Amongst the Shadows and the Stones

I don’t know if my feelings and priorities about Memorial Day were different that year because the holiday fell on May 31, as it used to in the past. Maybe, it was the impending calendar change to the new millennium.

It might have been that my own 50th birthday was approaching, arriving right after the millennium change. That could have made me more reflective as I approached my own half century. It also could have been that during the previous year, I saw the movie Saving Private Ryan. When I walked out of the theater, I was emotionally exhausted.   I came away saying, “Every politician should have to watch this film, before he can vote to send someone else’s child off to war.”

Maybe my observations were distorted when I looked at Vietnam veterans. I thought to myself how old they appeared to be, and suddenly, I realized these are the American heroes of my generation. I do know that my father and uncle are both veterans. They entered the service near the end of World War II, and my uncle is now in his 80s; my father recently passed away at 80. The other veterans from World War II are older and it just seems that all the sacrifices of their generation are being forgotten as time passes all of us by.

My wife and I talked before that holiday weekend. We decided we would make that Memorial Day like the ones we remembered when we were children, the holiday when veterans weren’t so old, they marched in parades and honored all of those who served. The Memorial Days we remembered had stores that closed on that special holiday. We decided we wanted an old-fashioned Memorial Day. We would honor and remember our service members who sacrificed their life for our country.

To celebrate that Memorial Day, I decided to do a number of things that would be different. I organized members of one of the police organizations to which I belong. We placed flags at the graves of our fallen veterans and their families at Long Island National Cemetery. We walked amongst the gravestones. Each one had a name. They all cast shadows. The stones cast the shadows now, as the people they represent did, when they walked amongst us.

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As we walked amongst the gravestones, we read names, we read dates, and sometimes we had our hearts broken. We saw the names of veterans laid to rest after they had fought in World War I, the Great War; the war that was supposed to end all wars. We saw stones for veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and even the Spanish American War. We saw the names of spouses of veterans. Sometimes they were alone. Sometimes husbands and wives were joined together for eternity. Our hearts were broken as we read “Child of -” or simply “infant.”   We saw aging veterans remembering their friends. They bowed their heads in a moment of silent prayer and reflection, and then they placed an American Flag at a special gravestone. There were Cub Scouts and Brownies running amongst the stones, placing flags at each one – the next generation of Americans was showing their thanks.

It was nice to be able to reflect on all that was done for this country by the heroes with whom we spent time. There was a special feeling amongst those that decorated the graves. It brought out such strong emotions. They would be back again the following year, walking amongst the shadows, placing a flag at each stone.

On Memorial Day, my wife and I went to visit Long Island National Cemetery, because our family and friends are there. Along the way, we stopped and purchased fresh flowers. It was time for us to pay our respects to some special individuals.

The first stop was my wife’s parents grave. They are together. My wife’s father fought in World War II. He served in North Africa and Europe. I never had the opportunity to meet him, he was gone before my wife and I met. I did enjoy knowing my mother-in-law and I do miss her. We always visit their grave on holidays and birthdays.   However, that day we stopped to say thank you for what my wife’s father did when it meant so much. We also had to thank her mother, for all she sacrificed while he was overseas for years. If not for them and the others like them, we would not be as blessed as we are today.

The next stop was the grave of the parents of a retired police officer from California. His father died when he was a small child. His father was serving in North Africa at the time, and died in combat. Eventually he was brought home and interred on Long Island. The retired police officer never knew his father. He was left with the stories his mother shared with the family for the rest of her life. She moved her children from New York to California, to make a better life. Her husband sacrificed his life for his country. His wife sacrificed to raise a wonderful family. She never forgot him. She never remarried. In 1994, after she died, she returned to Long Island and was interred with her husband. I sometimes wonder if maybe, somewhere, while fighting in the deserts of North Africa, my wife’s father and this police officer’s father might have met.

The final stop was to see my friend Bill. We met the day we were sworn into the police department. Bill was a Vietnam veteran who died of leukemia. Until that Memorial Day, I never knew his middle name was Walter. I didn’t know he was born in 1947, almost three years older than me. I know he had a beautiful wife and a wonderful daughter and son. They made his eyes light up whenever he spoke about them.   I know they miss him; there were flowers from a previous visit, at his grave. I know he was taken from us too soon, in 1988, when he was only 41. It seems like such a short time ago, that I was standing in a police honor guard, saying goodbye to my friend. I know he was a gentle soul and a good friend. He was there for me when I needed his friendship. He was also there for an elderly couple in his patrol sector. They were destitute, and Christmas was rapidly approaching. The old couple had a nice Christmas because Bill filled their home oil tank with heating oil. He bought them food, a Christmas tree and presents to make their holiday special. He was a kind hearted and fun loving soul.

He was a person I am glad I knew. I know you would have liked him, he was special. When he was 26, I saw him being teased by his brother. His father was listening and gave him one of those fatherly looks with raised eyebrows. Bill just looked at him and said, “Oh Daddy!”  You have to like a man who fought in a war, worked the streets as a cop, and could still call his father Daddy.

I wish my wife had met Bill, but it never happened. I am glad she went with me on Memorial Day. She made the visit easier, with that special look she gave me as she held my hand. It let me know she understood.

History has many sad commentaries. In the early 1960s, General MacArthur went back to the Philippines where he was greeted by cheering crowds. A young high school girl presented him with a bouquet of flowers, and welcomed him to the Philippines. She then asked a question that was filled with irony, “Have you been here before?” With all that he and his troops had done, he was forgotten by the generation he fought so hard to keep safe.

I am glad my wife and I decided to spend part of our day the way we did.   Our veterans, alive or dead, are heroes to be thanked for all that they have done. They cannot be forgotten. I am glad I got to spend part of my weekend with some of them, amongst the shadows and the stones.

Keith Bettinger is a retired Suffolk County, NY police officer, and has a Masters Degree in Human Relations with a major in Clinical Counseling. His thesis was A Practicum Experience in Post Shooting Trauma Counseling. He developed a peer support program for officers involved in shooting incidents.

Keith is a writer of short stories and articles – both fiction and nonfiction. He is also the author of three books and has contributed stories to five different anthologies. He has received 19 awards for his writing.        

During his time with the department, he served in many different capacities in both uniform and plainclothes assignments. He received numerous awards during his police career. He started writing for law enforcement publications during his police career. After his retirement, for a period of time, he taught criminal justice classes at his alma mater, New York Institute of Technology.

Editor’s Note: Keith Bettinger authored this article several years ago. The story now appears in his book, “I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE.”