Friday, August 04, 2006

My friend Ronnie sent me this Op-Ed piece from the NYTimes. It's by a guy who found himself on a commercial jet with a Marine escorting a comrade-in-arms to Arlington. Very moving, and from an unusual source -- an anti-hunger activist whom I suspect is embodying the notion of putting politics aside and respecting love and sacrifice.

It came at an opportune time to set my wheels rolling. Last weekend, I went up to Star Lake to help my aunt and her brother shut down the family home there. My mother has moved to the city, not because she doesn't like being in the middle of the Adirondack forest but because it's just time for her to be a little closer to services. Driving 40 miles for this and 50 miles for that becomes a burden, no matter how glorious the surroundings.

We moved there 50 years ago this coming Labor Day and it will always be home to me, though, in fact, I only lived there about 10 years -- from second grade until I left for college. But I'd go back at least once a year, no matter where I was living, and I moved back East nearly 20 years ago, just to be near.

It was hard to know that I wouldn't be going back again except for very important occasions, most likely involving my old buddy Digger, who took over the family mortuary. (And, yes, everyone still calls him "Digger.") In fact, the next-to-last thing I did on the way out of town was to stop off and see my best friend from those days, Bill. And I said, "Oh, I'll be back. I have a piece of property up here, you know." He was surprised until I told him where it was, then he chuckled. "Yeah, I've got some property like that, too," he said.

The last thing I did was to stop by that small piece of property, where my Dad and little brother are.

Anyway, this picture isn't from that particular corner of Star Lake, but from Newcomb, another Adirondack hamlet which, hard as it is to believe, is even smaller and more remote. Newcomb Central School typically graduates classes of 3 or 4 students, though in one recent year they had a senior class of 7.

I was up there a year and a half ago just before Veteran's Day, talking to the high school kids about political cartoons. At noon, we went down to the cafeteria and half the town was in there for a Veteran's Day program, complete with music and lunch for all the area vets. The elementary school kids -- all two dozen or so -- sang the various songs of the branches, and, when they'd sing a song, the veterans of that branch would stand. Most were older men, grandfathers and perhaps great-grandfathers of the singers, the younger vets being off at work, probably an hour away, jobs being scarce in the woods. But others were not related to any of the kids; they were there because they'd been invited. It was a community event.

It was a very simple ceremony but one of the most moving I've ever attended, because it was so personal -- everyone there knew everyone else. And they all grew up, as we did in Star Lake, with a type of patriotism that truly was love of country. When the country calls, you go. And you can argue politics at the bar until closing time, but that is another topic. Young men serve.

When I was in college, I was keenly aware of how little my classmates there understood this, that they didn't see the divide, the duality, that I operated under. I opposed the war, but my buddies, my friends, were there, in Vietnam and mostly out in the field.

I wasn't conflicted in the least by that. Politics was here. Service was there. Maybe it's like when you offer some homeless person a little help, without agonizing over whether it's going to victimize him or let him get drunk again or keep him dependent -- you just help him because he needs help, and you can theorize about it in another venue, another time. When it's time to help out, that's what you do.

If you can't see the little orange blobs in the photo above, click on it and it will come up larger. This is the cemetery at tiny little Newcomb, and every one of those little orange blobs is a Semper Fi flag, on the grave of some country boy who put down his deer rifle and picked up an M-1 or an M-16 or whatever tool they handed him. Most of those country boys went off and did what they were asked to do, and then came home and, like John Stark or Cincinnatus, picked up the reins and got back to work, God bless them.

God bless them.

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