Outside of the Baptist Church I went to every Sunday as a little girl was a great stone obelisk. It sat, massively tall to my stunted height just to the right of the U shaped dirt drive way. Or at least, it would had you been driving toward it up the road from where we lived. It was a dark gray granite that hovered near black with a large, flat rectangular base. In the middle sat the long piercing spire that pointed toward heaven. Within the obelisk’s many faces if my memory serves me right, were the carved names of men who died in war.
I never payed attention to the names. I never read them and I don’t remember them now. We, as children, never understood specifically what it stood for. Most often after Church had been let out we’d roll out of the old creaky side wooden door as the church bells rang and played on it. We’d chase each other and play tag with it or sit on it and mutter childish things. We always played on the old granite monument everyday except for one day.
On that day there were always many old men within the Church. Some of them I did not have the names for, they only came for that one day and some times, there were years where faces where missing. They wore dark navy suits with their hats to the side. Some times their suits were decorated with many things; gold or brass and sometimes silvery discs. Right beside their glittering medals, each and everyone would wear a blood-red poppy pinned to their lapels. I later learned the blue was that of the Legion.
These men, stooped or straight, shaking or steady filled our century and a half years old church from middle pew to front, making the rest of us shuffle in behind them. We gave them the front rows. They came before service carrying flags holstered in their hips and bearing wreathes, their lined faces were solemn in a manner that I do not think I understood then; and I will never understand now. Some of these men were so frail and bent, yet when they carried their flags down the aisle they seemed younger versions of themselves.
When service finally started, they sat stone still and did not cough, they did not fidget out of boredom during the sermon and some of them stared forward and did not see what they were staring at. Most of these men wore masks that were truly stoic. Others half-way through the sermon or nearing the end of it would break down and without a sound, weep quietly into their hands.
Half way through the sermons there was always childrens church. A time when when the paster would send the younger children off, I assume, so that he could preach without confusing them–or preach without little girls yawning out of boredom in their faces. So the preacher half way through the sermon as usual, called for childrens church. I was still too young to be considered old enough to sit through an entire sermon, so my Grandmother sent me off with a quiet word and all of the children lined up in unusually hushed lines to go downstairs in the kitchen. There was something about these men, these quiet men that filled our pews on this day that made us behave.
Down in the Church basement is where we went, in a kitchen where the center was eaten by a giant table that could hold twelve or twenty fidgety brats easily. That day, our teacher spoke softly on men, soldiers, sacrifice and duty. Most of us did not understand. Some of the children listened, some of them decided to play with more interesting things. I must admit that, as a child with an imagination I was taken in with the teacher’s story without fully grasping what it all meant.
At the end of her story she spread craft supplies across the table and asked us to remember the Veterans that day in our way, to be thankful and to try and capture that. There was string and macaroni, crayons, scissors, glue, construction paper, pencils and pencil crayons. Several children grabbed colorful bits and bobs while I chose a single pencil and began drawing.
When I was finished, I had this gods-awful child’s scrawl of what I thought Flanders fields might look like with a soldier’s helmet and gun resting against a cross. It wasn’t very impressive or colorful but I did the best I could with what I had. The teacher was busy with several of the other spawns, so I folded it up and put it away in into the pocket of the light purple frilled dress–like I held a grand secret. When the teacher asked us all to show what we’d done, and I had nothing to show, I shrugged and whispered some sort of excuse. I spent the rest of Children’s Church ignoring her disappointed looks and waiting for the teacher to give us the signal that Church was out and we could run and play again.
It came when we heard the shuffling of many, many feet above us, the first notes of the organ and the quiet murmur of voices finally speaking. We all rushed to the door like long-legged, freshly shorn sheep to spill out into the cold November air, taking in deep breaths and about to start running toward the obelisk to play –
And then we remembered, it was November 11th. We played everyday there, except for today.
The old men once gathered in Legion blue inside now marched in perfect formation down steps aged far greater than they. These old men with eyes misted in memories, memories I do not think I would ever, ever wish for–came in precise time, their shoes speckless and shined, tapped an age old rhythm that seemed to be ingrained on them; they marched without thinking. It was in their blood, in their memories. With swinging arms, straight backs (even those who couldn’t really straighten bent backs stood a little higher anyway) they reached the obelisk and they about-faced with surprising accuracy.
I remember at that moment thinking their flags all looked so very sad with no wind to carry them. That even the flags were still and drooped under the weight of something everyone else felt and I could not quite pinpoint. I remember that the Pastor came out to stand near it and say a few quiet words, several of the men stepped forward to lay wreathes upon the base of granite memory, and several men began to actually sob.
I don’t know why I had crept toward them while they stood in formation and found myself weaving myself through a sea of uniforms and blue–row upon row upon row of proud lined faces. Had my grandmother caught me, she would have pulled me away, but she wasn’t there and I was searching for something. I finally stopped beside a man who stared unseeing at the granite memorial. He seemed very far away and very sad, so I took the drawing out of my pocket and slipped it into his empty hand. I remember that his palms felt like old paper to new paper, that they were very big compared to mine and that I didn’t mind any of it so much. I squeezed his hand and left him the drawing, to which he unfolded and glanced down at me.
It was the most sorrow filled smile I think I will ever remember. He said, “Thank you,” very softly as the Pastor was still talking and then asked me my name. Shyly, I ducked my head, gave him my name and went running off. Like children are wont to do, within hours I had forgotten what I had done and went home with hunger gnawing in my belly. I was looking forward to dinner.
Later that night, my Grandmother got a call from him. He said that he had to call several people to find out whose little girl I was. He called when I wasn’t at my grandmothers, just to let her know that he was touched. He said that the image was something that struck close to home and that my scrawling, messy sprawl of a “Thank you for my freedom,” taking up half the page was the sweetest thing. That it was the reason why he did what he did, and that most children wouldn’t have even understood such things.
He called my Grandmother to thank me every November 11th.
Fate, timing, life—I was never there to catch the call but always there to hear my grandmother tell me the story. He said the same thing every November 11th he called until…he stopped calling. He’d passed away.
I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember exactly what he looked like. I remember the day and the reasons and an unfeeling piece of rock that was some how meant to be good enough to stand as a reminder of the lives lost to protect mine. I don’t remember this man who remembered me. And that upsets me more than I can ever say. That this man could not forget me and that he killed other men for the future of a little girl he never knew—that he did things and saw things and will never forget these things; all for a generation of little girls and boys who will probably forget.
So today, on November 11th, it doesn’t matter if war is right or wrong right now. It doesn’t matter about sides or politics. Right now, all matters to me is that this man had believed in something so much he was willing to put his life, his sanity on the line for people he’d never met…And that he wouldn’t forget me or what I did.
And I can’t even remotely recall who he was.
How is that fair? How is that right?
I suspect there are millions of names I don’t know or remember, millions of names that we have forgotten in between the bills, the grocery lists, the kids and the dog.
And I am so sorry I forgot– we’ve forgotten.
All I can leave for the men who died for me, is a sprawling, messy Thank you.