A drab, overcast, pre-winter day. Perfect for a visit to the cemetery. I prefer to go when I suspect no one else will be there. I like solitude as I visit my husband’s (and someday my) gravesite. We’d chosen this spot on the edge of the Okanogan Cemetery because of its expansive view of the valley, river and mountains. I also enjoy walking my dogs along the cemetery lanes when I know they won’t be bothering other visitors or mourners.
So I was there earlier this week. I’d just conscientiously “bagged” the dogs’ deposits (thank you, City of Okanogan, for providing a garbage can) when a caravan of cars arrived. Uh-oh, I thought. A funeral. I hustled my dogs into the car and was preparing to leave quietly when I turned to see a bevy of teen-agers fanning out among the graves. Turns out it was the Okanogan High School Key Club putting flags on graves for the upcoming Veterans Day observance.
At last, an opportunity to resolve something that had been vexing me for ten years, since my husband died. I approached Dennis O’Connor, Key Club advisor, and asked how the kids knew at which graves to place a flag.
“Is there a list?” I asked.
No list, he answered. The kids read every grave marker, looking for indications of military service.
“That’s all we have to go by,” he said, acknowledging that veterans whose service is not recorded on the head stone don’t get a flag. He’s heard that some people get upset over that.
Guilty as charged. Well, not upset exactly. More like mystified. My husband had served in the U.S. Navy Reserve, photographer’s mate. That was long before we were married, and I didn’t know much about it. It never occurred to me to put it on our small, rather simple gravestone. Our family did receive a flag from the American Legion when John died, so I knew there was some official record somewhere. But on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, there’d be no flag at his grave. I knew he would’ve liked his grave to be among those with flags fluttering. I wasn’t sure who to call to get his name on what I imagined to be a list. Then I’d forget about it until the next Memorial or Veterans Day.
When I began to explain all this to Dennis, he immediately handed me a flag. I felt honored to poke it into the earth by John’s headstone. John would’ve been pleased. What would’ve pleased him even more was the sight of those kids, stooping to read every headstone, sometimes having to scrape away leaves, dirt and dried grass, searching for veterans.
Happy Veterans day, John, and all who served. Whether or not there’s a flag flying at your place of rest, there’s a flag flying for you at this nation’s heart. And just when I’d been needing reassurance, those kids were a reminder that our nation indeed has a heart.