If you know Gloria even from never having met her as is my loss, you will be impressed with this golden ager who bikes about the little town and countryside of Middlebury, Indiana. I am lucky to have been referred to her by my brother who met her because she lives near my sister and husband, Don and Berneita Smucker in that town. The development in which they live is across the road from the town’s cemetery. Gloria is a marvelous photographer and essayist. Recently she did a series on her several month stay with friends in New Zealand. The one I received today is about her visit to the nighttime Memorial Day commemoration. It is one that describes in a respectful yet critical way, as a cultural anthropologist might, this community and its values. One of the blessings of being on Gloria’s mailing list is that she welcomes others to sign up for her email newsletter. Her self-addressed essay, minus its after dark photos, follows:
From: “Gloria Salavarria” <email@example.com>
To: “Gloria Salavarria” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Changing of the guard
Date: Monday, May 28, 2012 11:55 PM
On Sunday night, around 10 p.m., I rode my trike over to Grace Lawn
cemetery here in Middlebury.
As to what I was doing-going to a graveyard late at night-it was to
see our local veteran’s group do their Dusk-to-Dawn Vigil in honor of the
307 veterans from Middlebury (a town of about 3,000) that we have buried
there. The American Legion not only decorates each of the veteran’s graves
with American flags but puts small electric candles out the night before we
celebrate Memorial Day here in the U.S.-an event that is now celebrated as a
three-day weekend which culminates in Memorial Day Monday-our time not only
to picnic and barbeque but to remember and honor all the men and women who
have served or are serving in our military.
A veteran’s grave decorated with flowers, flag and an electric candle light.
I waited until it was not just dusk but dark-dark because I wanted to
see just how many people were in the cemetery later in the evening and much
to my surprise, I saw a fairly steady flow of cars through the cemetery
clear up through 11:30 p.m. which was my “witching” hour-time to go home.
As to why I was there in that small town cemetery for an hour-and-a-half,
it’s because I found there was more there than just cars cruising through
and looking at the candle lights.
Folks were gathered around veteran’s graves-especially those who lost
family members in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
I met a couple-Doug and Kim Tenbrook who lost their 21-year-old son
Zac in Afghanistan on September 30, 2009. It’s three years now since Zac’s
death but the pain is still there. Doug came over and told his story to
me-how much he and Zac were devoted to the Christian faith and how Zac came
to join the U.S. Marine Corps. Zac, who rose to Lance Corporal, was one of
four children-three boys and one girl-that this man and his wife had.
Their lives have been changed and change can be painful.
Young Cody Miller stands guard before the U.S. flag and the 21-step
Honor guard walk the Legion had laid out in Grace Lawn cemetery.
In previous years I had seen the honor guard activities near the
entrance to the cemetery but hadn’t taken a ride through the main body of
the cemetery itself. There were a lot of dead veterans there and their
families were there, too, visiting the gravesites.
As for the traffic through the cemetery, Doug told me that he had
learned from some of the drivers that he had talked to that they were from
other communities but they came by as the vigil was unique to Middlebury.
The vigil had been going on for eight years now-and I’ve lived next
door to Grace Lawn cemetery through four Memorial Day vigils but this was
the most time I’ve spent at a vigil.
The main road leading east out of Middlebury to Shipshewana cuts
through the lower half of the cemetery and so there’s an older south end of
the cemetery where the town has placed a statue of a Civil War era soldier
as its monument to the town’s war dead. From the start of the vigils, the
Legion has decorated the area surrounding the statue with wooden crosses
inscribed with the names of some of the town’s deceased veterans-and they
have illuminated this area as the focal point of their Dusk-to-Dawn pageant.
Townspeople came over to the war memorial to look and pay their respects.
Another feature the Legion performs is to have an honor guard pace 21
steps back and forth along a lighted sidewalk. I didn’t know until I talked
with one of the Legion members that the tradition of 21 steps comes from the
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Arlington Military cemetery just across
the Potomac River from our capital, Washington, D.C. The honor guard at the
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier paces 21 steps back and forth before the
tomb-rain or shine, night and day.
In Middlebury, that’s simplified to 9 p.m. Sunday night to 6 a.m.
Monday morning-one day out of the year.
Legion honor guard, Kyle Bontrager, turns and begins the next 21 steps-a
duty he’ll do for one-hour before another Legion member will take over. This service is done for nine hours.
The lighted walkway for Kyle Bontrager, the honor guard, to follow
and this year there is a new feature-a cross.
When I saw this year’s new feature-a cross, I considered it to be a
reminder that I live in a very homogenous community-predominantly Christian,
predominantly white and predominantly Republican. The outside world hasn’t
penetrated northern Indiana very much. Here people still think that everyone
thinks the same way they do and that everyone believes the same way they do.
Middlebury is very much like Leland, the isolated northern Michigan
community that I grew up in-predominantly Christian, totally white and
It was then that I realized that I don’t remember seeing a Jewish
Legionnaire in any of the communities I’ve lived in throughout my 65 years
as an American citizen.
The American Legion does a lot of good in the community and they’re a
fun group to be around but the fact that we’re not just a Christian society
hasn’t quite sunk into this 93-year-old organization. The U.S. military, on
the other hand, has had Jewish soldiers and sailors ever since the beginning
of this country but now there are men and women of other faiths who also are
serving in this country’s military. I wonder if the Legion will ever welcome
these veterans into its fold?
It was a disturbing thought to me-that veterans who are Christians
only need apply to become members of the American Legion.
I like the American Legion. I grew up with a father who had been
commander of our local Veterans of Foreign Wars and though this is a
different military veterans organization from the American Legion, they’re
essentially the same in what they do and how they go about doing what they
do but this is the 21st Century and this country is changing.
Even this change is nothing new. We’ve been changing ever since
Europeans hit these shores-just ask the Native Americans.
The honor guard walk and the Middlebury war memorial in the background.
This is what happens to me when I spend an hour-and-a-half in a
graveyard-thinking. Whether I live for another year, or 10 years or 30, I
know “what happens next” is no longer my problem but it still is a point of
curiosity for me.
Change will come-whether we like it or not.
Best Wishes, Gloria