by Ronald Paxton
Ground fog thick as a New England chowder enveloped the stooped figure in the old Confederate cemetery. A pale early morning sun fought bravely to penetrate the damp swirling mass.
John “Cowboy” Howard stretched his back and groaned with relief. He had spent the last thirty minutes whacking weeds and collecting garbage. The Shenandoah County Public Services Department had been forced to discontinue maintenance of the cemetery due to budget cuts. John had stepped into the breach to prevent the final resting place of one of his ancestors from becoming a forgotten, weed-choked garbage dump. William Howard had served four years with the legendary Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, walking home from Appomattox with torn out shirt sleeves tied around his bleeding feet. He deserved better.
It hadn’t been easy. Nobody else had stepped forward to help. For the past six months John had been spending two or three mornings a week mowing grass, clearing weeds, collecting garbage, and fixing grave markers that had been knocked over. He didn’t know how much longer he could do it. As a lifelong rancher and owner of Wild Pony Ranch, John was well acquainted with hard work. However, he was now sixty three years old and several years removed from the hard physical labor of operating a ranch. His foreman and general manager took care of that for him while John spent most of his time behind a desk. His “physical labor” was mainly limited to daily doctor-prescribed walks to help manage his elevated cholesterol and blood pressure.
John collected his garbage bag and weed whacker and walked down the hill to the small parking lot. As usual, there were no other vehicles in the lot. During the entire time he had been tending the cemetery John could count on one hand the number of visitors he had seen.
On his way home John stopped at the Mountain View Diner for a cup of coffee. He wandered over to a corner table where the morning meeting of the ORGC was in session.
“How are things with the Old Retired Guys Club?” John asked.
“Hey, Cowboy,” Harmon Rhodes replied. “Have you heard the news? There’s a local group that’s planning to protest Confederate Memorial Day on Thursday.”
“We’ve never had that problem before,” John replied. “Most people in Shenandoah County aren’t even aware of it.”
“Well, they’re aware of it this year, probably because the Commonwealth of Virginia finally got around to recognizing it as an official state holiday.”
John shrugged. “I don’t know what they’ll find to protest. There won’t be any parades, speeches, articles in the paper, or any other kind of remembrance for these men. There never are.”
“We’re living in an age of political correctness, Cowboy,” Harmon observed. “If you so much as put a Confederate bumper sticker on your vehicle everybody thinks you’re some hate-filled, Klan supporting racist.”
“That’s not political correctness, Harmon,” John said, his voice rising. “That’s cultural genocide. I haven’t heard “Dixie” played at a football game since I was in high school. The only place you’ll see any Confederate flags or memorabilia nowadays is at a Civil War museum or a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.”
“So,what are you doing Thursday, Cowboy?” Harmon asked quietly.
“Same thing I do every year,” John replied, “visiting my ancestor and the other men who served their country. Oh, wait, maybe I’d better stay home instead. What will people think?” he added sarcastically.
“Why are you still fighting the war, Cowboy?” asked Jerry Collier, a New Jersey transplant. “It’s over. You lost.”
“I’m not still fighting the war, Jerry,” John said, controlling his anger with difficulty. “I’m honoring those who did.”
“Seems to me we have more than enough brave American men and women we can honor on the last Monday in May,” Collier continued. “I hope you’ll show the same enthusiasm for those who fought in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”
Harmon saw something move in John’s eyes. Something dark.
“I need to get back to the ranch,” John said in an uneven voice.
Harmon watched his friend leave the diner. Turning to Collier, he said, “You shouldn’t have made that crack about Memorial Day, Jerry. Cowboy served his country. He did two tours in Vietnam.”
“Jesus, I didn’t know,” Collier replied. “I’ve never seen him at any of the Memorial Day ceremonies.”
“Cowboy isn’t one for ceremonies and parades,” Harmon replied. “Every Memorial Day he places a wreath at the base of the war memorial. He does it early in the morning before the ceremonies begin.”
“I’ve never heard him mention his service in Vietnam,” Jerry said in a subdued voice.
“He never talks about Vietnam,” Harmon replied. “None of us do.”
The table of men grew quiet. Harmon picked up the check and stood. There was nothing more to say.
“I wish you wouldn’t go, John,” Sarah Jane Howard said. “Sheriff Moore said there might be trouble.”
John rose from the breakfast table and kissed his wife of forty one years. “Things will be fine. I won’t be long,” he said.
“William Howard won’t know or care whether or not you’re there,” Sarah Jane said in a desperate voice.
John stopped at the door and looked at his wife. “I’ll know and I’ll care whether or not I’m there,” he said softly.
John’s stomach fluttered with trepidation as he pulled into the cemetery parking lot. There were several cars already there.
John found a parking space and took a moment to calm his nerves. Not the man you used to be, are you, his inner critic whispered. Not even close.
A small group of men holding protest signs stood in front of the cemetery gate.
“I’m surprised to see you here, Cowboy,” one of the protestors said.
“No reason for you to be surprised, Brad,” John replied. “I’m usually here two or three days a week.”
The man made no reply and showed no sign of moving away from the gate.
John stepped forward.
“We don’t approve of people celebrating slavery,” Brad challenged.
John looked at the man. “Is that what you think I’m doing this morning, Brad?” John asked. “Celebrating slavery? Do I need your approval to enter a cemetery?”
Brad flushed with embarrassment and grudgingly stepped aside.
The protesters watched in awkward silence as John entered the cemetery and placed a wreath on his ancestor’s grave. After a moment he moved to the next gravestone, working his way slowly through the cemetery. John stopped in front of each grave marker, quietly addressing the veteran that lay buried there and thanking him for his service. The gesture was powerful and sublime in its unadorned simplicity.
When he was finished John stood for a moment in silence before leaving the cemetery without a word or a glance at the protesters. He was starting down the hill to his car when another vehicle pulled into the parking lot. John stared in amazement as the six members of the ORGC climbed out of Harmon Rhodes’ truck.
“Thanks for coming, Harmon” John said in a voice thickened with emotion.
“Thanks for kicking me in the butt and reminding me to act like a man, Cowboy,” his friend replied.
John returned to the cemetery with the men and watched as each one placed a small Confederate flag at the entrance. Jerry Collier placed the final flag.
“I didn’t expect to see you here, Jerry,” John said. “Thank you for coming.”
“I started thinking after you left the diner the other day,” Jerry replied. “I’m not Southern born so I can’t understand your feelings about this part of your heritage, but I realized that really doesn’t matter. No matter how I feel about this part of our country’s history I have no quarrel with the soldiers lying in this cemetery. I have no doubt they were good men who were caught up in a conflict not of their making and were simply trying to survive. They had families and loved ones just like all of us. They deserve to be remembered.”
As if on cue John and the ORGC members turned and stared at the protesters. Brad was the first to lower his eyes and his sign and leave the cemetery with the rest of the group close behind.
John smiled and walked down the hill with his friends.
The girl gripped her grandmother’s arm as the elderly woman carefully placed a wreath on her mother’s grave. The hot day had begun to cool as the sun dipped toward the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“What’s that, Nana?” the girl asked, pointing up the hill.
“That’s the old Confederate cemetery, honey,” her grandmother replied.
“Can we see it?” the girl asked eagerly.
The old woman smiled and nodded. “Today is Confederate Memorial Day, you know.”
The woman stopped to rest when they reached the top of the hill. Chills raced down her body as she caught sight of the small Confederate flags placed at the entrance to the cemetery. Someone had remembered.
They sat on a bench inside the cemetery.
“My grandfather told me stories about the war,” the woman said.
“Did he fight in the war, Nana?” the girl asked.
Her grandmother shook her head. “He was just a baby. His father told him the stories and my grandfather passed them along to me.”
The elderly woman looked around the cemetery and shook her head. “What a waste,” she said.
“I thought the war was about slavery,” the girl said.
The girl’s grandmother shook her head. “Maybe for a few large plantation owners in the South and a few abolitionists in the North. For most of the soldiers on both sides the war was about staying alive so they could return to their families once the generals and politicians decided it was over.”
The girl stood and began wandering through the cemetery, studying the grave markers.
The old woman closed her eyes to rest for a moment. The sun felt like a warm blanket on her skin. A sudden thunderclap shattered the stillness. The woman took a quick peek at the sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight!
The sound came again. Louder. Closer. Artillery fire. The woman’s heart pounded. What is this place? I have to find my grandfather. Please, will someone help me?
A large river loomed through the smoke and darkness. Maybe the Potomac? Musket and rifle fire, cannons booming, men shrieking, cursing, dying, a pageant of depravity fit for Dante’s Inferno.
What is this place? A dying soldier grabs her ankle, please, miss, can you help me?
What is this place? The soldier’s life is dripping from his stomach, I better place my ear close. No! No! No! Not Antietam, not Bloody Antietam, please God!
The night is quiet except for the sounds of the wounded who are busy dying.
I hear music. There’s a band. Dixie! They’re playing Dixie!
“Nana, Nana, wake up!”
The old woman opened her eyes and looked at her granddaughter. “Just a daydream, honey,” she said with a shaky laugh.
“You were crying, Nana,” the girl said. “And you were standing. I thought you were resting on the bench. Why were you standing?”
“The band was playing Dixie, honey,” the girl’s grandmother replied. “You always stand when they play that song. Remember that.”
The woman clutched her granddaughter’s arm as they made their way slowly down the hill.
“I’ve never heard that song, Nana,” the girl said quietly. “I guess it’s forbidden.”
The old woman stopped and turned to look at her granddaughter. Tears leaked from her eyes.
“Honey, let me tell you about Dixie … ”