On Monday I drove down to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, just south of Joliet on US 53. It was Memorial Day, and I figured it was about time I paid my respects to Russ Niemann, a friend from work who died last June. The name might sound familiar, as I’ve quoted Russ often in these ramblings.
I had not been able to attend Russ’ burial, and had not gotten around to visiting his grave.
I had never been to a National Cemetery before. I’ve driven by Arlington on several occasions. I’ve even driven in the entrance when I took my trip out East with Dad. But I realized as I did so that it was too big in scope to visit in the brief time we had available.
Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery is rather new. Less then ten years old, I think. Still, it has already filled with thousands of veterans. And the sight of all those white gravestones lined up in military precision and crispness is quite unforgettable.
It took me awhile to locate the cemetery – I started out with only brief directions, and no map. (“Go down this road and turn left somewhere. Then go about 5 miles more.”) But once I got in the general vicinity, I was able to get local help.
It hadn’t occurred to me that, being Memorial Day, there was likely to be a Memorial Service planned, and the place might be crowded. But I got there about an hour before the service, and was able to park and use the information kiosk to get Russ’ grave site location.
I mosied around for about a half hour, taking in the experience: the individuals and groups there to honor the fallen defenders; the families there to mourn their loss; the huge flag flying at half-mast; the rolling hills and clumps of woods reminding me of a Civil War battlefield; the drums and bulges warming up; the servicemen in full dress uniform or in combat fatigues. I took picture after picture, and wish I could have taken more.
I finally ended up at Russ’ grave. A simple white rectangle lying on the ground, the gravestone for those who’ve been cremated. And a single American flag centered in front. I forget what information was on it. His name and rank, his date of birth and death, and that simple “-“ in-between…representing a story-filled life of goodness and gratitude, of struggles and joys.
I laid my hat on the ground, spent some time in silent memories and prayers. Then I took out my harmonica, and played “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”. And then, more heartfelt then I ever had before, “Taps”.
Then I picked up my hat and turned to leave.
And I noticed that there was a woman with her young child at a nearby grave. She had tears in her eyes, and silently mouthed, “Thank you.” I just nodded and tipped my hat to that grave too.
I would have like to stay for the memorial service. It looked to be a good one. With lots of music and ceremony, and few speeches. But I had to visit of few more veterans graves – Dad, Tom Beemster, and a couple others. So I went back to the car, and popped in a CD of patriotic music for the long drive ahead. Maybe next year, God willing.
And I would like to write down the stories that Russ told me of his life. The “dash” between those two dates. Maybe soon. He had no children, so the only way his stories will be remembered are if his friends pass them along.
And I hope that my own children and grandchildren will learn the value of our freedom, and the respect that all those who have fought for our country deserve, and great cost of those of those who have died in service to The United States Of America.