Well, it’s more confession time for Joe. Here is a new one: I like cemeteries. Not so much the end of life part, or the eerie part about thousands and thousands of earthly remains gathered in one place. I’m not a Poltergeist-kind-of-guy.
No, it’s the countless untold stories. Just because stories are lost doesn’t make them less real. Each stone has a story with many, many chapters.
I’ve liked walking through cemeteries for over 40 years now. It’s not exactly something I go out of my way to do. Except, perhaps, to visit my parents’ final resting place a couple times a year, and to pay silent, solemn tribute at Military Cemeteries, such as in Luxembourg, the Netherlands (both Arnhem and Margraten), and Arlington National. This spring we hope to visit Normandy’s.
I’ve sort of converted my wife now. Wherever we travel – when we have a few minutes to spare – if we find ourselves near a cemetery … well, we take up the interesting task. We’ll stroll up and down aisles, looking at names, dates, inscriptions. We’ll stop at a few and try to imagine the stories of their lives.
As you dear and devoted readers know: I like stories.
It’s been over a decade now, but I used to coach quite a bit of competitive youth soccer. We were a “travel team.” That means our “away” games were truly away. In addition, we traveled to several tournaments each year.
One of the Denver metro locations for soccer matches is Fort Logan, on the west side of town.
Ft Logan was, as the name suggests, a military post for many decades. It was shuttered shortly after World War II, its grounds converted to recreational pursuits (as in soccer fields) and a large military cemetery.
Large military cemetery. You see, every US veteran is entitled to a free plot in a military cemetery. Plus, a spot for their spouse. I use the word “free” advisedly. They all paid dearly in blood, toil, sweat and tears – some also with their life, others with their sanity. At a minimum, they gave up some of the best years of their lives. In fact, Ft Logan is where my parents are resting.
For away soccer matches we typically car-pooled. Distances could be from 10 to 100 miles, one way. Normally the kids vied for a chance to be in my car. I was pretty easy going, usually not saying much beyond game prep (are you hydrated, got your gear, morning menu), until the kids ran out of stuff to talk about. Then I’d jump in with a non-stop commentary, interweaving strategy, tactics and training with multiple clean jokes. The goal was to get the players simultaneously at ease and focused. I was a gas – most of the team tried to get in coach Joe’s van.
The car-pool to Ft Logan, some 20 miles away, was different. After our first match at Logan the word spread: don’t drive with coach Joe. You might get a burger afterward, but between the end of the game and the eating there would be torture.
Here is the reason. Instead of going straight home or to McDonalds, I’d drive the kids over to the adjacent cemetery. I’d drive slowly and aimlessly until they agreed on a plot where we should stop. Then we all got out of the car and walked together, slowly, up and down rows, sometimes criss-crossing between rows. Occasionally I’d stop at a stone for a few moments before moving along.
We continued doing this until they all could agree on a particular stone we should stop at.
When they agreed, and we stopped, I looked at the stone. It would say something like:
Francis J. Ferrari
SFC US Army WWII
He Loved All
After a minute of silence or so – I’m sure it seemed like an hour to the kids – I would begin telling the story of Ferrari’s life (This is all made up. I can’t recall any of the names today. I just know I did this “imaginary history telling” quite a few times).
“Francis went by Frank. To his mom he was always Francesco (being sure to pronounce the c as “ch”). That had been her father’s name. She was from the old country, Sicily. She had moved to the US when she was only 13. Frank was born just a few years later.
“Frank was the oldest of six kids from a very loud and mixed Sicilian-Italian family in New York. In fact, he spoke Italian, although his father didn’t like it. ‘We’re in a new country now’, he insisted. It was his dad who demanded he be named Francis, not the classic Sicilian ‘Francesco.’
“Frank was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Two friends and he rushed down to the Army Recruitment Office a couple days later to volunteer, after war was declared. He graduated early, passed his physical examination, and went off to basic training a few months later, in Georgia. He had never been out of New York City before.
“He fought with Patton in North Africa. Then he fought to free Europe from totalitarianism. “
— “Coach Joe. What does all that other stuff mean?”
“Oh, the SFC means he was promoted several times before the end of the war. SFC means Sergeant First Class. He was a leader without being an officer. He fought alongside his men.
“The Purple Heart means he was wounded during his service in the military.”
— “How did that happen?”
“It was September, 1944. About 2-1/2 years after he signed up and had endured many hardships like illness, hunger and loss of dear friends already. In a bold stroke to try and free the Dutch people of the Netherlands quickly — and possibly end the war by Christmas — he was part of a massive Allied surprise attack behind enemy lines. His regiment was supposed to hold many of the small towns and bridges in eastern Netherlands – a stretch of about 50 miles – so that mechanized divisions – tanks and such – could drive up a major highway and clear out the Nazis. Unfortunately for the Allies and the Dutch, that plan didn’t work out very well.
“And, unfortunately for Frank, his platoon took a near direct hit from an 88mm artillery shell. Shards of metal were implanted deep in his leg and butt. Many of his buddies perished. He survived, but also suffered permanent hearing loss — I think it was his right ear — and a severe concussion from the shock wave. He was never the same again.
“By the time he had physically healed, in a hospital in England, the war was nearly over. So he was sent home to his parents.
“You can see here that he died fairly young. Only about 45 years old. Some of your parents are that old already; some older.
— “Oh. How did that happen?”
“He never got over the sight of so much blood and dying. He never quite got over not being able to play sports anymore; the injuries took that away from him. And he never quite got over the brain damage from that concussion. Although he married and had children and was a loving father, he never got over being generally sad.
He fell into poor health habits. He moved the family to Colorado for the clean air, but a flu virus came around, he caught a bad case, and he died rather quickly. He left three children, probably about your age.
“This stone here. This stone engraved with his name, age, rank – this stone is all the thanks he ever got. So, let’s thank Frank. Let’s thank Frank for giving so much of himself to make this world a better place.”
After another brief moment of silence, the kids were rewarded with a trip to McDonalds – even if we had lost the match.
Last month my wife and I went over to Tahoma National Military Cemetery, in Kent, Washington. Her parents are there. Her dad is a Pearl Harbor survivor, USS California. Regular readers know that Audrey recently lost her mom, a Holocaust survivor. We dropped by to pay our respects, leave a few pebbles, and ensure that the stone had been engraved properly.
Since it was an unusually pleasant Pacific Northwest January day, we took a stroll around the beautifully groomed grounds. We walked into and out of a few plots. We walked both together, usually holding hands, and sometimes alone. Probably almost a mile around a wide loop. We took note of some stones and exchanged a few thoughts on what the personal stories might be.
When, to my astonishment, we came across this stone pictured here. In my wildest imagination I wouldn’t have ever expected to come across a Civil War Medal of Honor Awardee tombstone this far west of the Mississippi. Now here is a story that surely cannot be made up.
Quite a story it is, too.
I will spare you my telling of his story, and how his remains came to rest just outside Seattle. The links are below. They are short, interesting reads.
It is a tremendous testimony to the efforts we as Americans go through to give veterans their proper and honorable recognition. No matter how much time has passed and no matter the distance.
And rightly so.
Wishing you all peace and happy story telling – tall or real, stories are important.
Joe Girard © 2018
Disclaimer: Any resemblance to a real person or anyone with the name of Francis J Ferrari is purely accidental. I had and have no intent to intrude on anyone’s history in this way.
 Jesse Barrick Bio, Seattle Times, http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20000911&slug=4041754