Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Taps for the North Country Dead

Forty-five years ago, just after sunset on a hillside along the border of New York and Canada, the sad sounds of taps echoed through the hills. It was a warm evening in the summer of ’67 when hundreds of townspeople – nearly everyone living in Ausable Forks, a tiny hamlet of 500 or so souls – came out to pay last respects to a local boy, James Saltmarsh, killed a week earlier in Vietnam. An honor guard had fired 21 rifle volleys as yet another son of the North Country of upper New York State was laid to rest. Finally the elegiac lament of the bugle was heard, closing the burial ceremony in the breathtaking High Peaks region of the beautiful Adirondack Mountains.
 

High Peaks, Adirondacks, northern New York
 
It was an ordinary burial ground, not a place dedicated to the military dead. Over the years I had become familiar with military cemeteries, having visited several abroad.  I rarely came away unaffected by the magisterial simplicity of those solemn places, calling to mind legions of eternal youth no longer walking the earth. Mostly young, of course – so many truncated lives. My first such experience was when passing through eastern Poland in the ‘60s. I was visiting a Polish colleague at a university near Lublin. He took me for a drive, he wanted to show me something.
 
We came to a small elegantly fenced-in area. Entering, I realized it was a cemetery, but an unusual one. There was just a single stone obelisk with Cyrillic script, standing guard so to speak, over rows of widely spaced, carefully landscaped low mounds, each with a bronze marker. This was the burial place of hundreds of Soviet soldiers who fell liberating Poland in 1944. No trace of individualization, a fast moving army had buried its dead quickly and collectively. The men of 8th Guards Army lay with their comrades, regiment by regiment.  I was well aware of the scale of Soviet war losses, but still seeing them up close left me stunned.
 
Some years later I was visiting friends outside London and, walking about a suburban town, happened upon a vast military cemetery, the largest in Great Britain. There lay nearly 5000 young Englishmen, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans, and even some Americans from the two world wars – each with a simple stone marker carved with the man’s name, rank, unit, and, inevitably, short life span. The place was beautifully kept, symmetrical rows of white markers stretching across immense lawns as far as the eye could see.


Brookwood Military Cemetery, Woking, Surrey, England
 
But for me the most affecting of these sad sights was in 1990 on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Traveling by boat up the Volga, I and my companions went ashore at the place formerly called Stalingrad, the scene of one of history’s legendary battles, where well over a million Russian and German soldiers met their deaths.
 
Our Russian guide, a young woman, led us to the Soviet victory memorial, a massive stone building on a high bluff over the river.  We entered the structure and were struck by its eight-story circular atrium interior, every inch of the soaring walls carved with names of the dead. Pointing high up, the guide said to me quietly that her grandfather’s name was up there. What could one say – I bowed my head.
 
What of the North Country dead for whom there was no victory. They simply came home to local graveyards in the obscure little towns and villages where they grew up, played football, or marched in the band – places of several thousand residents with names like Cape Vincent, Hannibal, Lowville, Phoenix, Rouses Point, and Ticonderoga. A little further south – in the foothills of the Adirondacks – Glens Falls, the ‘metropolis’ of the region with a population just over 18,000, already had 15 fatalities early in the Vietnam War, nine alone just in the first six months of ’67.
 
Similarly, in the much smaller town of Mexico on the shores of Lake Ontario in New York’s Oswego County – replete with early American history like the entire region – the local high school had lost three recent graduates in less than a year by fall of ‘67. The Vietnam War dead of the North Country, interred over a huge, sparsely populated area and in numbers disproportional to their percentage of the state’s population, rest in union with nature in an alternate space for the military dead spread over forested mountains and across green valleys along the fast moving streams and rivers.
 
The great majority of the North Country dead were not drafted – they enlisted, volunteered. What impelled so many to step forward into a war that became increasingly unpopular. Settled in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region had been relatively prosperous from mining, logging, valley farms, and numerous sawmills, pulp/paper mills and other riparian enterprises strung along the many waterways of the Adirondacks.
 
By mid-20th century, however, the North Country was in decline – in the 1890s New York had created Adirondack State Park, the largest of its kind in the United States, designating 6,000,000 acres ‘forever wild’ which greatly restricted logging. Mining was played out, and many of the small riverside mills long shut down, their giant water wheels turning aimlessly, while the larger paper companies had gradually moved to the South, a land of cheap labor, less environmental concern.
 
By the ‘60s, the North Country had become a region of little economic opportunity. For the boys graduating from high school in its many small communities, there wasn’t much work. Sure, around the many lakes there were jobs serving the summer tourist trade, but those were seasonal. New York State had by then created an extensive state higher educational system, including many inexpensive two-year community colleges – at all of which deferments from the draft awaited. However, many of the North Country boys, a large number of whom grew up on farms, had neither interest nor money for pursuing further education.
 
With the unemployment rate 50 percent above the statewide average, the military beckoned to the boys of the upper Adirondacks, attracted by a combination of adventure, challenge, and, not least, employment. Nearly a lifetime later, as I riffled through myriad obituaries of the North Country dead, it was uncanny how many of those young men had been athletes, opting for the Marines or airborne. Often they virtually went from the football field to distant battlegrounds with exotic names like Dak To, Con Thien, Khe Sanh – for so many of them, places of no return. As one 20-year old in the process of filling out enlistment papers at a local recruiting office put it, “There just isn’t that much for a young guy to do.”*
 
For the boys of the Adirondacks, the journey was all too often a short one. Vietnam tours were 12 and 13 months, and when a GI or Marine was done, he could head home, ‘back to the world’ as they called it. Some 58,000 never completed their tours, including the North Country dead. They’d go off to war – Basic Training, Advanced Infantry Training, deployment to Nam, often cut down by enemy fire or a land mine early tour, mid-tour, and occasionally just weeks before return. Next of kin notified.
 
During WWII, it was the dreaded telegram. Or, as depicted in Saving Private Ryan, a farm mother standing at the kitchen sink looking through the window, seeing a khaki brown car in the distance, watching with apprehension as it turned into the access road, steadily coming up the hill to the house.
 
In modern wars with their ‘lighter’ casualties, notification can occur at warp speed and is always personally delivered. A few weeks back in Mechanicville NY just south of the Adirondacks – the smallest city by area in the state – a middle-aged mother awaited a call from her Marine son. Since deployment to Afghanistan earlier in the fall, he rang home every week at 6 AM Sunday morning. His mother set the alarm, rose early, but no call. A few hours later a knock at the door – two Marine officers, the young man had been killed 24 hours earlier – shot in the neck, just over a month in-country. She told the press he had wanted to serve in Afghanistan adding, “I’m extremely proud of my son.”**


 
Mother of a Fallen Marine, Mechanicville, NY, 2012
 
For the fallen from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s home in a box, family and neighbors gather, a sad requiem, the flag folded, presented to the mother, almost always the mother, the gravediggers standing at a respectful distance turn to the final work. What then of the enduring casualties of war, of all wars, the survivors, the parents, a young wife. From the mother and father of a Russian soldier killed in the Soviet Afghan War, a final message carved on his tombstone, “Dearest Igor, You left this life without having known it.”† The lost one is of course buried in the hearts of those who loved him now left with just memories and photos.
 
Some years after Vietnam, in a documentary on the war, an older couple was filmed sitting quietly in their living room, a picture of a young man in uniform in a silver frame between them, their only child, a pilot shot down over North Vietnam. Not for them the revisionism of defeat – we shouldn’t have been there, lives wasted – no, the war remained a just cause, their son did his duty, they were ever proud. Or fighting back tears, the same sentiments more recently by the mother of an Afghan GI, Sgt Orion Sparks: “He didn’t shirk any of his years. … I felt honored that he was my son and I was able to be part of his life.”***
 
Long after the guns go silent, time passes, rights and wrongs fade, -- the parents grow old, the young widow remarries, children grow up, move away, but the boy who went to war remains, forever young, in the silver frame on the mantle. The strange poetry of war obits, the military fanfare at graveside, the heartrending notes of taps closing a life – all become distant memory. Pain dulls, but never goes away.


Cpl Wm. Aspinall, Plattsburgh, and PFC Chas. Raver, Phoenix
        KIA - Thua Thien, 1967, and  Quang Nam, 1968     
 
The young men in those picture frames remain unchanged, the boy who went off to war remains as we last remember him. And so it was with my brother Jeff Sharlet who served in Vietnam, was possibly exposed to something there – perhaps Agent Purple, we don’t know – and died several years later at 27. For our parents, now long gone, as for all those North Country families and the mothers of those two Afghan GIs, in spite of reaffirming sentiments, nothing could be worse than losing a child.
 
I remember the day we buried Jeff. It was a beautiful sunny June day in ‘69. I sat between my parents as the limo sped along the broad avenues toward the cemetery, the hearse flanked by two outriders – booted, helmeted motorcycle policemen, in reflecting sunglasses, astride big Harleys.  To my distraught mind, two images came to the fore – a scene from the 1950 French film Orpheus when ‘Death’, a striking woman cloaked in black, arrives by limo, preceded by goggled motorcycle outriders, submachine guns slung, announcing her authority; and then as we approached the cemetery gates, the more gentle image from the opening and closing lines of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me …

Since then ‘t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.


*New York Times, July 12, 1967
**Albany (NY) Times-Union, December 3, 2012
***Military Resistance #10J11, October 21, 2012              

 

               

 

 

 

 

 

               

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