Each year on Memorial Day, I try to touch on the experiences of my fellow veterans in remembering our friends, comrades, neighbors, uncles, cousins, and fine citizens who have given their all in service to this nation. Memorial Day is not to honor the living, but to remember those who gave their lives in service of us all.
Today’s story is flash fiction. I wrote it in one sitting, as God seems to take the keys from me each year and provide a story that provokes thought. I hope you enjoy it, it is below for your consideration. If you enjoy it, I ask that you share it on your social media. That exposure on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and your own blogs, helps me spread this story. Thank you.
Please, on this Memorial Day weekend, don’t wish anyone a “Happy Memorial Day.” Don’t fall for the trap to view it as a shopping day, or a fine time to get drunk with your friends and watch Neflix. Unless, that is, you’re all remembering your friends who didn’t make it to your age because they were killed in combat, and the movie is one that they enjoyed, or about the conflict in which they served. That, in my opinion, might be worth hoisting a few. Instead, consider the loss of their families, the pain of their final moments, and the fact that they did so in preservation of this land and our freedoms. It’s not a lot to ask.
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It was located in a small churchyard in the middle of one of America’s ten largest cities, and yet it was as isolated and neglected as the American flag left behind by the last astronaut to step on the face of the Moon.
Calvin R. Espinoza had been a proud cavalryman during the war with Spain, and had died in 1907 as a direct result of his wounds during a dismal time spent in a coastal area of Cuba. Roosevelt had all the history written about him, but it was the guys like Calvin that had provided the support that the Rough Riders needed to storm those hills.
When he died, his family had requested that he be allowed to rest with the clerics of the church who were buried in the small yard. Permission was granted, and a small foot-stone was placed in 1909 with his name, his dates of service, rank, and branch.
It was a small thing for the church to do, but Calvin had been a faithful member for many years, and when he came back from Cuba he was different in some way. More reverent, more devoted to the church, less likely to move much beyond the city block where the edifice stood.
Over the years the congregation waxed and waned, and with each changing administration the small graveyard became less of a priority. Until Vietnam. Then, some of the neighbors held a mock funeral there for the youth dying in that hot, humid land on the other side of the planet. The church elders had thrown them out with no mercy: this was sacred ground. But like the burial plots, they were old as well, and it wasn’t more than thirty years later that the church finally died and the congregants folded into a larger church just five blocks away.
Because the church was solid in a structural way, if not spiritually, it continued on as a retreat center for some years, the garden planted heavily with prairie grasses to bring a peaceful feel to the little plot. The leaders of the center didn’t really think that it was wrong to do so, but that in death we are all forgotten and the Earth will soon take us back just like the prairie grass covered the markers.
In September of 2016, new owners purchased the building. A young couple, both artistic types who worked in metal and clay. They turned the old church into a center for artists, and remodeled the rectory to be their home.
The young man had some severe issues with hay fever, and in one of their first acts to renew the outside of the property, his wife had filled a sprayer with herbicide and walked along the overgrown paths of the strange little courtyard, making sure that every one of the sneeze-inducing plants got a dousing.
A long winter followed, where the two worked indoors to make the place their own. Once the weather had turned warmer, Loretta headed out in a bundle of sandy colored mis-matches and began burning the brush away with a propane torch lashed to the end of a rake.
Three hours into her task, she ran across the corner of the urban prairie where the graves were located. Somehow the disclosure documents that the sellers had submitted neglected to mention human remains on the property, instead listing the area as a “meditation zone.”
Loretta carefully pulled the brush from the area by hand, burning only some buck thorn that had taken root between the stones. No amount of herbicide was going to kill that horrible plant.
Having felled all the mess, she raked up the remains of the vegetation and ash in to a neat pile in the corner. With an old straw broom, and a bucket of sudsy water, she commenced to scrubbing. It was not a new task for her: countless hours of her life had been dedicated to cleaning things that were already perfectly clean, or would never be clean. But clean she did.
With a final rinse of the suds, she sat down on the empty five-gallon pail and lit a smoke. Brushing the dark ringlets from her forehead, she read each stone carefully. It seemed only right that they get that much from her, as they shared this home now.
Calvin’s stone was the last one in the yard, and it had been the toughest to clean as it was under a patch of buck thorn and mustard plant. Even the broom hadn’t gotten all of the dirt out, and since it was dark red granite, the dirt masked the letters.
Taking the knife from her belt, she flicked the blade open and dropped to her knees. Pausing for a moment, she pulled the bottle of sparkling water from her jacket pocket and emptied it in a series of “z” patterns on the stone, affording maximum coverage.
Waiting just long enough for the dirt to sink a little bit, she began to scrape out the hollows with gentle strokes.
Working patiently, so as not to damage the stone, she eventually cleared the stone, and its carved letters, of all the mud and dirt that had accumulated over the past century. Wiping the stone with her glove, she quietly read the words aloud.
Tears formed in the corners of her eyes, and eventually ran down her dirty face. “I’m not going to let you be forgotten again, Calvin. I promise.”
Memorial Day of 2017 Loretta and Jason, her husband, invited all of their clients and friends to the garden for a ceremony to take place at noon.
Upon arrival the guests noticed a piece of drapery covered a large object in the center of the new rock garden and koi pond, right next to the flag pole where a large American flag flew at half-staff. Over the gateway from the street, another drape hid something shaped as an arch.
At ten minutes to noon, Loretta queued up the digital file she’d prepared and marched into the grave yard. Resplendent in her dress uniform, Sergeant First Class Loretta Casey proceeded to the base of the flag pole and called out, “Present, Arms” just as the first ghostly notes of Taps sounded over the speaker system.
Slowly raising a salute, she held her gloved hand in position until the last note faded. “Ready, To!” She lowered her hand with great solemnity.
Jason, reached up from his wheel chair and pulled the cord that held the drape over the mounded object next to the flag pole. It was a dark, brown bust of a man wearing an old Army campaign hat, eyes squinting into the sun as it seemed to look up at the flag waving overhead.
Jason reached inside his Navy Dress Blue Jumper and produced a card.
“This yard, and our home, is hereby rededicated to the memory of Calvin R. Espinoza, patriot. We were lucky enough to find a picture of Sergeant Espinoza in the boxes in the rectory, and we apologize that his grave, the grave of a patriot, was neglected for so long.
“Mark, will you tug on that rope by the gate?”
Jason’s brother reached up and yanked on the rope. As it fluttered to the ground, all could see that in bright, brass letters the archway read: Sergeant Calvin R. Espinoza Memorial Park.
Jason and Loretta formed up next to the grave and rendered a smart salute. “Thank you, Sergeant, for giving your all for this land.”
Over the loudspeakers the Star Spangled Banner played, and Loretta briskly raised the flag to the top of the pole. Stepping back, next to Jason, the two held a salute until the last notes ended.
“Today we honor our departed comrades. And we know that this Republic is a better place for their sacrifice. Please spend the rest of the day in reverence of their gift to us all. Sandwiches and cookies are available in the dining room if you would care to join us.”
As the crowd moved inside to grab a snack, Loretta was pretty sure that she saw a young man in an old uniform return her salute as he faded away once again.
“Thank you, Calvin. We will remember.”
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Assault on Saint Agnes is available here. Just click this link!
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