Since rescuing a very energetic cocker spaniel, I’ve taken regular walks throughout the Oak Hill Cemetery in Newburyport Ma. For us dog owners in Essex County, there are so many wonderful spots to walk, but I’m not sure many matches one of the country’s first rural garden cemeteries consecrated in 1842 and listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
The stately oak and pine trees, older than anyone walking the grounds these days, are towering reminders of the largess of those buried there. Especially those veterans representing essentially all the wars fought to protect our freedom, our democracy and the Constitution that has centered our nation during the most tumultuous points of our history. At this time of year, I always think of my father, George, who served in the Navy during WWII; my Uncle Paul who was wounded on a destroyer in the Pacific theater; my Uncle Sam, who I never met because he was killed in action as his Marine battalion stormed a hill in Okinawa; and my Uncle Charlie who was a crew member on a tank in the Korean War
During my walks of late I’ve made it a point to stop at several graves each day that are staked with small American flags signifying their service and while I can’t list the hundreds of our finest laid to rest in Oak Hill, I thought that at least three could be remembered for paying the ultimate sacrifice:
- Two Newburyporters fought in one of the last battles of the Civil War. The Battle of Port Hudson was fought to recapture the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Charles Poor, died in the early stages of the 48 day battle that resulted in over 5,000 casualties. He was just 20 years old. John Ricker also fought in that battle and lost his right leg. He survived for another 19 years.
- Gardner Thompson of the 104th Infantry (26th Division) was KIA in the Haumont Woods near the Battle of Verdun in France. He was 25. At one point during World War 1, the 26th Division was the only unit that stood between the Germans and an open road to Paris. It should be noted that The 104th Infantry Regiment traces its history to 1639, eventually became the Hampshire Regiment of the Massachusetts Militia, serving in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
- Peter Cole served in the 66th Infantry Division died in Lorient, France area almost 1 month to the day before the Nazi army surrendered to them on V-E day, freeing 856 square miles of France. He was 21.
Memorial Day 2021 ceremonies will convey the familiar sounding platitudes of sacrifice to protect the freedoms we hold so dear; for the ideals of a Republic whose Constitution subscribes to the belief that we work toward an outcome to serve the greater good; and to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect those ideals. I am hoping those men and women who served to uphold those ideals and protect the Constitution, have not done so in vain as our nation is at a crossroads of truth and lies… of a Republic or not.
Given what’s happened over the past four years of a president who made it a point to say he had the military and police on his side during the campaign, the notion of serving to protect the Constitution appears to have been lost on some. January 6th gives some credence to small shifts of loyalty from an oath to protect and honor the Constitution to being beholden to an individual, a demagogue. Unfortunately, those small shifts are growing as conspiracy theories overtake reality that further marginalize democracy. The insurrection to overthrow the election results had active duty police officers and former military personnel participating. There are examples of uniformed police and military personnel wearing patches sympathetic to supporters of the former president including QAnon, the Oath Keepers, and other paramilitary or conspiracy groups.
What concerns me as I think of the service of my uncles and all veterans laid to rest, is the disinformation that dishonors their service. The January 6th insurrection was not about truth and honor. It was about a latching onto a lie that was contrary to the greater good of our country and served one individual who has yet to be held accountable. It makes me wonder as we continue down this path if we will be memorializing democracy as we know it on a Memorial Day in the not too distant future… are we at the nexus of a republic the Benjamin Franklin spoke of or an autocracy?