When something is a permanent fixture in our lives we have the tendency to stop noticing it and take it for granted. We rarely look beyond the superficial obviousness of it simply being there.
Until this past Memorial Day, that had been the case with the old cemetery at the end of my street.
I knew a little bit about the place. I knew that the land had been granted to the city by a wealthy family in 1911, and that it contained the graves of Civil War dead from both sides of the conflict, as well as being the final resting place of veterans from World Wars I and II. Perhaps the most well-known local fact is that actor Leslie Nielsen, star of the Airplane movie franchise, is buried there.
This year, I decided to learn a little bit more about the veterans buried not 300 yards from my front door.
One grave of particular interest was that of Sgt. Edgar A. Bras, a Union soldier with the 8th Iowa Infantry who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Spanish Fort, AL on April 8th, 1865.
After a bit of poking around, I found Sgt. Bras’ gravesite and took some photos. That’s when an older gentleman approached me and said, in a strong German accent, “Ah, you know about that guy.”
I explained that I had done some basic research, and was particularly interested in graves from the Civil War. We made small talk, he introduced himself as Hans, and it quickly became evident that I was talking to the right man.
Hans volunteers to maintain the grave sites of veterans interned there by pulling weeds, planting flags, and ensuring that they remain in good condition.
I was struck by how committed and proud he was to carry out his task.
Hans was one of those guys you instantly liked because of his affability, smarts, and sincerity. He was a storehouse of history far beyond what I had learned.
But what happened next hammered home the true meaning of the day. It also clarified the depth of Hans’ commitment and pride to our departed veterans.
I was saying goodbye, commenting on how interesting I found our chat and how I hoped to run into him again (which I sincerely meant), when Hans grabbed my arm and said, “Wait, before you go I have to show you the most important one to me.”
Selfishly thinking he was about to show me the hidden headstone of an Admiral, General, or other historical figure of note, he instead led me to the grave site of his son Andy.
Andy was KIA serving our nation with the United States Marine Corps.
Choked up, a bit ashamed of my impetuous assumption, and at a loss for words, I simply said, “Thank you Sir."
I then shook his hand, stood with him for a while honoring Andy’s memory, said a prayer, promised him I'd keep an eye on the cemetery (which I absolutely will), and went on my way leaving him to be with his son on Memorial Day.