More than 250 American flags hang somewhat limply in the heavy, humid May air along the pathways at Garden of Memory Cemetery in Muncie, Ind. They are flags that flew over caskets of veterans who have passed on and if you look closer, you can see little blue nameplates telling you who the soldiers were. I’m not there, necessarily, to remember a dead loved one or visit the graves of veterans. I’m there to cover a Memorial Day exhibit for The Star Press. It was a first for this particular cemetery, a traveling replica of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. While the exhibit itself and what it represents is enough to bring a tear to my eye as I’m sure it does for many others, it’s what was said about Memorial Day and the way the man who brought the exhibit, one Shorty Geiger, and Joe Longo, the cemetery manager, reacted to what the day really means that got my waterworks running a bit when I sat down to write the story for the paper.
Shorty Geiger lives up to his nickname. By my estimation, he stands around 5’4′ with a long, white ponytail and bushy beard, both streaked with reddish-blond hair. He smells of cigarettes and his voice is gravely, either from smoking or by nature. He is dressed from head to toe in blue denim that matches his eyes, with a black beret on his head that bears two pins and a feather on the back. The pins are symbols — one for the AMVETS, which he is a proud member of after his service in the Vietnam War (1969-1970), and another for the MIA/POWs. I wish now I would have confirmed specifically whether he was a POW himself, but from other things I’ve read about him and other thing he’s said, I’m inclined to believe he was. He’s been traveling around Indiana with the mobile Tomb of the Unknown for nearly 15 years now, ever since it first ran in the the Three Rivers Festival Parade in Fort Wayne.
“The reason I started traveling with it was . . . I put it in the Three Rivers Festival Parade in Fort Wayne and whenever there’s a color guard marching with the flags and so forth, people stand and salute and they applaud. We had a pretty good group that one year and then we had the tractor and we had a replica of the Arlington Cemetery set up on a hay wagon – large sheets of plywood with evergreen base to it and then the tombstones — and we had the Tomb of the Unknown and once people saw that, it was like a wave. Those that were still sitting stood and the applause was just magnified and it was like a wave from the start to the finish and you could see the kids on the side grabbing mom and dad, pointing and, you know ‘What’s that?’ and you see the parents leaning over and explaining what this is and what it represents.”
He said it was sad that the kids don’t know what it meant already. “You know, even high school kids . . . our history teachers, you know, what they’re teaching today, kind of . . . it’s just one or two pages and it skims on and off. A lot of them, if you’d ask them, how did they pick who was to be laid in the Tomb of the Unknown back in 1917, 1918, the end of the first World War, they couldn’t tell you.”
As I said in my article, “according to the Arlington National Cemetery website, four unknown solders were exhumed from World War I American cemeteries in France on Memorial Day 1921. Decorated veteran, U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger placed a spray of white roses on the third casket from the left when presented with the four identical caskets. The chosen soldier was brought back to the United States aboard the USS Olympia and the remaining three were reburied in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery in France.”
Geiger tells the story a little differently.
“He never actually chose. There were three bodies there, one from each of the branches. He fought with himself – he knew who was who [I take this to mean which branch these men were from] – and he said, ‘How do I choose without slighting one of the others because the honor that would be bestowed upon this tomb would be forever, you know. He was a religious individual and he prayed to God and he says, ‘I’m asking for Your help.’ And he’d walk in the room and back out and most of the way through the evening and he went in after first light and it there was one place where there was sunshine shining in and the morning sunrise had come through and it shone brightly on one of the three. And that’s how he chose it.”
“I’ve done Veteran’s Day programs where veterans go in and speak with elementary kids and on this last go-round after 9/11 first took place, I did one with a small group of kindergarten on up to fourth grade and I was amazed at the questions even kindergartners had,” he said. “And they’re hungry for it. You talk to them as if they understand because with the news media today there’s nothing that they’re not exposed to so they’re more up-to-date than they were back in the ‘50s and ’60s when we were going to school. We never had the type of news coverage of what was going on. As a matter of fact, during the war, any of the wars prior to Vietnam, the news media were only given so much and they were told when they could put that information out and when they couldn’t. To be honest, I think it should go back to that. I’m all for freedom of the press, but there needs to be a line because the first time, back in 1990 it was a year before they declared war on Saddam and all he had to do to find out what our troops were going to do was throw a TV antenna up and watch CNN. He knew what was going on before they ever did it. That’s ridiculous. And there were a lot of guys whose lives were lost because of that.”
But we digress.
When I asked him what he wanted people to go away with from his exhibit, his eyes grew distant and he paused and, for a moment, his hard, soldier exterior cracked, revealing the emotion beneath. Then said “To stop and think of the lives that have been lost.”
What followed was a somewhat awkward silence while I waited for him to say more. He sounded like he had more to say, which he did, but not until another question was asked. These awkward silences are the worst part of my job, because I can’t quote a silence, even if that silence is loaded with words unspoken. I can’t put it into words for news copy, even if what’s said in that silence is what people need to hear the most.
He said the most common question adults ask him when he shows the exhibit is ‘Why?’. This is ludicrous to me as I would expect the reason to be abundantly clear most adult Americans. Geiger said, “I do it so people will stop and remember the lives that have been lost [and here’s the more I was waiting for in my awkward silence is finally spoken] and those who are still in harm’s way in order for them you [ordinary citizens like you and I] to be doing what they’re doing today. For them to have that freedom of expression or that freedom of the press or to come together as a group and – just as families. In a lot of other countries, they can’t do that or say what they feel against a politician here or there. If they do, they disappear in a lot of other countries. Here, that’s your human right. It didn’t come from nothing. It’s a high price to pay.”
“I think the exhibit speaks for itself. It’s just a reminder. Like I said, there’s flags from every one of our states out there [in the cemetery courtyard outside the office] and there’s American flags all over the place and there’s a lot of veterans that have been laid to rest in this cemetery also. You can tell that by the flags at the headstones. That’s what that tomb represents. It’s a spokesperson that says on the behalf of the dead, ‘Hey, we’re here. We’re shining. This is a symbol of what we’ve given by giving our all.’ And it just stands out and shines in that representation. They see the flags, but when they see that [the Tomb], it kind of brings all of it together. At least to me, it does from what I’ve talked to people and when I was talking, like I said, in the schools, the young kids, they’re ready to grab onto that. I do a POW table that has certain things on it and each thing has a special purpose and a lot of times I’ll do a reading with that and I’ll sit at the corner of the [traveling] Tomb and we’ll place a wreath at the Tomb and a folded flag on the table and we’ll have a rifle volley and taps honoring them. The kids really get into it and understand the whys and wherefores . . . some of them why their dad or their brother or maybe their mom today why they’re over there and I’m over here by myself or with my grandfather or an older brother or sister — why their mom or dad is there or their brother or sister, why they had to go. And these things, if they’re presented in a proper manner, those kids can grasp it and understand it. There’s still hurt, but they can understand. That makes it just a tiny bit easier for them to walk around and they stand a lot taller and a lot prouder.”
My next contact for the story was Joe Longo, the manager at Gardens of Memory Cemetery. He’s a very tan man, completely bald with a smile that could light up a dark room. He’s been running around all day preparing for the different events that would be going on around his cemetery for the holiday weekend. The stress and hustle of preparing for Memorial Day celebrations is no stranger to Longo, who has been directing the festivities for thirty years at various cemeteries across the country. He said, between the days of Thursday and Monday (Memorial Day), the cemetery sees more than 7,000 vehicles, sometimes bearing several people a piece, come through the gates.
“A cemetery is where people pass away, but on Memorial Day, if everybody understands the definition of Memorial Day, it is where you’re honoring our veterans that have passed, either in war or in peacetime, but they’ve served our country. Memorial Day is when we come to pay honor to them at our cemetery,” he said.
He told me that, between this and last Memorial Day, 89 veterans had passed. I’m assuming we’re talking about had-died-and-been-buried-in-Gardens-of-Memory, rather than passed in general.
Longo is the son of veterans (he said his family can be traced back to the Revolutionary War) and even enlisted himself, but was honorably discharged soon after and didn’t see any active duty. His son is a student at Delta, with aims to join the Air Force Academy. Regardless of his acceptance, he plans to join the Air Force to carry on the family tradition. Longo said the most important part of events like these is the remembrance of loved ones who served in the military.
“They’re [average citizens] coming out to appreciate our peace and our freedom that they’ve [veterans] sacrificed for,” he said. “When you’re from a military family, you understand the sacrifices. It’s not only the veterans, but it’s also the parents and the children that sacrifice.”
He said he felt very lucky to get the traveling Tomb for the weekend. Being a member of the AMVETS and American Legion and the VFW himself, he met Shorty at what’s called a signal fire, or a watch fire, which the AMVETS puts on every September. Shorty defined a watch fire for me:
“A watchfire is something that goes back in time to the Romans. It’s where they light a fire in the evening and it would be a means in the dark for these soldiers to find a way back to their lines. What we do today with it is [Muncie AMVETS do this on the second week of September] – there’s a prayer session, the opening, and we take and ask people to place a log on the fire in memory of or for somebody who’s in the service to keep their memory alive with this program. A lot of places, they’ll have on Saturday where we’ll keep the fire alive, they’ll have programs starting with each of the wars, starting with World War I, II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, and so forth and so on. It’s a way that people can come together and honor their relatives that are no longer here from previous wars because a lot of times, they just go with what’s happening today and there’s nothing for the guys that passed on and paved the way for those who fight now.”
Longo said they also respectfully retire (via burning) used flags at the ceremony as well. He said Shorty had the Tomb there last year and Longo asked if he could book the Tomb for this Memorial Day.
“That is a symbol of men and women that die in all wars from World War I and up. We never forget them. We never leave them behind. And if you look at the process of how that tomb came about — the history of it — it’s all done with dignity and respect to where we never forget those who have sacrificed for our freedoms and our liberties. I take it as a very big privilege that we have it out here.”
I don’t think I could put this next bit any better, so I’ll let Joe do it.
“You find that a lot of people are celebrating opening pools, going to get their boats, getting ready for the weekend, getting ready for the race [Indy 500, for those unfamiliar with what I call Redneck Sports] and I think that we’re losing the meaning of what Memorial Day is. It’s a sign of recognition for those who have died for us. A lot of people can’t tell you the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, and that’s sad. Those are people out there who sacrifice, who basically write a blank check when they raise their right hand and that’s their life. If I can do anything to educate one person, two people, with an opportunity of that Tomb and what it stands for, I’ll go out of my way for them.”
“Days like this make people reflect,” said Longo, “If you’re going to have more than 7,000 cars coming through a cemetery, that means somebody’s thinking about them. People are coming out here, they’re saying their prayers, they’re saying their thanks and they’re saying their gratitude. I’m very proud. Thirty years in this business and I’ve done these services all across the country and you can see the reverence of it. I just hope our younger generation carries on the torch. The soldier is the one that gives you the freedom to say what you want, to go to the race, to have a beer — that’s who pays the price. It’s not the congressman, it’s not the president, it’s not the firemen, it’s not the police officers, it’s not the teacher — not with any disrespect to any of those people, but there are a few people that put their lives on the line that nobody can ever know that. That is a fraternity that, unless you’re part of it, you don’t understand . . . We’re losing a lot of veterans. We’re losing about 100,000 a day.”
His voice falters a bit here and I can see his eyes misting up a little and he tells me, “So if anything about this article you can do is to [tell people to] say thank you to a veteran and give them a hug. That’s all.”
I know I’m writing this blog post a little late to remind you for today, but while you’re enjoying yourselves this summer in your pools or at car races or at the lake with your boats or whatever summer is for you, take some time to remember what allows you to have the chance to do these things. And thank a veteran and remember those who aren’t here for you to thank in person today.