No, I don't mean a ghost tour in some of our larger cities, although they are fun. If you get a chance to go on one this summer, they offer an evening's entertainment.
I mean a cemetery walk in your community, where descendants share their story with you, the public. Many historical societies have become involved in these living tours, sharing a bit of local history with its citizens.
Last January I was asked to write a few scripts for our town's upcoming cemetery walk. The nine people selected as honored guests for the tour were all veterans. The walk was scheduled for Armed Forces Weekend, May 20th.
Our team of writers dug through old obits, talked to descendants of the ones to be honored and did some general research of the times and war they had been a part of. I soon became intrigued with the three stories I was in charge of writing. One man, Caleb, was a veteran of the War of 1812. None of his descendants had known him of course, actually it was the other way around, his family found him through a geneology search and discovered him in the local cemetery in the old part no longer used. His stone was in great shape and his story gradually came to life. He moved from New York to Illinois, bringing his family with him when he was 57 years old. As a vet he was granted 160 acres of bounty land and finally took it 47 years after the war. Why he waited so long no one knows.
Another man in character as his father during World War II, talked of his pilot days in Europe. He'd flown twenty-two missions. An unexpected storm and battle fatigue of one of his fellow pilots caused a fatal accident taking his life and the crews of seven other bombers. It took my breath away to watch this man portray his father, a father he doesn't remember except through the stories told by his family.
Our only woman honored was portrayed by her sister. Minnie was a army nurse on a naval ship during the same war. She and several others were confronted with a drunken sailor while aboard ship. His thrashing about knocked her so hard against the floor that she suffered epileptic seizures the rest of her life. Her military career was over, but she continued with her nursing until a seizure took her life at the age of forty-five.
And then there's the scotsman, James Hamil, who our local VFW post is named after. He came to America, became a citizen and went to fight for his new country during WWI. James was the first soldier killed from my small town. The pictures of his flag draped coffin and horse drawn caisson with military escort to the cemetery lend solemn dignity to his life. He represented so many other immigrants who found a home in rural Illinois. Many just like him had been seeking a new life and new freedoms. All understood the price he paid to keep that freedom.
I could tell you about Fred who fought in Cuba during the Spanish American War and his part in Teddy Roosevelt's ride up San Juan Hill. Or I could mention Don and his miserable stay in the cold winter of Korea during that conflict. And the story of Robert aboard the USS Caldwell for three long years. But what I'm hoping you will garner from this article is this - others came before you and me, they built strong communities, defended our country and handed us something to be proud of. Maybe you live in a sleepy little town like I do, maybe you live in a thriving metropolis, it doesn't matter. It's our turn to take care of our communities, our turn to honor our country and our time to stand strong for what is right.
Who knows, some day, decades from now, your historical society may decide to do a cemetery walk about our generation, our time on duty so to speak. We don't need to have a military background to have served our community or our country. What we need is initiative to change things for the better, even if we're old like Caleb was. And the best place to make a difference is at home, the place that matters most.
Til next time ~