Some day, I'm sure it'll be the death of me, but I'm the kind of person who can't stay out of a cemetery, especially if the place seems to be blessed with the stones of ancients. So I stopped at an old one in Wilson Township, Wisconsin, last week, Lake Michigan no more than a half mile east, when I saw a this odd black marker among the old white stones, learning hither and yon like a basket of tongue depressors.
It was early morning, and there's something sort of spirit-like in the way shadows run from stones in old cemeteries when the sun is inching up from the horizon, so I got out of the car and walked around a little. Besides, this cemetery isn't all that far from where I grew up. I was sure I'd find some familiar names--and I did.
Not all that far in, I spotted a stone with some kind of fungus on it, like a rusty carpet circling its little parapet. Contrasts are always interesting to a camera, so I came up and tried to determine how to tell this story with the lens. I took a shot or two at the nameless stone--150 lakeshore seasons had successfully bestowed anonymity, I figured--and walked around to the other side, where I noticed a brass commorative badge, of sorts, stuck in the ground--and a name.
The old man buried there, named Wildchure, I think, was a Civil War veteran. Without a doubt, someone in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, had discovered the names of all the county's Civil War vets and put down markers at their gravesites, more than a century after the fact.
I can't get that marker out of my mind. I'm not sure why, but I know enough about the way my mind functions to know that somewhere within the mysterious presence of that image there lies meaning I'm obliged to determine.
I'm happy and thankful for veterans, for our armed forces, but that's not all of it. I think what makes me remember that little commemorative badge at the gravesite of an old German farmer is that it reminds me that the entire Civil War saga isn't just some great story. It was real.
Dozens of state monuments stand all over the massive battlefield at Gettysburg--here Pennsylvania, there Delaware, Indiana, Wisconsin. What happened there was not only witnessed by people who lived with my ancestors, some of them never returned.
This man made it back to the Town of Wilson and lived a couple more decades. But he remembered, I'm sure. I'm guessing he never forgot.
And now it seems I can't. Maybe that's why I'm a cemetery freak, an inveterate reader of tombstones.