the missing.

He came home, of course (thank heaven) and lived, as we now know, a long life beyond the war.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

1981.Captain Arthur M. Knight

Being so close to the ocean, I haven't been surprised how many times I've come acorss references to sailing, fishing or simply gazing, like in the case of our friend John Lanata. But there are people who go beyond a middling love affair with the sea, occasionally dipping their toes into it; there are those folks who tip the scales with her waters, spending more time afloat than ashore.

Arthur Knight was, presumably, one of those men. His military marker simply says "BM1 US Navy, LT US Coast Guard WWII Korea Vietnam." That's at the very least a twenty-year career in the services, but probably more. In fact, if he's the right Arthur M. Knight, his gravestone helps give his story away.

Back in September of 1961, as Hurricane Esther was attacking the East Coast, a Navy P5M Mariner plane broke up upon impact with the sea north of Bermuda. Captain Knight, then in command of a merchant ship, Afircan Pilot, heading for Monrovia, diverted from his route at the request of the Coast Guard, as he and his crew were in the vicinity of the wreck. Two rubber life rafts spotted from planes gave hope that the ten-man crew might have survived, but it was plain to see they were empty. The Coast Guard requested that African Pilot pick up or destroy the life rafts in order to remove confusion during the rest of the search.

Heading that way he found three men in the water. With winds blowing at force 6 (22-27 knots), Knight maneuvered into place to pick up two of the three, hoping the third could hold on. He could, and did, but not without sustaining several shark bites. They were the only survivors.

Arthur M. Knight is remembered on his tombstone with if not original words, certainly words that fit his life: "Here lies the sailor home from the sea." Death was the only thing that could take him from it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

1961. John A. Lanata

A young man passing at 19 or 20 years old is just devastating for any family. So how do you remember him? The Lanatas created a beautiful marker, complete with an image of John emblazoned on it, smiling as if posing for a high school yearbook photo. The power of the image is startling when viewed in the context of the greater cemetery, a sea of hundreds of imageless stones.

But they went beyond the image. "The sun shining on the sea, his big blue eyes, and his winning smile beholds the memory of our little Johnny."

For most of us, death means practical anonymity, famiiarity to the living fading with time, eventually snuffing out like a candle. Perhaps we don't deserve more. But just those few words means that in perpetuity, visitors to this cemetery will get an image - both literally and through words - of Johnny, of the love his family obviously shared for him, and even a physical detail: those big blue eyes.

It's hard not to say "Rest in Peace" at the end of each one of these entries.

Monday, January 28, 2013

1935. Joseph W. Rosano and Family

And then there are those grave markers that challenge you to live life a certain way. It's one thing to give straight advice, like our friends the Bonfiglios, but it's another again to throw down the gauntlet, like the Rosanos did: "Only those who dare truly live."

Unfortunately, as much as I like the quote, I can't square away its origin. It's attributed all over the internet to a Ruth P. Freedman, but nobody - and I mean nobody - seems to have any biographical informaton on her, or even when she uttered or wrote the words. The true story is buried beneath thousands of pages of self-motivation websites. But wouldn't it be cool if the Rosanos pre-dated Ruth Freedman, beat her to the quote?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

1913. Lennie Kupsc

I promised myself when I started this project that I would not touch anything left behind by the families of the decased at the cemeteries, that I would do my best to read what I could through the wreaths, flowers and whatever else they lovingly placed (and there is no other adverb to describe it). As such, I almost missed Lennie's little saying.

Oh, I caught the main term of endearment: "Cherished husband, soulmate, devoted loving dad, loyal friend and brother, forever in our hearts and souls." I say this not to be mean in any way, but, although it's obviously as heartfelt as it can be - and I know, having just gone through the process with my dad - it's standard fare for someone reading 10,000 of these things for fun. But wait - what's that? There are three more little words down there...

"It's a Twister."

Now I don't know Lennie Kupsc from a hole-in-the-wall, but I'm hoping I get this right. There are two famous iterations of those words. First, there was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as the tornado comes through Kansas, lifts up her and her little dog, Toto, too, and drops them in the land of Oz (supposedly I had an ancestor in the movie, but I still haven't proven that one yet). I'm hoping that was not the inspiration for Lennie.

Lennie would have been about 29 years old when the movie Airplane! came out, one of the most quotable comedies of all time. One air traffic controller, Johnny, was specifically a quote machine. I can still recite them now. "Johnny, what can you tell us about the plane?"

"Oh, it's a big pretty white plane, with wheels, and a red stripe down the side, and it looks like a big Tylenol."

At one point during the mayhem of the plane coming in for a landing, Johnny has himself wrapped up in two phone cords, spinning around, saying "Its a twister, it's a twister!" Oh, man, I hope that's what made Lennie tick. If so, he was my kind of guy.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

1898. Louis C. Bailey, Jr.

It's amazing how a simple place name can catch the eye, and instantly tell a story. Valley Forge. Gettysburg. The Ardennes. Pearl Harbor. Iwo Jima.

The latter battle raged for more than a month during the summer of World War II, some of the most vicious and gruesome fighting in the Pacific Theater. The defending Japanese fought from within 11 miles of tunnels in the solid coral that forms the island. Despite heavy artillery pounding by the Navy and unrestrained bombing by Marine Corps pilots, the Japanese were entrenched firmly enough to necessitate the use of landing crafts and amphibious troops. There were more Americans killed or wounded on Iwo than there were Japanese casualties, the only time that had ever happened in U.S. Marine Corps history. Read Flags of Our Fathers for more.

Louis C. Bailey, Jr., was there to see that. But he saw more: "4th Marine Division, Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima." While the landings on Roi-Namur don't ring as loud a bell as Iwo Jima, the memory of the grander battle in which they took place - the Marshall Islands - certainly does. Eight thousand Marines stormed the western side of Saipan on June 15, 1944 to find barbed wire, trenches, machine guns and more waiting for them. By the time the battle ended, in victory for the U.S. about three weeks later, 30,000 Japanese trrops were dead, 3000 Americans, with 10,000 more Americans wounded, including actor Lee Marvin.

About ten days later, the 2nd and 4th Marines again landed, on Tinian. Although the battle was smaller, it was strategically one of the most important of the war. Though Japanese troops held out in the jungles on the island for months (one until 1953), the airfields subsequently built on the island supported the planes that flew the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yes, I've read my World War II history, but Louis lived it. Just those few words told me a lot about a man I never knew - and that's what this project is all about.

Friday, January 25, 2013

1868 and 1869. Major Thomas G. Churchill

It turns out that old Tom Churchill was a bit of a hero to a small town in France. Go figure. And he's right here in this little cemetery in Cohasset.

From what I can piece together, from a memorial marker given by the community he saved ("A la Memoire du Major Churchill, son Liberateur Le 21-08-1944, La Commune de Souppes sur Loing reconnaissante") and a little good old-fashioned history research, the story goes something like this.

The Allied troops were on the move in northern central France in late summer, 1944, and put a focus on a river town called Sens, a transportation hub that the Germans were using for logistical purposes. Take it, cut the supply route; oldest trick in the military playbook.

Churchill and the 4th Armored Division raced toward the destination with the other units of Combat Commands A and B. "Though tankers found Montargis defended and the bridge over the Loing destroyed," wrote Martin Blumenson in The Duel for France, 1944, "reconnaissance troops located a damaged but usable bridge fifteen miles to the north. Leaving Montargis to the troops following, the armor dashed to Souppes-sur-Loing, crossed the river, and against occasional rifle fire rolled to Sens." The Germans, who later admitted they thought the Americans were miles away from reaching Sens, surrendered almost en masse, many of the officers strutting around in their dress uniforms.

Souppes-sur-Loing was but a minor battle in the grand scheme of World War II, but to its citizens, like everybody else in the world, life was life, and they had certain American troops to thank for saving theirs, Major Churchill among them. Forty-three years later it was still important enough for them to present a stone in memory of Churchill at his final resting place across the Atlantic.

See? Winny wasn't the only Churchill with an impact on World War II.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

1851. Herb Jason

So, sometimes, one has to look beyond the words to the pictures, and then one has to know what the pictures mean. I can go one better. I knew Herb Jason, and I knew his connection to the image.

Oh, it's not like Herb could have picked me out of a line-up (not that I've ever been in one. I swear). But we crossed paths many times in the lighthouse history world. That's right, you read that correctly, the lighthouse history world. But Herb was more of a lighthouse man than I ever will be. He took huge strides to preserve the history of Minot's Light by restoring the lantern room of the new one and creating a memorial to the old one, the one pictured on his tombstone, at what's known as Government Island in his hometown of Cohasset.

And, as Frank Barone always said on Everybody Loves Raymond, "Holy crap!" I just realized that in all my wanderings to date, all my gravestone counting, I hit Herb Jason, Mr. Minot's Lighthouse, at #1851. That was the year that the lighthouse represented on his stone fell into the sea.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

1728. Robert Marsden

"A little bit of tennis heaven." Huh?

1718 and 1719. Robert and Theresa McNulty

Side by side, into eternity, as it should be. They left us with different thoughts, different words, different reflections.

Theresa went first, around 35 years old, far too young. But what words! "Where the world was cold, her love warmed it." What kinder thought could be shared by those who loved her? We should all strive to live up to such words of eternal remembrance.

Robert went relatively soon thereafter, around 44. He is remembered by two lines from Walt Whitman's poem "To a Stranger": "I am to wait, I do not doubt, I am to meet you again, I am to see it that I do not lose you." 

I'm choosing to read the words as being sent from Robert to Theresa, probably just for my own edification. The choice of words is perfect; the irony of the title of the poem is interesting. But, as we've already seen, couples live for fifty, seventy years together. How long did Robert and Theresa have? A decade? In some ways, they were still strangers to each other, robbed of long life together. But - I think, anyway - Robert's epitaph show that their time together was powerful and meaningful. I hope they've found each other.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

1655. Mike Bravo

Holy crap, it's Uncle Mike! What a surprise.

I never knew Uncle Mike that well. Let's just say that I have a confusing family history. Without getting too into it, my grandmother's brothers and sisters weren't all her brothers and sisters. There were half-brothers and half-sisters, a family tree with crossed branches. Uncle Mike was, in fact, Great Uncle Mike. There was an Uncle Ralph as well, Auntie Helen, Auntie Nancy, an Aunt Jenny I never knew. But I consider myself lucky. I had a lot of family members of that generation, and I even met my great-grandmother, who lived until I was 16.

One of the funniest moments I ever spent, I spent with Uncle Mike. We were at Uncle Louie's, when Uncle Louie was preparing to move. I promised to help lug furniture. We were carrying an organ - we were one of those Italian families, many of us trained on keyboards (yes, even me) to play things like "Begin the Beguine" and "Moon River" - out to the truck. There were four of us, and I remember thinking "just drop it guys, and I'll take it myself." It was too complicated, like everything our family ever did. We reached the curb and one of the guys said, "OK, we're gonna put it down now." As it lowered, the three of them - Uncle Mike and two of his sons - all started talking at once. They each kept going, ordering, criticizing, talking, until the second the organ touched the ground. Then they stopped dead silent. I never, ever felt so Italian.

I went to Uncle Mike's wake, and it was a bizarre week. His sister passed away within seven days. We all went to the next wake, the same crowd, just standing in different places.

And look at that, Uncle Mike served in World War II with the Navy. I never knew that. I am so glad I found him. I'll be back on Veterans Day. I'm so proud he was my Uncle Mike.

Monday, January 21, 2013

1576. Donald and Ruth Harrington

They're doing it to me again.

I don't know why I'm so generally emotional. There might be something deep inside my head, heart and soul, something a psychiatrist might drag out of me, some insecurity dating back to my parents' divorce, who knows. Or it may be just who I am. But there are times I get that tear in my eye and that lump in my throat. I defend my right to it when I think about my kids. It happens from time to time when I'm away from them. I'll be in the middle of an important task at work and a thought will run through my head. I just see those little smiles in my mind, and I lose it, if just so slightly.

But as for Donald and Ruth, I never knew them (and the latter, happily, is apparently still with us). But they've got that lump started. One word said it all: "Always."

And that's how you can locate true marital happiness. beautiful.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

1444. Richard Evan Thomas Brooks

It's so cool to think that there's no word count for epitaphs. I spend a lot of my time writing  - books, magazine articles, newspaper posts - and spend most of that time trying to be concise. I haven't gone the Twitter route yet for various reasons, but for certain work-related projects I am in charge of some social media.

In the early stages of this project, I have examined brevity, but I found a stone today that challenges that idea. First Lieutenant Brooks was not so much quickly remembered on his tombstone as described. "...Loving, proud husband and father...enjoying, as well, much success as a student, an athlete and entrepreneur."

I love the "as well"! If someone read his obituary, which like most everybody's, is now online, you might think his greatest contributions on this earth were connected to, oh, I dont know, his chemical engineering degree from Northeastern University, or his college basketball career (he's in the Northeastern Hall of Fame), or designing the chemlab at Polaroid, or his Doctorate of Humane Letters from Fitchburg State College, or his Small Business Person of the Year Award, the SBA he received in a ceremony from President Bush, his volunteer work around Cohasset...something like that. But nope, that was the "as well."

Family first. Everything else second. Boy, does this have me thinking. And smiling.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

1414. Jean Savage Abbott

I'm torn on the notion of using someone else's words on my headstone. I'd like to be original, I think, but I will admit that I do have one favorite quote that has summed up my life pretty well. It comes from Jim Croce, one of my favorite musicians of all time: "You never find enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them." Sooooo true...

I wish that I could find the quote on Ms. Abbott's gravemarker, but it is eluding me. I've found one part of it, "those who have understood me," in Tolstoy's A Confession in 1882, but I can't seem to find the rest of it as she has it attributed to him: "My spirit lives on in those who have undertsood me."

Nonetheless, it struck me as a beautiful sentiment. I think many of us walk through life feeling misunderstood, and there's a balance that needs to be struck for comfort. Very few people can go through life without acceptance; perhaps it's a key to unbridled success, not caring abot what other people think.

Crap! Now it's got me thinking about who understands me and whether or not I care. I'm going to move onto the next stone before I get so introspective and philosophical that I hurt my brain. I need it for a few more years.

Friday, January 18, 2013

1407. American Legion

Back in Cohasset at the Woodside Cemetery.

Memorialization is an interesting concept, in that, when we think about it, we pick and choose who it is that we set up permanent memorials to as a society. Yes, we have the concept down that all individuals deserve their just due at death, handled privately by families; but what groups of people do we remember, and how?

Combat veterans have their memorials, and they oftentimes float out of cemeteries into town greens, or other prominent places in our communities. Gold Star Mothers - those moms who lost sons to military service during the wars - are another such group, and this particular cemetery has one of the most beautiful such displays I've ever seen. I often passed it on Route 3A, saw the back of the stones, wondered what it was.

But Cohasset has another marker that stands out, placed by the American Legion: In memory of their gallant service we dedicate this spot to those of our war dead who have no other resting place.

It's horrible to think about it, but there were those who didn't come home, for one reason or another, from so many wars. Some are interred elsewhere, some died at sea and were there "buried." Others...well, there's no need to be graphic. We know why others never came home.

The fraternity of military men and women stretches across generations, from war to war, and heart to heart. When my father passed away, total strangers came to his service - just because he'd worn the uniform of the United States. As long as there are military services, there will be American Legions; as long as there are American Legions, our lost soldiers will be memorialized.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

1319. George A. Murphy

Another veteran, yes, but this one with a twist. I really enjoy reading the information provided on our vets' tombstones. If they were combat veterans, the war in which they fought is always listed. But I think the most interesting fact each one gives us is the unit in which he or she served. And, almost 1500 tombstones in, I have not yet run across two people who served in the same unit.

So, that said, with as much pointless knowledge as I carry around in my head about military history, George Murphy surprised me. I guess he shouldn't have, as I've long known of balloons and their military usage. The word "balloon" was just not something I expected to see on a grave marker.

The French used balloons for observation during their revolutionary period, going all the way back to 1794, and they were used here in the United States during the Civil War. Think about it: more than a century before planes came along, men were soaring high above the ground, gaining views of the countryside below them, searching for enemy troops, calling out artillery fire coordinates.

It wasn't an easy task, and definitely not one without peril. Hydrogen is flammable, and was back then, too. If bullets started to fly and that ballon was struck, that was it: think Hindenburg. The men of the observation balloon companies - and there were 105 such companies serving with the Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps in World War I - employed parachutes to escape their balloons once the battles started getting too close. In fact, "the balloon is going up!" for a long time stood as a colloquialism for the start of battle; it probably meant the big guns were going to start tossing their projectiles.

George Murphy, PFC Baloon [sic] Repl. Co. World War I was one of those brave men. Geez, you learn something new every day.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

1238. Irene and Joseph Bonfiglio

Well, I guess I read these in the wrong order. I should have gone all alphabetical on the place: Bonfiglio, then Chimenti. The Chimentis lived a ridiculously long life together; the Bonfiglios have the answer as to how.

They put their advice - apparently before they passed on - right on their marker: "Persistence, determination and the power of prayer are the ingredients of a happy, healthy and peaceful life." According to the stone, they're still enjoying that happy, healthy and peaceful life together.

And they look happy. I know because they have a color photograph from their 50th wedding anniversary on the stone, which, if I'm doing my math correctly, was not that long ago. She was born in 1935, he in 1929, both in early March (two Pisces in love!), meaning if she was 20 when they married, that would have been 1955; the 50th anniversary probably took place in the last seven years.

I've got the first two down. Persistence and determination? You know, that whole walking for a half an hour a day thing, or walking in 351 towns and cities in 365 days. Power of prayer? Never been religious. I may be sacrificing something here, but I'm willing to stay on the road I'm on for a little while longer. Feelin' pretty good right now.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

1172. Vincenzo and Angelina Chimenti

Let me just say right here and now how proud I am of my nineteenth century Italian brethren, my goombahs. They forged a life here in the late 1800s that made it possible for me to live a normal existence, mostly without fear of prejudicial treatment. There are still stigmata out there, stereotypes, etc., but they affect all of us. We're different; revel in it. Compared to what the first Italians to step into this country faced, I've got it pretty damned good.

It was people like Vincenzo and Angelina that led the way. They married young. He was 18 or 19, and she was around 26, and I don't know where the wedding took place - here in the Philly area? back in the old country? - but the fact is it doesn't matter. It's the math that matters, simple equations drawn from the only words on their marker outside of their vital records. Married 1901.

There were lots of people married in 1901, but how many stayed married for 74 years like Vincenzo and Angelina? I'm sure they had their troubles here and there, for as Frank Burns said on M*A*S*H, "marriage is the chief cause of divorce." But many of us will be happy to reach 30 or 40 years together. Seventy-four years! American males are only expected to live for 75.6 years. What's more, Angelina, who was seven years or so older than Vincenzo, lived six years after he passed on, meaning she died somewhere around, oh, 106 years old.

Gino Cappeletti, former New England Patriots football star, said olive oil kept him young one day on the radio, that it kept the joints well lubricated. I wonder what it was that let Vincenzo and Angelina live such a long life together?

Monday, January 14, 2013

1087. Chuckie Bartholomew

I've stayed away from kids, with good reason. For one thing, I can't take it. A few years ago, I would have stared coldly and studied their stones like any other. Now, I can't. I have kids. It's all too real.

Chuckie died just before his tenth birthday, which sucks - there's just no other way to put it.

His marker, though, is a cultural reference point for generations to come. "In my hour of darkness, Mother Mary comes to me, Let it be." Beatles fans know them well, mixed lyrics to one of the group's last great songs. In fact, it was released just months before Chuckie passed on, and was probably as close to comforting as anything could be for the family. Nothing will change it, so let it be. Which is what I'll do, as the topic is just too much for me.

1014. Julius Doppler

This entry has nothing to do with epitaphs, save for the fact that some people don't need any. When you think of Doppler what comes to mind? Radar, radio, the Doppler effect. I stood there in the cemetery and whipped out the LG smartphone. I had to see if it was him. It wasn't. But when I Googled him, the weirdest thing happened. A picture of his tombstone popped up. I was seeing the same thing just feet from me. What a weird sensation.

And by the way, 10,000 stones is obviously way, way too low. I'll have to reassess at he end of the month.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

924. Robert T. Miller

I guess one thing I'll have to consider as I plan my final words is from whom they should come. I've seen plenty of examples of sentiments from the living to the departed, but only rarely have I come across someone who has left their own thoughts behind. I guess it's all in the timing. I'm glad I'm planning now.

I met the next six people in St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. I was down there to write a book, had an hour, found a cemetery to walk in. That's where I met Robert. Robert took steps. According to his headstone, he's still alive, and I hope that's the truth.

He put a simple sentiment on his stone: "I tried my best." Was that what his mother and father wanted him to do? Was that what they asked of him as a kid? "Just please do your best." Robert served in World War II as well, which, again, gets my respect, and means that he did more with his life than I have done with mine.

This one's in the running for me, or at least some variation of it. I don't want to steal it from Robert, but at least I can say it's something I strive to do every day.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

802. Vivian Vinal Silvia

Vivian wins for two reasons. First, she wins for most "V's." Second, she wins for succinctness.

It's hard - very hard - to get a point across in just a few words. I think we're seeing a revolution in succinctness with Twitter, or, at least, the people who are good at expressing their thoughts in a few words have finally been given a good forum.

But two words? Summing up a life in two words? I don't think I'm up to the challenge just yet. I did my dad in three. But the Cohasset Silvias - any relation to Champion Auto Racer Joe? - did something amazing with their choice of words. I got a picture of a personality in my mind when I read the words: "Someting Special."

Well done, Silvias. And well done, Cohasset. I'll be back.

Friday, January 11, 2013

754 and 755. Frances Glover Knight and Karen Knight

The Knight family left me with mixed emotions, and after just a week and a half on this project, I cant tell you ow many times my heart has been in my throat. Let's start with Frances.

Frances was married to William Knight. I don't know if this is the little Willie Knight of the early nineteenth century Hull Beacon newspapers (I've read 1896-1913, just a little hobby of mine), but the Knight name was a pretty prominent one at the time. It may have been him.

Of course, those three little words - "Buried at Sea" - ae enough to tug at those heartstrings. Having grown up on a peninsula, just one connected cardinal point away from being an island, I've always loved the sea. Oddly, though, in all my years, I've only known of one local person who was buried at sea, and that's because I was there when it happened. Obviously Frances had her favorite views, from sea or from land, and ended up spending eternity with the waters she loved.

Karen was a sadder story. She died way too young. And I don't think there's anybody on the planet who would fight me on the notion that 36 is too young to die. But she left her impressions on those she loved, for she parted with the beautifully descriptive words "Like a diamond in the sky."

So has your heart joined mine yet?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

550. Paul Robey

So, it should be pretty apparent already that I have a lot of respect for our military men, and it all stems from one reason: my dad was one. He served with the Marines in Vietnam, and that should be enough to tell the story. He paid his price, and so did we, as a family. He never beat us, never became an alcoholic, nothing like that. But he had his PTSD-related issues that worried me from time to time.

So I pause for veterans, every time I see them. I read every line, the unit, the war. In Paul Robey's case, I read the medals, Silver Star, Purple Heart, Distinguised Service Cross. Then I looked them up.

"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Staff Sergeant Paul W. Robey, Jr. (ASN: 11048120), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with Company K, 3d Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in action against enemy forces on 18 November 1944, in Germany.

"Withering cross fire from well-concealed enemy machine guns pinned down an attacking platoon near the outskirts of a German village. Upon observing the location of one of the guns in a building, Staff Sergeant Robey voluntarily and courageously ran across thirty yards of exposed ground to reach the structure. With two well-placed grenades, he annihilated the entire gun crew. Sighting an anti-tank gun, Staff Sergeant Robey charged the position single-handedly with an automatic rifle, killing several Germans and forcing the surrender of eighteen others."

But wit, there's more.

"Half way through the town, he observed an enemy tank blocking an important road junction. While enemy artillery shells landed nearby, he quickly led several tank destroyers to the scene and effectively directed fire which disabled the hostile tank. As crew members attempted to make a getaway, his poured a hail of automatic rifle fire upon them and killed the entire crew. Staff Sergeant Robey's outstanding courage and great personal bravery, though wounded by shell fragments during this engagement, resulted in the successful assault upon the town. His intrepid actions and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 1st Infantry Division, and the United States Army."

Wow. World War II did some amazing things to ordinary people.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

536. John Sadler

I think to figure out John Sadler, I'd have to look deeper than his headstone. I know that when I read the words "It is what it is" I have an immediate reaction. I think football. Coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots used the sentence ad nauseum for a few years, in his attempt to diffuse any high or low talk about his team and its record. Which leads back one step further - Coach Bill Parcells liked to use the sentence "You are what you are" when asked about his team in comparison to its record.

"Coach, you're 5-6, but you're record doesn't reflect how well you've really played."

"If you're 5-6, you're 5-6. You are what you are."

And of course, it all sounds very much like "Che sera, sera, whatever will be, will be." (I prefer the Doris Day version).

So, does that make John Sadler a bigtime Patriots fan? Possibly, but there's a chance he was a Grateful Dead fan.

John Perry Barlow, one of the Grateful Dead's lyricists, wrote a song with exactly that title, "It Is What It Is," though the Dead never recorded it. But then, all of this may just come down to John Sadler adopting the sentence for his own use, and it becoming his own tagline, no matter where he got it from. As a final sentiment, it's quirky. There's a resigned quality to it - death is final, there's no turning back - while it currently holds a bit of early 21st century cultural identity. Will it resonate? In 2113 will someone visiting this graveyard in an attempt to recreate my classic work of literary amazingness that this blog will become even understand what the words mean? I guess we'll see.

Che sera, sera.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

511. Steve Casey

And then there are those people who did just enough in life that they don't need an epitaph.

Steve started out life in Sneem, Ireland, son of a bareknuckles boxer, and is immortalized there with a bronze statue. As a young man he stood out as a rower, even qualifying for the Olympics, although he never got to go, as the Olympic Committee actually paid attention to amateur and professional statuses in those days. By that time he had been paid as a professional athlete, albeit in another sport. Too bad. In 1936, Steve and brothers Tom, Paddy and Mick (swear to god) were the All-England Rowing champions.

But no, in 1935, Steve and Paddy had taken up amateur wrestling, and in March 1936, Steve made his professional debut, defeating the Irish Canadian Heavyweight Champion in a non-title match. Seven months later promoter Paul Bowser saw potential (and dollar signs) in the young man, and brought him to Boston. Two years later, he won the highest honor in the sport, the National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight Championship, from Lou Thesz, and if you don't know who he is, Google him. He was the real deal, one of the men the sports entertainment industry was built on. Ask Vince McMahon. He knows who Lou Thesz was.

For the next nine years he fought the best there was, taking time out to serve in the United States Army in World War II. In 1947 he retired from wrestling to open a bar in Hull, called Casey's. It was still there not too long ago. Today there's a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot on the site.

Yes, there are thousands of Steve Caseys out there, living and dead, but there was only one Steve "Crusher" Casey.

Monday, January 7, 2013

396. Margaret C. Hiltz

I think that I'm coming to the realization that I want something humorous, or at least warm, on my headstone. And I don't mean warm and fuzzy, something hokey. I want it to be something particularly me, if you know what I mean.

That's what I got from looking at Margaret's markers. She's memorialized more than once, as many people here are, with a family plot stone, and an individual stone flush mounted with the ground. The family stone gives just the name and dates - more on that in a second - and her flat marker carries the dates, but not her name. Instead, it says "Our Dear Mother." Underneath the dates it says, "Don't forget that I love ya."

How sweet is that? What a beautiful sentiment to carry into the afterlife. My guess is that it was her own saying, probably something she said to her kids at the end of every phone call, with every wet, sloppy grandma kiss, something that at times they shrugged off. But is there anything more steady and unwavering than a mother's love? I'll bet she meant it everu time she said it.

But poor Margaret. She, too, has a typo. He flat marker lists her as 1901 to 1996. On the family stone the second 1 in 1901 is scored over with a 2. Which one is correct? The world may never know.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

389. Joseph A. Silvia

After reading every visible and legible stone at the cemetery in Rockland - a town to which I'll definitely be returning - I crunched my way into the Woodside Cemetery in Cohasset. The snow had not completely melted yet, as the temperature barely broke freezing, but I could just make out every flat marker there. I never knew Cohasset had so many veterans.

This area of Cohasset, bordering on Hingham, holds lots of memories for me. The Hingham Skating Club, just up the street, was partially put together by my grandfather. I skated there as a kid with my dad. We have home movies of him and his brothers and sisters there in the sixties. He told me that the Bruins, in the age before indoor rinks, would come down and skate with the local hockey players, just for the exercise. He said Fern Flanam had this move where he would use his stick to tuck the puck up under his skate boot, in that rectangular area between it and the blade, and would then skate full speed down ice as all the kids hacked at his feet trying to pry it loose. When he saw a passing lane, he would kick it free, blast it to his teammate, who would easily score. I would have paid to see that, athough I think my imagination probably has more than lived up to what the scene must have been like.

So, why Joe Silvia, you ask? Three words: "Champion Auto Racer."

I say to you, like I say to my four-year-old all day long: how cool is that?

Joe won at least one race that has made it down through the ages, the July 4, 1934, extravaganza at the Readville Race Track in Hyde Park, where he did 25 miles in just two seconds shy of 26 minutes, finishing with a flat tire. Imagine that - 60 miles per hour was considered racing speed. How soon we forget what technology has done for us. But in his day, at a mile a minute, Silvia was one of the speed demons. Go, Joe, go!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

291. Charles Winslow

And what do you do if there's a misspelling on your tombstone? It's not like a bottle of White-out will help. You can't just scribble in between the letters, or try to turn a "D" into a "B" with a Sharpie.

Now, let me throw this at you. When Charles Winslow, a member of the Freemasons, died in 1933, it was during the Great Depression. Money was not exactly flowing from one place to the next. The cost involved in headstone production was probably bad enough, and in this case, he was being memorialized on the same stone as his parents. They, mom and dad, died within a year of each other, at least, in 1916, if not together. The cost of redoing the entire stone for one misspelled word was probably simply prohibitive at the time.

So, poor Charles, son of Charles, has to go through the afterlife as:

"Veternary Surgeon."

But how about that mother of his? Born in 1826, and an M.D.? Now there's a story. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the United States to earn (or even be allowed to attempt to earn) a medical degree, in 1849. Our Julia was just 23 at the time, so Elizabeth broke the barrier for her at just the right time.

Wow, the people that you meet.

Friday, January 4, 2013

225. Mary Stoddard

If a picture paints a thousand words, sometimes three words paint a masterpiece. Poor Mary Stoddard's epitaph was almost lost to the snow. It's made me realize how many stones I've probably missed in walking this cemetery this particular week. Veterans from World War II forward are particularly susceptible to being easily missed thanks to the military's grave marker system, bronze plaques mounted flush with the ground. For that very reason I'm holding off on visiting my dad until the snow thaws. Besides, it's a long walk from home to Bourne, although Google says I could make it in 13 hours and 28 minutes.

But as stated, sometimes it's the succinctness of a phrase that speaks volumes: "Let me rest."

Mary died at 87 years old in 1888, but at least it was in August, between the Great Blizzard of March and the Great Storm of November. And I can get the sentiment, 87 is a long life. Even in 1888, a woman who reached 60 was expected to live until about 74, so Mary was entering mostly unexplored territory. I guess that it would be worse if somebody had died at say, 28, and had those words on their tombstone. At 28, they would denote a struggle with life; at 87, they state that the time to go had come.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

108. Captain Lewis Reed

Now this is what I'm talking about!

One of my biggest complaints about life in general is that we're all so fleeting. I mean, get this: I ran into another John Galluzzo at Disney World a few weeks ago, from Buffalo, New York. His wife looked at me and said, "You LOOK like a Galluzzo," to which I replied, "I'm supposed to say that!" My point is that we're not unique, and we're just here for a blip on the grand scale of time. How many John Galluzzos will come and go without fanfare? When people come to visit us in our final resting places, will they have any idea whatsoever what we accomplished, what we contributed to the world, whether or not we had criminal records, whether we preferred crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
"Capt. Lewis Reed
1st Sergt. Co. G, 12 Regt.
Capt. Co. K, 54th Regt.
April 28, 1861-Sept. 2, 1865"

Ok, so it probably takes a history geek like me to know this right off the top of my head, but this is the Fighting 54th! The all-African-American regiment that was made famous by the movie Glory! (The exclamation point is actually in the title, but I would have added it anyway). And get this - the 12th Massachusetts was headed by Daniel Webster's son Fletcher, who died in combat in 1862. And look at those dates! Reed, an East Abington boy (today's Rockland) signed up two weeks after the bombing of Fort Sumter amd remained in service five months after the war ended. Now that was a military career for the ages, to fight through the entire Civil War and come out the other end - and live for sixty more years to tell the tales.

But does it help me in my quest? Not likely that I'll be able to put anything like it on my tombstone. Not me, and no other John Galluzzo that I know (I know three: Buffalo John, my Uncle John and my cousin Johnny).

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

85. McMahon

I didn't catch the first name, as it - like much of Spring Lake Cemetery in Rockland - was covered in snow.

It was a bench. It seems to me that's a growing fad. It also seems weird to be talking about fads in relation to cemeteries, but here we are. But let's face it, when we walk into a burial ground, we can automatically tell what's old and what's new, much like we do with hairstyles, cars and clothing. Fashion holds its sway even here. More on this topic later, I'm sure. But the bench? I'm not sold. Is it meant for sitting? I had never been a lingerer in a cemetery, mostly because until January 2, 2012, I never had anybody worth lingering for. My dad's passing changed all that. When I do get to visit him now I feel like I can stay all day, telling him back all the dirty jokes he told me as a kid.

But as for Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. McMahon, the sentiment was simple: "Miss me - but let me go."

I think that by the end of this project I will have a much deeper love for my fellow man. For decades I've seen burial grounds as places of study; I've learned more about local history in some cemeteries than I have in some libraries. They're alive for historians. But when I take those glasses off, and see the world with just a straight, human vision, the emotion hits me. Someone loved this person, and not that long ago, judging by the freshly lain basket of Christmas decorations. Those six little words, which brought a very small lump to my throat, bring tears to the eyes of people not that far away every time they read them.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

1. Nathaniel O. Pratt

And that's when my car died.

I know I'm tempting fate by focusing so much on death, but in reality, I think I've got a pretty solid rationale for taking on this project. Having just gone through the death of my father and seeing the work - and money - involved in the interment process, I want to make things as simple as possible for my family, when the time comes. Which I hope is far away. Very, very far away. Like I hope nobody's even started to plot out the calendars yet. Like Christmas 2070. (It's a Thursday. No need to count, and you'll probably get that Friday off, too, unless you work for a total tool).

There's a lot to do: casket, headstone, choosing who does the readings in the religious houses, limos, flowers, etc. I hope to cut it all off at the pass by making a binding contract with a funeral home so that my family won't even have to think about it. And if I can sneak in my last words - and don't we all love to get the last word? - I will.

But to have my car "die" on me on day one? Come on, too weird.

Ironically, it happened on the first night in my new house. My wife and sons hadn't even moved in yet, and there I was in a strange new neighborhood, no car, no food, no television for the bedroom yet so I had to schlep all the way downstairs to watch the ball drop then drag myself all the way up upstairs again to get some sleep. Hey, I moved furniture all day. I was beat.

So, when I awoke in the morning, I had no choice. To find my cemetery, to start my project, I had to walk. Oh gee. Oh no. Not that. Don't make me walk.

The West Hanover Cemetery is a small, private affair on the edge of one of my favorite open space parcels in Hanover, Massachusetts. We were in the throes of the deepest cold stretch we'd had in more than two years when I set out. Snow from earlier in the week had never left the trees and shrubs, icing in place, giving the world that magical appearance so beloved around Christmas, but so hated in late January. French's Stream runs behind the cemetery, and at that moment provided a small pocket of open water around which the wildlife gathered, a deer, a cardinal, a chickadee, a red-bellied woodpecker.

I examined my first stones, all descendants of three families. The historic notes attached to the cemetery say that there were probably many more than the 19 stones I saw standing on this day, that vandalism has surely ocurred over the past century and a half. Of the 19, one stood out: Nathaniel O. Pratt.

Poor Nathaniel died at 25 in 1848, and his wife Michal died four months later at 21. They had lost two children by then, one at 1 year, one at 7 months. Their epitaph:

"Farewell father, farewell mother,
God will heal your deepest pain;
Farewell, too, dear weeping brother,
Soon in heaven we'll meet again."

Yeesh. I suddenly didn't know if I wanted to do the project any more. Death really sucks.

New Year, New Goal

The inspiration hit me while I was walking my way across Massachusetts in 2011. In towns where I could find no suitable open space (I had vowed to take a thirty minute nature walk in each of the 351 towns and cities within one calendar year), I "fell back" to cemeteries as my default open spaces. There was precedent for the notion. Particularly during the Romantic Era, cemeteries were designed just for that purpose, with rolling hills and sloping trails. For a long time in America, some cemeteries have been for the living as well as the dead.

So there I was in a Hebrew cemetery in central Massachusetts, not necessarily designed for walking, but it was the best I could manage in this particular town. I came across one grave marker that made me pause in my tracks: "1902-2000, An Untimely Demise," read the back. It might as well have had an exclamation mark after it. What a send off! It made me think of several things. First, did she have a say in what went onto her tombstone? If she did, she had a wonderful sense of humor. Or was it her kids? Or grandkids? Or her ancient husband, staring into the ground thinking "I'm next"? Whose idea was it?

Second, it was the brevity of it all that caught me. It was like the old torch song said: "Is that all there is?" When we go, we end up with name, dates and maybe - maybe - a few words to encapsulate our entire lives. What will my words be?

I have some preconceived ideas, but I have to see if they stand up to rigorous testing. I plan to spend an entire calendar year walking in cemeteries, reading at least 10,000 tombstones for clues. I have no idea if you can hit 10,000 in a year, because I've never counted them before. Is 300 per day too tall a task, or will I be hitting 500 on a good walk? I just don't know. I have a hand tally counter ready to spend the year in my palm.

For relevancy, I'll be visiting old (dead) friends - writers, naturalists, family members, people from my hometowns, the Italians of Greater Boston - you know, the user groups of my life. While the bulk of the people I call upon will be complete strangers, I'll try to see what it is that my friends and others who have shared at least part of my experiences have left behind.

And so it was on New Year's Day, 2013, I readied myself for my first targeted cemetery walk.